Meat-free Thursdays yield multiple benefitsGhent, Belgium, promotes a meat-free day each week in order to achieve a range of objectives: meeting climate emissions goals; improving health; reducing overall environmental impacts; improved animal welfare; and sustainable consumption. After Ghent launched its meat-free day in 2009, it has been copied by cities worldwide, e.g. Bremen, Helsinki, San Francisco, Cape Town, and Sao Paulo. Ghent aims to be climate neutral by 2050, all urban activities combined.
Keywords: meat-free day, sustainable consumption, GHG emissions, dietary health, animal welfare
Meat consumption is responsible for a significant share of all human greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to water scarcity and eutrophication. Positive feedback effects are achieved for Ghent through its vegetarian day. It contributes to making citizens more aware of their choices as consumers and their impacts on the environment. Healthier lifestyles reduce the costs for the municipality through fewer lost days to illness and lower demands on the healthcare system. Ghent’s reputation as an innovative and progressive city is also boosted, with clear effects on tourism.
Ghent's motivation for Donderdag Veggiedag – that a meat-free day benefits both environment and health – is confirmed by the findings of a 2009 European Commission study on European diets that were only slightly modified (with meat reduced). The study found improved health, with lower rates of diseases like obesity, type-2 diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases, as well as reduced environmental impact, lowering the overall impact of food by 8%.
A study by the European Council (IMPRO study) on meat and dairy in the EU found that these stand for 24% of the environmental impacts of the total final consumption of the EU’s 27 nation states, while contributing only 6% of total economic value. Additionally, by some estimates, more than half of the world’s crops are used to feed animals rather than people, causing major reductions in food availability. Ghent motivates its Donderdag Veggiedag by stating that decreased meat consumption is the most efficient measure to reduce the ecological footprint of food.
Ghent uses carefully developed strategies for schools, restaurants, and city employees, to promote its meat-free Thursday (see also Malmö and San Francisco). Starting in 2009 Ghent’s municipal schools and daycare centres began offering a warm vegetarian lunch on Thursdays; children bringing lunch to school on Thursdays are encouraged to go vegetarian. A special campaign towards schools features a Little Red Riding Hood who is glad that the wolf will be eating veggies at least one day a week.
Ghent also works with communication strategies to reach its 250,000 residents. These include an annual high-profile event, a signature list for citizens to express their commitment, a website and monthly magazine, information pillars with posters, etc. Ghent prioritises the city’s employees as ambassadors, with intense effort to enable them to choose vegetarian on Thursdays. These include cooperation with staff canteens and other restaurants, all staff receiving the “Veggie Street map”, and informational veggie-lunch meetings.
Restaurants and sandwich bars in Ghent also receive well-developed support. There are vegetarian-cooking workshops, a Thursday-Veggie Day package of door banners, posters and stickers, and promotion of participating restaurants through city publications, for example. Ghent works to develop the Veggiedag project further with potential partners like hospitals, the city’s university, hotels, etc.
The Thursday Veggie Day campaign is the result of cooperation between the city of Ghent and Belgium’s largest vegetarian organisation, EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative). EVA is contracted by the city especially for its expert information and communication services.
Global Mayors' Forum, 2011, “Ghent 2020: a long-term planning for a sustainable municipal future”, http://www.globalmayorsforum.org/a/Leadership%20Dialogue/Mayors/2011/0620/115.html
Municipality of Ghent, 2011, “Thursday Veggie Day in Ghent – detailed information”, http://www.gent.be/docs/Departement%20Milieu,%20Groen%20en%20Gezondheid/Milieudienst/detailed%20information.pdf
A. Tukker, M. J. Cohen, K. Hubacek, O. Mont, 2010, “The Impacts of Household Consumption and Options for Change”, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 14: 13–30
Arnold Tukker, Sandar Bausch-Goldbohm, Marieke Verheijden, Arjan de Koning, René Kleijn, Oliver Wolf, Ignacio Pérez Domínguez, 2009, Environmental impacts of diet changes in the EU, JRC Scientific and Technical Reports, EUR 23783 EN, JRC European Commission, Institute for Prospective Technological Studies
UNEP International Resource Panel, 2010, Priority products and materials: assessing the environmental impacts of consumption and production, www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/PriorityProducts/tabid/56053/Default.aspx
Key data are retrieved from the UN Demographic Yearbook 2011, http://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/products/dyb/dyb2011.htm
Text by: Aaron Thomas