Meatless Mondays: Environmental Benefits Explained

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    By Sophomore Nick Smith

    As we all know, the school is currently undergoing a ten-week Meatless Mondays trial period. While the lack of meat is immediately apparent, the environmental benefits are not as visible. One of the biggest complaints on the SGA feedback form was that there had been no scientific analysis of the environmental benefits of a Meatless Mondays program at our school. As a member of SEAC, I was tasked with finding out the facts.

    Raising livestock is an environmentally costly process. Livestock pollute the environment in two main ways. The first is enteric fermentation, which is a digestive process that occurs in ruminants, or mammals who eat plant-based food. The main pollutant produced by enteric fermentation is methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The second way livestock pollute is through manure. Animal waste produces another GHG, nitrous oxide. This gas is 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Manure also pollutes waterways, but for the sake of keeping the calculations simple, we’ll just focus on atmospheric pollution.

    By determining how much less meat we consume during Meatless Mondays, we can determine the amount of atmospheric pollution that our school is not responsible for. According to Bon Appétit, we order 325-360 fewer pounds of meat per week than we did before meatless Mondays. While it is possible to measure this amount in terms of methane and nitrous oxide, it is typical to use equivalent carbon dioxide (eCO2), which allows us to directly compare the pollution potential of a mixture of gases. So how can we know how much GHG emissions come from that amount of meat? In the paper entitled, “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,” published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, a group of scientists calculated the amount of eCO2 resulting from the production and transport of different types of meat. According to their research, red meats produce 22.1 pounds of eCO2 per pound, and white meats produce 5.9 pounds of eCO2 per pound. These numbers include food miles, although transportation only accounts for 6% of the total GHG emissions. If we take the average of the 325-360 pounds of meat not ordered each week (342.5), we can compute a range of eCO2 released in the production of that much meat. The low end of the range corresponds to all white meat, the high end, red meat. Using the numbers from the paper, we get 2,021-7,569 pounds of eCO2. This means that 2,021-7,569 pounds of eCO2 would have been released into the atmosphere in the production of meat that we’re no longer ordering.

    Here is a calculation that might mean more to the average person. Using data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we can convert eCO2 into gallons of gasoline that we would need to burn in order to produce that amount of eCO2. The EPA reports that the average CO2 emissions from a gallon of gasoline is 8,887 grams, or 19.84 pounds. This means that our range of eCO2, converted to gallons of gas burned, comes out to 101.9-381.5 gallons. And we save that much every week we have a Meatless Monday.

    Obviously, this is no small amount. Not eating meat one day a week can significantly reduce your contribution of pollutants. However, how can we be sure that we are actually reducing emissions? Can a school as small as ours influence demand enough to alter supply? After all, do we really think that this amount of meat is so much that farmers are cutting back production? Honestly, probably not. I doubt that our actions alone have a large impact on production. However, we are not the only school with a Meatless Mondays program. There are 153 other institutions of higher learning in the US with Meatless Mondays programs. Just as one vote does not elect the president, one school does not change production. But many together can have an effect.

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