In Praise (and Defense) of Meatless Mondays

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Spencer Lo

Today, the start of the new weekday, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will serve students in its K-12 cafeteria meatless meals, thereby participating in the growing international campaign known as “Meatless Mondays” (MM). The mandatory vegetarian program began last month, and follows a unanimous city council’s resolution passed last November endorsing the campaign, which asked residents to make a personal pledge to go meat-free for one day a week. As reported on HLN, the new initiative amounts to 650,000 vegetarian meals every Monday—that’s (by my calculation) more than 31 million vegetarian meals per year served in United States’ second largest school district. This is very welcome news.

It is uncontroversial—or it ought to be—that a meatless diet, or even a reduction in meat consumption, has enormous benefits on human health and the environment. (Or put another way: meat consumption has enormous adverse effects on human health and the environment.) Thus for health and environmental reasons alone, MM is a no-brainer; if we care about creating a healthier and more environmentally-friendly society, then the trend towards eating less meat—and ideally no meat—should be more widely embraced. Yet just last year, political pressure on the USDA caused it to retract a non-binding recommendation of MM, something that rightly drew sharp criticisms from various commentators, including a member of this blog. That the trend continues to gain momentum despite stubborn opposition from beef industry defenders is an encouraging sign.

In addition to the obvious health and environmental benefits, encouraging more meat-free meals will ultimately result in far fewer animals being raised and slaughtered for food in the horrors of factory farming, and thus in my view, the benefit to animals is the most important aspect of MM. Wayne Pacelle of HSUS estimates that “more than a billion animals would be spared the miseries of factory farms” if every American participated in the campaign.  This is not to say, of course, that MM isn’t unproblematic in certain respects (or couldn’t be improved upon), or that animal advocates should be satisfied with the goal of going meat-free only one day per week (as opposed to everyday), but the trend is a clear positive step in the right direction. Less animal suffering, uncontroversially, is far preferable than more animal suffering even though less isn’t good enough.

It thus comes as a surprise (to me) that Professor Gary Francione, a prominent vegan advocate, is against the idea of Meatless Mondays; every Monday on facebook, he restates his firm opposition to the campaign. As Professor Francione explained in this piece, he finds MM problematic because it “reinforces the idea that animal flesh is morally distinguishable from other animal foods. It is also promoted by many as an end in itself to reduce the environmental consequences of flesh consumption or as a health measure similar to reducing alcohol consumption.”  Instead, Professor Francione would support “Vegan Mondays,” but only “if it were made clear that this was: (1) in recognition of the ethical imperative that we cannot justify animal use; and (2) just one step toward complete veganism.”

From an animal advocacy perspective, there is little doubt that “Vegan Mondays,” as Professor Francione conceives of the idea, would be a positive campaign, but the relevant question is whether MM is something negative overall. Is it so harmful that it would be better if there were no such campaign and the status quo maintained? (Thus the question is not: Is it inferior to an explicitly vegan campaign?). Consider the two reasons quoted above: (i) MM “reinforces the idea that animal flesh is morally distinguishable from other animal foods,” and (ii) it is often promoted “as an end in itself” for environmental and health reasons. Regarding (i), Professor Francione has a point—to the extent the MM encourages the consumption of animal byproducts such as dairy or eggs, it promotes a problematic message, since those products are also the result of horrific suffering.

Nevertheless, despite this problematic aspect of MM (though it’s worth noting that a great many MM recipes are vegan), it is indisputable that more meat-free meals will significantly reduce demand and thus ultimately animal suffering, and that less suffering is far preferable than more suffering. Professor Francione has written that “[t]hey [animal rights advocates] should be focused on one goal: decreasing demand,” and he elsewhere acknowledged it is “worse to impose 10 units of suffering than 5 units of suffering.” If so, then since MM is indisputably progress towards the goal of “decreasing demand,” and will therefore result in the imposition of less “units of suffering,” the campaign should be viewed favorably by his lights—notwithstanding its shortcomings and limitations. MM is clearly progress away from the status quo.

Regarding (ii), I believe the objection is considerably weaker. I do not see how the promotion of MM for health and environmental reasons is an overall negative; those reasons are perfectly valid, and remain so even though some promote going meat-free only (or predominately) for those reasons. Moreover, the reduction in meat consumption ultimately benefits animals regardless of whether decreasing demand—and thus reducing suffering—is viewed as a moral goal by promoters and participants of MM. So unlike (i), I fail to see how (ii) even counts as a reason against MM.

Slowly, but surely, the notion and culture of meatless eating is becoming more mainstream, more influential in a human-dominated world extraordinarily oppressive and cruel to other animals. Encouraging this trend in LA public schools, and other places in the country and throughout the world, gives real hope to the prospect that more radical change will soon be forthcoming.

4 Responses

  1. The objection in point (ii) is similar to the concerns a lot of environmentalists have voiced over the “go green” initiatives. Buying a hybrid Hummer comes to mind. Yeah, that’s better than the non-hybrid Hummer, but perhaps now that person is done going green.

    Establishing a baseline of vegetarianism at least once a week does have net good, but if your goal is complete veganism as is Prof. Francione’s, then there is a risk of complacency, that you have cashed the public’s capacity for change (they now think they’ve done their part), without creating the change you really want. If the goal, as you suggest, is just to reduce the gross number of animals consumed, then it still works.

  2. Of course I advocate for the whole vegan package – At first anyway… Often I’m met with the list of excuses and rationalizations why “all is not possible now”.

    I admit that at times like this I plead for MM or any such small “lean” towards the desired end. When I recommend just one or two vegan meals a week I try to encourage them to make larger servings that normal – A stir fry or crock-pot dish that will last well into the next day. This way the night of left-overs also becomes another “meatless” night, doubling the benefits. If “veg-curious” folks did this 2 nights a week — That would be 4 meals/week and that makes it over the half-way mark. The tipping point slants our way even more…

    MM is by no means the end all – But anything that gets people to visualize and work towards a “no meat” (dairy or egg) diet is a good start towards that goal. For many – It’s the only way they’ll budge an inch. :/

  3. The devil’s in the recipe. A vegetarian meal (eg one dense with eggs/dairy) could represent more suffering than a meal containing meat. This could foreshadow an empty vegetarianism in which every forgone steak is replaced by large quantities of dairy and eggs. It’s therefore reassuring to read that ‘many MM meals are vegan’.

    My prediction: human altruism, a weak reed at best, will never materially reduce animal oppression. The only 2 things that might help are technology (ie synthetic meat) and a self-interested wish to protect the environment if and when the effects of catastrophic environmental degradation make themselves felt. Having said that, in the spirit of titling at windmills, I’m all for awareness raising.

  4. From a moral standpoint, we should not be interested in less suffering. The goal of Veganism at large is NO intentional exploitation of animals and thereby NO human-caused suffering at all.

    Just as we would not campaign for “Beatless Mondays” where a man would not beat a woman for 7 days a week, but instead for 6 days a week, or “Rapeless Mondays”, or Slaveless Mondays” or “Murderless Mondays” or “Child-Molestationless Mondays” so should we not campaign for “Meatless Mondays.”

    If anything, we should be campaigning for someting like “Vegan Holidays” where people try to go Vegan for one day at a time as long as they can, as a holiday from non-Veganism, and see that every day can be a holiday.

    Just from an abstract standpoint, baby steps and half-measures are completely wrong.

    From a practical standpoint, Meatless Mondays don’t work either, as outlines by Professor Francione on numerous blog posts and Facebook status updates.

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