Skip Meat on Mondays, Save the World

That's the message of a global green campaign launched in Israel last week.

Last week Israel launched Meatless Monday, an effort to encourage people to refrain from eating meat one day a week. A number of restaurants and factories announced they would join the effort and offer meatless menus. The organizers hope to galvanize municipalities to join the effort by including the educational institutions and public facilities that they run. Last week the Los Angeles city council announced it was joining the campaign, following the example of other cities around the world.

The new venture is being spearheaded in Israel by former news anchorwoman Miki Haimovich and The Clinic, a company that markets environmental and "future- friendly" brands. The umbrella green organization. Life and Environment - The Israeli Union of Environmental NGOs, also joined the effort which focuses not only on the health impact of eating meat, but also on its far-reaching environmental consequences. Among other things, the report stated that the animal-breeding industry is responsible for 18 percent of the hothouse gas emissions in the world. This is a result of gases excreted by animals' digestive systems; the use of gas and fertilizers; and the chopping down of forests in order to make more room to grow animal feed.

Hothouse gases are just a part of the environmental story. Livestock is an industry that causes widespread pollution of water sources and soil due to animal excretions and the use of hormones and drugs to stimulate animal growth and prevent disease. The clearing of forests to provide terrain for growing animal feed causes extensive damage to the world's biodiversity. These trends are expected to intensify given that the forecast for worldwide meat production is that it will rise from 230 million tons 10 years ago to 465 million tons within four decades.

Meat consumption varies from place to place. The United States tops the list of daily per capita consumption at 322 grams, while in Europe it is 200 grams per capita. In Asia meat consumption is much lower but in China there has been a dizzying climb in the wake of economic growth there. By contrast, meat consumption in India is 12 grams per day.

A year ago, a group of experts released a comprehensive article in the journal, Nature, in which they analyzed the world's food supply issues.If one takes into account both the lands used to grow animal feed and the pasture areas then, according to the experts, three-quarters of the world's agricultural lands are currently being used to raise domesticated animals.

The meat industry says in its defense that over the last few years there has been a constant effort to streamline animal husbandry, decreasing the hothouse gas emissions and reducing its overall environmental impact. However, most of the experts agree that this industry continues to endanger the environment.

Across the world there are still areas that maintain the agricultural tradition of feeding animals from cultivated areas and using their excretions to fertilize the ground. In these areas, raising animals is an important source of income, food and energy - the latter generated by burning animal dung. The environmental impact of this practice is much less pronounced than the the animal-breeding conducted on an industrial scale in most parts of the world. In order to grow processed feed, extensive swathes of land where rich ecosystems once existed have been reengineered.

Over the last few years, green groups have begun more actively encouraging reduced meat consumption for environmental reasons. The American organization, the Environmental Working Group, released an extensive study called "The Meat Eater's Guide" in which it urges consumers to eat less meat and dairy products, thereby improving both their health and protecting the environment. It advised those who could not give up eating meat and cheeses to consume more environmentally-friendly varieties, such as meat and dairy products that come from animals fed with grass rather than processed food.

The Meatless Monday program that arrived in Israel last week has been run for a number of years in other countries. It is still unclear to what extent it really lessens meat consumption. But to its credit, it has made inroads in increasing public awareness of the extensive impact meat consumption has on the world's resources. The campaign organizers in Israel report that a survey they took found that nearly half of all those questioned are willing to consider not eating meat one day a week. The organizers note that over the last few years there has been a substantial decline in meat consumption in the United States as a result of campaigns such as Meatless Monday. But it is also possible that much of the decrease can be attributed to economic reasons, namely the rise in food prices.

The demand to change food consumption habits worldwide is also coming from international organizations and research institutes. The UN Environment Programme recently conducted a comprehensive analysis of food production systems in the world and recommended switching to sustainable nutrition. The report noted that there is broad consensus that developed countries should reduce their consumption of meat and dairy products in favor of fruits and vegetables.

A country's ability to produce food is limited by the amount of available water on its croplands. A recent report by the Stockholm International Water Institute looked at the impact that different diet combinations would have on the world water supply. The study found that if we follow current trends toward diets common in Western countries - in which 20 percent of our calories come from animal proteins - then by the year 2050 there will not be enough water available to produce the food required to sustain the world population. If, however, we reduce animal-based foods to just 5 percent of total calorie intake there will be just enough water.

Ilya Melnikov