Where's the Beef? Ghent Goes Vegetarian

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Steven Vidler / Eurasia Press / Corbis

The Flemish city of Ghent, which has collectively decided to try vegetarianism one day a week

Last year, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggested that the most useful step ordinary citizens could take to help combat climate change would be to stop eating meat. In Belgium, an entire town is taking his advice to heart. The Flemish city of Ghent has designated every Thursday as "Veggiedag" — Veggie Day — calling for meat-free meals to be served in schools and public buildings, and encouraging vegetarianism among citizens by promoting vegetarian eateries and offering advice on how to follow a herbivorous diet.

Veggie Day is not compulsory, says the city's vice-mayor, Tom Balthazar, because such a draconian measure would be impossible to enforce, even in environmentally friendly Ghent, a picturesque town of 230,000 where bicycles lay scattered against spired churches in the largest car-free city center in Belgium. "We wanted our goal to be easily achievable — it's not hard to skip meat one day a week," he says. "And we wanted it to be something the population could rally behind. If you give people the correct information about meat, it becomes an easy ethical decision." (Watch an interview with PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk.)

According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, meat production accounts for 18% of annual greenhouse-gas emissions — more than transportation, which accounts for roughly 14%. Each year, millions of acres of rain forest are cleared for cattle ranchers and suppliers of animal feed, further accelerating climate change. Then there are the urgent human-health issues: the world feeds much of its grain to cattle and other animals even as millions of people starve. Those wealthy enough to consume fatty animal products are themselves at higher risk of certain health problems, including heart disease and some cancers. (See pictures of the U.N.'s efforts to feed the people of Uganda.)

For these reasons, says Tobias Leenaert, co-director of Ethical Vegetarian Alternative, a nonprofit funded by the regional Flemish government, "it's almost impossible to be against meat reduction. You can argue against vegetarianism, but not against cutting back on meat." That's a view that is gaining traction among those who hope to reshape meat consumption from an animal rights issue into an environmental and public health one. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, for example, recently spearheaded a "meatless Mondays" campaign in which it and 28 other public health schools run local outreach programs that promote a meat-free start to the week. Germany's federal environment agency issued an advisory earlier this year urging Germans to return to prewar norms of eating meats only on special occasions. And Leenaert says that since Ghent's Veggie Day was launched on May 13, environmental health officers from several other cities — including São Paulo, with a population of 13 million — have expressed interest in mimicking the program.

But instituting such well-intentioned programs can be difficult, as I discovered during a trip to Ghent on its most recent Veggie Day on May 21. While most restaurants owners and residents I spoke to had heard of Veggie Day, few had any plans to embrace the concept. A local rib shack, Amadeus, was doing brisk business, and many people openly ate hot dogs on the street. Wim De Kinder, owner of the upscale Traiteur Grimod delicatessen, said he tried to introduce vegetarian fare two years ago after learning of the environmental cost of livestock production, but he couldn't shift enough product to make it profitable. "I can't be expected to make a loss for the sake of principle, however worthy," he says. (Read "Should We All Be Vegetarians?")

And it's clear that Ghent still has some ways to go in its promotion of a healthy lifestyle, even among the city's enlightened vegetarians. "I already follow a vegetarian diet for health reasons," insists Mareije Vanneck, 29, as she sucks on a cigarette. Lees Molenschot, a 64-year-old pensioner sitting in a local pub, says he eats only one meal a day, and always without meat, before adding, "I start out with a coffee in the morning, then five or six beers during the day, maybe some Jägermeister, and then at 6 I make a healthy meal of vegetables in olive oil."

But Leenaert of Ethical Vegetarian Alternative says Ghent's public education program is still young. The city council has yet to mail out the 90,000 leaflets it has printed for residents explaining the global benefits of reducing meat consumption, and Veggie Day has yet to roll out in local schools, which will happen when they reconvene in September. He points out that there are historical antecedents for meat-free days, and that it is only recently that people have come to expect meat to be a daily ritual. For centuries in Catholic Europe, for example, citizens forsook meat on Fridays, fast days and Lent. Leenaert, a committed vegan, says governments may have to lay down such restrictions in the coming years as more people in the developing world become wealthy enough to eat meat, but room for livestock diminishes. He hopes, however, that the joint challenges of feeding the world and tackling climate change can be met without curbs on personal choice. "I have big dreams. I dream not of restrictions, but of a critical mass of enlightened citizens who become vegetarians by choice. Maybe that dream starts here in Ghent."

Read "Take a Bite of Belgium."

See pictures of Belgium.