By Dr George Jacobs
Around the world, there are all sorts of ‘Days’. There is a Smokeout Day, when people are urged to breathe easier, even a Dog Swimming Day, when people are encouraged to take their dogs swimming, and many, many more.
The purpose of this article is to propose for your consideration whether Singapore should have a day once a week when people are requested to think about eating from the wide range of plant based foods available. In other words, should we do a Plant-Based Food Day?
A Bit of History (not much because it’s a very short history)
One type of day that has gained a small amount of popularity on various continents, including Asia, is a weekly day in which people go meat-free. Although the idea isn’t entirely new, it received renewed attention in 2009, when the city government of Ghent, Belgium urged its citizens to make Thursday the day every week to find alternatives to meat. Since then, cities as far apart as Sao Paulo, Brazil and San Francisco, USA have taken similar steps, not to mention here in Singapore where NUS adopted Thursdays as meatless days. Late last month, the City Council of Washington, DC passed a ceremonial resolution calling for residents to “abstain from animal products on Mondays” (see photos of the event here).
What’s behind this minor movement? In Ghent, the government talks about the environmental costs and the health risks associated with high meat consumption. Tom Balthazar, a Ghent city councillor, says that taking a weekly break from meat, "is good for the climate, your health and your taste buds. A balanced vegetarian meal is not only sustainable, but also a healthy meal," he said. "We eat too much meat in Flanders and too little fruit and that has disastrous consequences for our health, as too much eating meat increases the cholesterol and the risk of some cancers, diabetes and obesity."
Are the Rationales Rational?
But is there good science behind the claims that moving towards plant food would also mean moving towards a healthier environment and better human health? Let’s take a quick look. Earlier this year, the International Panel of Sustainable Resource Management stated that to feed the almost 7 billion people in the world and at the same time slow climate change, we must use our fingers, chopsticks, forks and spoons to reach for more plant-based foods.
Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, stated, "The Panel have reviewed all the available science and concluded that two broad areas are currently having a disproportionately high impact on people and the planet's life support systems — these are energy in the form of fossil fuels and agriculture, especially the raising of livestock for meat and dairy products”.
As to health, here are recommendations from a website of the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health, “Most fruits and vegetables are part of a heart-healthy diet. They are good sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Most are low in fat, calories, sodium, and cholesterol. Eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day”, and “For the main entree, use less meat or have meatless meals a few times a week.” Our own Health Minister, Khaw Boon Wan, has adopted a plant-based diet.
Is this conclusive? Can we be sure of the validity of the environment and health rationales for a weekly plant based food day? No, we cannot be sure. A fundamental tenet of science is to always be looking to disprove the current orthodoxy. Right now, the current orthodoxy seems to be that global warming is real, that meat production worsens global warming, and that a diet high in meat, such as that eaten in SG and other developed countries, negatively impacts our health. However, let’s imagine that the preponderance of current scientific evidence is wrong, and we go plant-based once a week based on what turns out to be inaccurate evidence. Would it be so bad? As hundreds of millions of people, including those with successful careers in many areas, even billionaires, have not only gone meatless once a week but have gone meatless every day for years, even their entire lives, it can’t be too bad, can it?
Grow Your Own
Please see the companion article, ‘How a Weekly Plant Based Food Day Might Work’ (editor's note: will be published next week) for some just a few ideas on how to implement this idea. There is no shortage of possibilities. The average person eats at least three meals a day. In food-crazy Singapore, it may even be six daily meals, counting morning tea, afternoon tea and supper. Three to six meals a day times seven days a week equals a least 21 meals each week.
Even if people baulk at an entire day of plant based foods, they can start with just one plant-based meal a week. Breakfast can be especially easy. Anyone can devise their own system. They are all good.
For instance, here are two people who have come up with their own ways to reduce meat consumption. Graham Hill of Treehugger – a discovery company, espouses plant-based weekdays, with weekends open to meat eating (read story here). Mark Bittman, cookbook author, runner and food writer for the New York Times, meanwhile advocates a plant-based diet daily till 6pm (read more here).
About ten years back, there was a Carfree Day, with lots of publicity but seemingly little success (read about the fiasco here) - maybe we can learn from that. With meat consumption rising, along with the attendant environmental and health consequences, the time for a Plant-Based Food Day most certainly is here - now let’s make it happen!
Dr George Jacobs is the president of the Vegetarian Society (Singapore) – a non-profit, non-religious charity