Catholics' Meatless Fridays Benefit the Planet

Since 2011, Catholics in the U.K. have been urged to give up meat once per week. Now researchers have quantified the climate impact.

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In 2011, Catholic bishops in England and Wales called on their parishioners to reduce the amount of meat eaten on Fridays. The announcement was in fact a reimplementation of a very old declaration dating back to the ninth century that had been lifted in 1966. Skipping meat once per week was seen as a form of penance and a way to remember and honor Jesus Christ's death. 

Just over one quarter (28%) of Catholics complied, adjusting their dietary habits in various ways. Some gave up meat altogether on Fridays, while others reduced it. A new study from the University of Cambridge, titled "Food for the Soul and the Planet: Measuring the Impact of the Return of Meatless Fridays for (Some) UK Catholics," has now assessed the impact of this shift, estimating that over the past 10 years, more than 55,000 tonnes of annual carbon emissions were saved—equivalent to 82,000 fewer people taking return flights from London to New York City every year.

At a time when many individuals and leaders are seeking ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly and effectively, while navigating the inherent complexities of influencing human behavior in ways that do not spark resentment among a population or suggest inappropriate overreach, this research offers some valuable insights.

As explained in the introduction, its aim was to look at "the consequences of behavioural change from a sub-group of people within a society and how these consequences can manifest in potentially large environmental benefits, especially over time."

Data was collected from a nationally representative survey conducted online by Dynata. There were 5,055 respondents, 489 of which identified as Catholic, which aligns with the approximate 10% representation of Catholics in the national population. The researchers then used a recall method to gather data on these Catholics' responses to the 2011 declaration and whether or not it influenced their dietary habits. 

Twenty-eight percent said they changed their habits; of these, 55% reduced meat consumption on Fridays, 41% stopped eating meat on Fridays, and 4% chose "other," such as selecting more ethically-raised meat. The 72% that did not change dietary habits attributed it to preferring to choose their own foods or not knowing about the change.

Using further data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), researchers could tell that people in the U.K. eat an average of 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of meat daily; they calculated that "even the small reduction in meat intake by a section of the Catholic population was equal to each working adult across the whole of England and Wales cutting two grams of meat a week out of their diet." The average high-protein, non-meat-eater (who eats fish and cheese) contributes one third of the greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram that a meat-eater does. 

Thus, making a conservative assumption that Catholics who did adapt their diet switched to high protein non-meat meals on Fridays, the researchers estimated that "this equates to approximately 875,000 fewer meat meals a week, which saves 1,070 tonnes of carbon—or 55,000 tonnes over a year."

If Catholic bishops in the United States were to make a similar declaration (formally known as an "obligation") to reduce meat consumption on Fridays, researchers say the environmental benefits would be 20 times greater than they were in the United Kingdom.

Such a stance would also support Pope Francis's call for "radical" responses to climate change. As lead study author Professor Shaun Larcom of the University of Cambridge's Department of Land Economy said in a press release, "Meat agriculture is one of the major drivers of greenhouse gas emissions. If the Pope was to reinstate the obligation for meatless Fridays to all Catholics globally, it could be a major source of low-cost emissions reductions. Even if only a minority of Catholics choose to comply, as we find in our case study."

What's interesting is that when behavioral shifts have their root in religion, people tend to be less resentful of them. The researchers explain that when people incorporate a new practice into their moral framework, they undergo a "process of internalisation" that reduces their sense of loss or missing out. They write, "Internalisation is 'a remarkable process through which imposed obligations (compliance with which must be forced or paid for) become desires.'" In other words, it feels like less of an imposition, more of an aspiration.

There were some concerns about the reimplementation of meatless Fridays leading to further depletion of fish stocks, as fish is a common substitute for meat. (Turtles, frogs, and crabs were historically allowed on Fridays, too.) In fact, the 1966 "cancellation" of the policy led to a major drop in fish demand and prices. The study suggests, however, that this need not be a concern; there was no commensurate increase in fish consumption over the past decade, nor did meat consumption go up on other days to make up for its absence on Fridays. Furthermore, there are many more meat substitutes available now than in the past, offering more options.

The study concludes that religious organizations, grassroots movements, and local groups can help to influence climate change mitigation and environmental sustainability through their policies. As in the case of the Catholic Church, "these reductions are from the voluntary acceptance of the reinstated obligation (with no threat of external punishment) they are likely to be delivered at low (or no) cost." In other words, they're winning strategies all around.

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