Meat free Thursdays: Gastronomy without the gas in Ghent

By Khaled Diab

The Belgian city of has declared Thursdays ‘ free'. Should cities around the world also join the vegolution?

June 2009

Veggie delights. Copyright Khaled Diab
Veggie delights. Copyright Khaled Diab

People usually associate politicians, particularly in these troubled times, with hot air. But rather than spew out noxious gases, politicians and public officials in Ghent – the progressive Belgian city – have come up with a unique scheme to reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions.

You've probably heard of fish Fridays. Well, the Flemish university town of some 200,000 people has now introduced a weekly “Veggie Thursday” (Donderdag – Veggie Dag).

So, what does Ghent – a picturesque town where cycling is a pleasure and not a death-defying gamble – hope to achieve?

By encouraging public officials, school children and ordinary citizens to go voluntarily veggie one day a week, the city hopes to improve public health, reduce our impact on the environment and enhance animal welfare. In fact, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO): “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

And if the idea catches on, the impact could be enormous. “If everyone in Flanders (population: six million) does not eat meat one day a week, we will save as much CO2 in a year as taking half a million cars off the road,” said the Ethical Vegetarian Association spokesperson. Imagine if every city in the world followed suit!

This is the kind of pioneering and creative initiative I have come to expect from the city that has been my home for the past four years. After all this is the place that declared its independence for a day last year in protest against the slow crumbling of the Belgian state. Under its tranquil surface lies a friendly but radical core of progressives, leftists, tree-huggers and eco-warriors.

So even though I ate out in Brussels yesterday, I plumped for a veggie option: a delicious Lebanese mezze. Don't get me wrong, I'm by no means vegetarian. In fact, I love indulging in carnivorous delights – I have even overcome my beef with pigs – and sometimes stand weak before the temptations of the flesh.

But for the past couple of years, my wife and I have radically changed our diet and try to eat meat or fish only a couple of times a week. After an initial period of adjustment, we both feel healthier – I've even shed the Buddha belly that I had begun to grow – and better about putting less of a strain on the food chain and reducing our carbon footprint.

Although traditional Belgian cuisine is quite rich and fatty, Ghent has a surprisingly large array of delicious veggie eateries and veggie options on menus, but Brussels easily beats it for its mind-boggling range of cuisines.

“There has been a massive increase in demand for vegetarian dishes at my restaurant over the past few years,” Wim Vandamme, a Ghent restauranteur told me. “The selection of vegetarian dishes we offer has also grown considerably.” Vandamme says that his clients are eating veggie mainly for their own wellbeing, then comes animal welfare, and finally, the environment.

The idea has triggered interest among other cities in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as Canada. It has also been picked up by media around the world and captured the imagination of ordinary people. “One meatless day a week is a great idea, and no loss for those who want a tasty diet,” said languedocienne on the Guardian's environment blog.

It even looks as though the idea may attract more tourism to Ghent. “Right, that's the holiday booked! Ghent here I come!” Ciderguard enthused, as did other commenters.

Of course, there's much more that can be done. But Juanveron's scepticism is perhaps uncalled for: “Imagine the reactions of a starving African or Asian family when they hear that, somewhere in Europe, people will abstain from eating meat for one day (what a sacrifice!).”

The fact that millions suffering from malnutrition and famine is disgraceful and must be addressed, but reducing the meat consumption of the wealthy will help increase global food supplies and push down prices, as well as helping protect the environment for future generations. I think it's time to take this idea global.

Let the vegolution begin!

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 17 May 2009. Read the related discussion.


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