CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Reviving the Catholic tradition of meat-free Fridays could cut thousands of tons of carbon emissions each year, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge.
In 2011, Catholic bishops urged the faithful to return to the traditional habit, but only around one in four did so. However, this still saved more than 55,000 tons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of 82,000 fewer people flying from London to New York and back over the course of a year.
Pope Francis has called for “radical” responses to climate change and the researchers say the simple step would help stop millions of tons of greenhouse gasses from being emitted each year.
“The Catholic Church is very well placed to help mitigate climate change, with more than one billion followers around the world,” says lead author Professor Shaun Larcom from Cambridge’s Department of Land Economy, in a media release.
“Pope Francis has already highlighted the moral imperative for action on the climate emergency, and the important role of civil society in achieving sustainability through lifestyle change,” Prof. Larcom continues.
“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.”
Some meat items are still on the menu
For the new study, the team combined new data with that from diet and social studies to quantify the effects of the 2011 declaration, which called for the custom to return “as an act of penance” following a 26-year hiatus. Following the announcement, just 28 percent of Catholics in England and Wales returned to the practice, which dates back to at least the ninth century.
Back then, Catholics had to abstain from eating flesh, blood, or marrow on Fridays in memory of Christ’s crucifixion. However, fish and vegetables, along with crabs, turtles, and even frogs, were still permissible on the dinner table.
Out of the survey group, just 41 percent said they stopped eating meat on a Friday and 55 percent said they tried to eat less meat on the last day of the work week. For those who simply said they cut consumption, the researchers assumed they halved it for the purpose of the study. People in England and Wales eat around 100 grams of meat daily, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.
The team worked out that even a small reduction in meat intake by a section of the Catholic population was equivalent to each working adult in England and Wales cutting two grams of meat out of their diet. They calculated the carbon footprint for this tiny fall by comparing emissions generated from average daily diets of meat eaters and non-meat eaters in England and Wales.
The average high protein non-meat diet, which includes foods such as fish and cheese, contributes just a third of the greenhouse gas emissions per kilo compared with a meat diet.
How much difference can a small diet change make?
Assuming the Catholics who did adapt their diet switched to high-protein, non-meat meals on Fridays, this equates to approximately 875,000 fewer meat meals a week, which saves 1,070 tons of carbon – or 55,000 tons over a year, the researchers report.
They also compared meat consumption in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where bishops did not try and reintroduce meatless Fridays, with that in England and Wales between 2009 and 2019. Using data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, the team found people in England and Wales ate around eight grams less meat on Fridays than people in the rest of the country.
While there have been many reasons for this shift, the team says it is in partly due to the return to meatless Fridays. They also questioned Catholics on their religious lives and found no change in their church attendance or the strength of their faith during the period in which meat-free Fridays were reintroduced.
“Our results highlight how a change in diet among a group of people, even if they are a minority in society, can have very large consumption and sustainability implications,” says study co-author Dr. Po-Wen She, a fellow of Cambridge’s Department of Land Economy.
“While our study looked at a change in practice among Catholics, many religions have dietary proscriptions that are likely to have large natural resource impacts. Other religious leaders could also drive changes in behavior to further encourage sustainability and mitigate climate change,” adds co-author Dr. Luca Panzone from Newcastle University.
South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.