Tobias Leenaert

Ashoka Fellow
Portrait of Fellow Tobias Leenaert. He is wearing a long sleeve beige sweater with a dark blue colard shirt underneath. He is also wearing readding glasses smiling at the camera. The background is out of focus greenery.
This description of Tobias Leenaert's work was prepared when Tobias Leenaert was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.


Tobias Leenaert has developed high-impact and socially acceptable solutions to the health and environmental issues related to meat consumption that can be achieved with modest changes in our consumer lifestyles. He has developed a partnership with one of the leading enterprises in Europe, and his public campaign has spread from Belgium to Germany, France, Brazil, the USA and South Africa.

The New Idea

There is clear evidence that the current level of meat consumption is not sustainable to ecological and social equilibriums, and to human health. Recognizing the lack of awareness surrounding the problem and the challenges to shift deeply culturally and socially rooted eating habits, Tobias has embarked on a quest to subtly shift market forces and incentivize a higher demand for vegetarian food and a stronger implication for businesses.To increase the consumption of vegetarian meals and influence consumer behavior, Tobias has changed the discourse around vegetarianism in Belgium and has been promoting it in a new way. The usual vegetarian stance, often linked with animal rights and protection, is highly normative and has lead to a situation where meat consumption is a polarizing and taboo subject. Tobias, on the contrary, is mobilizing customers to change their behavior towards more healthy and sustainable food, while proving that this shift can be at the same time easy, fun and tasty. Furthermore, he is also educating the public about the multi-dimensional consequences of one's eating habits.Tobias is making vegetarian meals attractive and accessible through a large number of creative initiatives based on positive and attractive messages. His veggie city plans, his vegetarian cooking courses, his seven-course gourmet dinners, his Veggielympics and his multimedia campaigns show that vegetarian food is tasty and readily available. He is taking a progressive approach to promote the integration of vegetarian meals into everybody's diet, rather than promoting the more difficult shift to full vegetarianism. As such, he developed an approach that is completely socially acceptable and that offers the possibility for each citizen to contribute in a positive way to a more sustainable society.

In parallel, Tobias has developed a business-friendly approach that is opening ways for businesses to be socially responsible and profitable at the same time. For example, partnerships with the restaurant industry are enabling him to incentivize and train chefs so that they can offer high-quality and tasty dishes without meat. He is also partnering with agro-industrial groups who develop meatless products or meat alternatives to go mainstream. As the market shifts, Tobias is working up the value chain and influencing a steadily deeper change in the meat supply landscape.

To catalyze the change triggered on both ends and to increase his leverage, Tobias creates an atmosphere where 'meat' becomes a politically safe subject. This is a far cry from the polarizing subject it had become. Tobias is engineering an enabling institutional environment through cooperation with public authorities and business. To effectively engage these stakeholders, Tobias developed the inspiring and powerful concept of Veggie Day. He launched the Thursday Veggie Day campaign in the city of Ghent, Flanders, where on this day the city services and many local businesses promote a vegetarian option. More than 40 kindergartens and 35 primary schools now offer a vegetarian lunch as their default option every Thursday. This sticky idea is spreading like wildfire across Europe and the rest of the world, such as Brazil, and is creating a global movement of sensible vegetarians and sensible meat eaters who are preparing for a more sustainable future.

The Problem

Tobias is tackling some specific food related problems. While the consequences of transport or energy consumption are well known, the consequences of the Western staple diet with an emphasis on animal products are still underestimated. Not only that: The issue of meat consumption is for many still a taboo and is overall a polarizing issue with little middle ground.

In fact, our current and increasing levels of meat consumption are contributing dramatically to some of the most daunting challenges that we face locally and globally—climate change, food insecurity, health problems, and the inhumane treatment of animals. Our meat consumption, and consequently meat production, has been exponentially increasing since the 1950s. Between 1950 and 2000, the world’s population doubled from 2.7 to 6.7 billion people while meat production increased fivefold from 45 to 233 million tons per year. The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts now that the production of meat will double within the next 50 years, to reach 465 million tons in 2050.

Consumption is particularly high in Western countries, with developing countries following example. For instance, people in Belgium eat on average 160 grams of (mostly animal) protein a day, which is 60 percent more than the recommended maximum.

These levels of meat production and consumption have dramatic impacts:

• The meat industry is contributing vastly to climate change. Many people are surprised to learn that the contribution of the livestock sector to global warming amounts to 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, through the production of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides.

• At the individual level, excessive meat consumption has a direct effect on human health; the excessive intake of animal fat leads to obesity, and to an increase in several health risks (i.e. heart diseases and cholesterol.)

• On a more macro level, the methods of the meat industry have a very negative impact on the food security of millions of people. Feeding millions of animals uses up to 25 percent of arable land, and 45 percent of all wheat is produced for animal feed. This inflates subsistence food prices and accelerates the global food crisis.

• The market dynamics of an increase in production tied to cost containment forces billions of animals to spend their short life in inhumane conditions.

These insights should have already led to important changes in meat consumption—yet this has not been the case. Exacerbating these negative externalities are the following four issues, all of which Tobias is directly tackling:

First, the debate on meat has up to now mostly been dominated by animal rights “ideologists” who are mostly motivated by and focusing on the animal rights issue—and present the issue as black and white— you eat meat, or you do not. In their world, there is no middle ground.

Second, animal rights “ideologists” have almost no interest in the other meat related problems; however, the animal rights argument is for most people not as strong as the other ones (i.e. climate, health, and food security), which remain largely unknown by the general public and decision-makers.

Third, the market does not provide enough diverse, qualitative and well-marketed alternative options for meatless meals that could counterbalance prevailing consumption patterns.

And fourth, due to the prevailing messages, “meat” is considered a provocative and polarizing issue— something policymakers better keep their hands off. What one eats is then very much considered as a private matter, and institutional actors tend to play a very limited role in the market. Existing regulations focus on guaranteeing some quality in processes and ingredients, and not by moderating the behaviors of consumers, producers, and food suppliers (i.e. restaurants, schools, and companies).

The Strategy

Tobias is simultaneously tackling all angles of the problem, by motivating rather than moralizing all stakeholders and incentivizing them to change their behavior.Seeing the need to foster a very broad base of support to trigger sufficient change and impact, Tobias targets consumers and decision-makers with the best-adapted strategies. To reach the general public, Tobias informs and offers inspiration. On the information side, he focuses on the health and environmental impact of meat. To inspire consumers to take different choices, Tobias imagines and develops a range of public events and attracts the media to reach an even broader audience. For example, the 'Golden Carrot' Award is an annual prize recognizing a person who made a special contribution to vegetarian food. Another example is the organization of seven course gourmet dinners that bring vegetarian haute cuisine to the table of all interested. A cook who was trained at the worlds number one restaurant, El Bulli, prepares the menu.

Tobias created the organization EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Association) to frame his actions and to facilitate his impact. The history of EVA is a history full of events to convince the general population that to eat more vegetarian food is not only necessary, but that it is most of all 'tasty' and 'fun'. This is crucial in a culture where people consider eating good food as an essential element of life and where sharing good food is an essential part of social interaction.

Tobias indeed produces and leverages accessible information that focuses on the multi-dimensional consequences of our meat consumption. Well aware of the sensitivity of the issue and to prevent counter-publicity, he is working closely with scientists to back all pieces of information with scientific data. To reach decision-makers, he organizes high-level meetings and seminars and even developed a Vegetarian Info Centre with information for decision-makers to build more sensible policies.

But Tobias is going much further than just advocacy: he is stimulating behavior change among a large number of citizens. To empower people to considerably reduce their meat consumption, he sees the necessity to increase the visibility and accessibility of vegetarian food. He is educating consumers on how to cook without meat, through real life and online lessons and is showing them where to purchase meatless products, through the production and distribution of Veggie maps. These veggie maps are powerful marketing tools as 200,000 of them have already been distributed, incentivizing the restaurant industry to offer vegetarian options. He is also supporting restaurants through training courses for traditional chefs and a veggie chef cookbook.

Tobias is building strong partnerships with businesses by developing formulas that will be sustainable and profitable. To stimulate the supply side, he is building partnerships with agro-industrial firms who are offering sustainable solutions. An example of such a company is Alpro, a large distributor of soy products in Europe that is involved in developing sustainable alternatives for the traditional meat-producers.

To catalyze and accelerate the shift in demand and supply, Tobias is engaging institutions in fostering a more enabling environment. He demonstrates to local governments and companies their personal interest in reducing the meat consumption of their constituents, for example, to reduce their carbon footprint or to improve the health of their citizens. He then offers them easy, low-cost and high value-added tools to join the movement. Tobias has created 'Thursday Veggie Day', a nationwide campaign where all institutional actors join in a campaign to offer vegetarian meals on Thursdays. The Veggie Day has received worldwide attention and its growth is viral from everywhere, normal citizens and decision-makers are approaching Tobias for advice and support.

The Person

Tobias is 36 years old and was born in Ghent, Belgium. His mother was a teacher of mathematics to high school students and his father was a businessman, buying antiques (rugs, jewelry, and artwork) in central Asia and selling them in Belgium. Both his parents raised their children with the belief that it is important to do good, and that it is essential to be excellent in what one does. Both elements are very much present in the personality of Tobias.Tobias studied what is called Germanic philology, the study of Dutch and English languages and literature (Masters Degree), followed by Comparative Cultural Sciences (Masters Degree), which is similar to the field of anthropology. He obtained a teacher s degree and also obtained a degree as an analyst-programmer.He first taught IT in a high school, and later worked at the University language center combining language, teaching and IT skills. All this time he was already heading EVA (which he founded in 2000) as a volunteer, after hours from his apartment.When EVA became possibly the first vegetarian organization in the world to receive structural government subsidies (after having submitted a well received strategic plan) there was the possibility to pay for its first two full-time staff members. Tobias chose not to be one of them, as he felt he could already do a lot as a volunteer, and instead chose to use the funds to recruit other people in order to have a bigger workforce. However, after two external directors and a three-month period of introspection in South America, Tobias decided the best thing to do would be to become director himself, a position he still holds.The evolution of Tobias has been quite remarkable from a rather shy boy, he developed into a person full of creative ideas, with the confidence to launch these ideas, and to make them real. He also evolved from a die-hard vegetarian into someone who focuses on change, and goes for the middle ground where impact is maximal. As an example, Tobias has no problems entering into negotiations with McDonald's. For Tobias, this is the work of a lifetime. He intends to remain director for a long time to come, but wants to dedicate more time on the vision, the strategy, and the development of the organization so that it may grow to its fullest potential. This is why EVA recently hired a HR manager who will be able to take management work out of his hands.