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Opinion: Why we’re calling for the University of Cambridge’s catering services to make switch to a 100% plant-based menu

Opinion | Dhruv Makwana, computer science PhD candidate at Trinity College and Plant-Based Universities Cambridge campaigner, writes about the Student Council vote calling for the University Catering Services (UCS) to move to a 100 per cent plant-based menu.

Dhruv Makwana, a PhD candidate. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dhruv Makwana, a PhD candidate. Picture: Keith Heppell

Despite our differences, many of us value similar things when it comes to our and our children’s future: sustainability, food security, justice and compassion.

However, the climate crisis we face threatens these, by endangering the lives of vulnerable humans and animals alike, due to the pollution of greenhouse gases into the air we breathe. Though most of us can understand how things like fossil fuels, transport and manufacturing steel and cement can contribute to pollution, an often-overlooked cause is how we produce our food.

Animal farming and fishing stand opposed to what we value in a myriad of ways. It accounts for three-quarters of our farmland, but provides just one-fifth of our calories and one-third of our protein. Its emissions alone would blow past our 1.5°C carbon budget within 30 years. Industrial fishing, and climate-induced droughts and flooding, drive communities to poverty, crime and migration.

Animal farming enables people in high-income countries like ours to waste four to five times more food than we would if we ate crops directly, in a world where more than 800 million people globally are facing chronic food deprivation.

However, there is a way to not only slow down the climate crisis but even partially reverse it. By transitioning to a plant-based food system, we can free land and oceans, and assist nature to rewild and heal itself.

Not only will this sequester vast amounts of carbon, thus cooling the Earth, but it will also free farmed animals from their current torturous conditions; clean, restore and return the forest and oceans to the wild animals; reduce our chances of a superbug or viral pandemic; and secure justice for the poorest and most vulnerable globally.

Once one learns that a planned plant-based diet is healthy for all walks of life, and up to one-third cheaper, it becomes easy to see that it is a straightforward solution.

A reputable, innovative and science-led institution like the University of Cambridge bears a much stronger obligation than others to not only do something about the climate crisis, and use its privilege and influence to amplify the voices of those who are ignored, but also to lead by example and transition the University Catering Services (UCS) to a 100 per cent plant-based menu. Given this obligation, the risks of inaction and the practicality of the solution, such a move is a proportional response to the scale of the challenges and injustices we are facing.

Just recently, the university’s Student Council, consisting of representatives from every college, voted in favour (72 per cent non-abstaining) of the Cambridge Students’ Union adopting exactly such a policy, after a month of deliberation within college MCRs and JCRs. It was proposed by Plant-Based Universities (PBU) Cambridge, a local chapter of a national campaign to transition all universities to just and sustainable catering.

By itself, the vote sent a strong signal around the globe about the seriousness of the issue and the social acceptability of the solution.

The vote was broadly well received, and this is not surprising: according to a recent SOS survey, 90 per cent of UK students are very concerned about the climate crisis.

There has been some misinformation, usually around personal choice. Given the policy would increase sustainable choices (as a current PhD student, I can attest there is barely one most of the time) for students at an institutional level, and all will remain free to buy whatever they like from shops, colleges, food vans or cook, the point does not stand up to scrutiny.

Besides, in the absence of literal coercion, every action someone takes is a personal choice – but as we have established, some choices are more harmful and less justifiable than others.

We at PBU Cambridge look forward to working with the Cambridge SU and the UCS, for a win-win-win strategy that meets the needs of catering staff, students, and the poorest and most vulnerable globally.

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