I support a plant-based Students’ Union. – Sincerely, a meat-eater

16 mins read

I am not, and have never been, a vegan or vegetarian, but I think the commitment shown by the Students’ Union to the plant-based universities movement is an important step forward. I support it wholeheartedly. Stirling’s Plant-Based Universities group spearheaded a motion voted on by the Union in a General Meeting last week.

Before I explain why, let’s address the elephant in the room.

After this story caught the eyes of the British press, it came under a lot of scrutiny. There were a lot of confusing headlines flying around and a surprising (to me) amount of pushback and misunderstanding. I’m going to give you a brief overview of the facts before I go on to tell you what I see as the major factors you need to consider when you think about whether this is a motion you support or not.

  • The motion can be read in full at the link, but to summarise, it resolves for Stirling Students’ Union to make a transition to being 100% plant-based by 2025, with an interim goal of 50% plant based by the 2023/2024 academic year. It also states that a nominated representative of the Union provides updates to the Union General Meetings at least once per semester, starting at the next meeting.
  • The Plant-Based Universities website sums up the overall goals of the movement: “By transitioning to just and sustainable plant-based food systems, universities will be securing a future, not only for their students, but for the rest of humanity, animals, and the planet.”

What this DOES mean:

  • Catering outlets owned and operated by the Students’ Union will be transitioning gradually to serving only plant-based items by 2025. Currently this means that Studio, Venue, and Underground Coffee are the affected outlets.
  • If these outlets have things available that are plant-based already (I’m looking at you, curly fries) there’s no reason that these should be removed from the menu (though we don’t know for sure what’s going to happen yet).

What this does NOT mean:

  • The university as a whole is not becoming vegan. Any outlets owned and operated by the university will not be affected at all. You will still be able to get a pizza from Scran and a pack of bacon in the Co-op. Nobody will slap your sausage roll out of your hand if you’re eating it on campus.
  • It won’t all be all salad all the time. These outlets know they have to cater to students, so it is unlikely that they will become health-food only venues. Some of the best jalapeño poppers I’ve ever had were 100% vegan.

There are a lot of reasons why I support the Stirling Plant-Based Universities motion. I think it will help to break it down into sections and explain my reasoning. If you’re not sure, then maybe a meat-eater’s positive perspective will help you see a different view, and if you oppose the motion, maybe this will help you see why not everyone does.

Key players in the Plant-based Universities campaign: Imogen Robertson (left), Aaron Caulfield (centre) and Nicole Trull (right). Image Credit: The Vegan and Rights for Animals Society

Discrimination & Rights

I have seen this point all over the place. People crowing on Twitter and crying on Instagram that meat-eaters were being discriminated against by this motion. Or that anyone with a soy, pea, or gluten allergy was out of luck and shouldn’t expect their needs to be met. I’m addressing it first because it’s the point that, to me, makes the least sense and has one of the most definitive answers.

As noted above, the goal is to make sure the catering is “just and sustainable.” This means that it is very much their ethos that there should be options for people with different faiths, dietary requirements and food allergies. Speaking on Instagram when asked about providing for people with allergies and celiac disease, a representative of Stirling’s Vegan and Rights for Animals Society (VERA) stated: “We are very keen to use this motion as a stepping stone for an overall fairer catering system. As a vegan with lifelong Crohns and IBS, this is a venture I take seriously and am committed to also.”

Eating meat isn’t a protected characteristic. It’s not tied to any value system or shared beliefs. A vegan diet is usually a result of an ethical stance either for animal rights or environmentalism rather than preference, whereas meat eating doesn’t hold any such coherent philosophy. There’s a great explainer on this at Surge Activism, which helpfully lays out the legal requirements for “discrimination” and why meat eating and vegetarianism doesn’t meet them, but veganism does.

Nobody is entitled to have their preferences met, and at the end of the day, meat eating is a preference. There’s no ethical or religious stance with eating meat as a core tenet. I would love it if every restaurant had mint choc chip ice cream, but I’m not entitled to it. I can have vanilla instead, it’s not my God’s given right to have mint choc chip at every meal; you’d think it absurd if I claimed it was. It’s a case of CAN’T trumps CAN. Omnivores CAN tuck into avocado toast, vegans CAN’T go to town on eggs Benedict. 

It’s the right of animals to live without pain and suffering, and that simply isn’t respected by the animal agriculture industry. We’ve all seen the documentaries and the photos shared across social media. Animals bred for food are treated awfully, and that’s just the usual stuff, before we even get into things like foie gras.

Environment

Even though this is certainly a win for animal rights activists such as VERA, the primary propulsion for this motion is environmental. As the motion itself states, the Students’ Union acknowledged last year that we are currently living through a human-caused climate crisis and there is scientific evidence showing that the global carbon footprint of meat production is much higher than that of plant production.

The world is already full of people forced to drink dirty water and crops suffering under drought conditions. Evidence suggests that animal agriculture accounts for over a quarter of our fresh water usage, with beef being nearly twice as water intensive to produce as the next worst option. In fact, for the same amount of water as it takes to produce a kilogram of beef, you could have a kilo of sugar, a kilo of vegetables, a kilo of starchy roots, a kilo of cereals, a kilo of oil crops, a kilo of pulses, and most of a kilo of nuts.

Greenhouse gases are still a concern for the environment, and animal agriculture produces 15% of global greenhouse gases, which is more than all forms of transportation combined. I’m sure everyone knows how much methane cows produce (it’s a lot, they are very windy creatures).

Deforestation is a huge problem for the environment and amongst many reasons it’s still being done, space for rearing animals is a big one. This isn’t quite as cut and dry though, because soy and palm oil are both also big contributors. This is why plant-based is only the first path along the road of climate justice. However, a significant amount of soy is grown to feed livestock. This would decline if we ate less meat; it’s easier to farm plants sustainably and ethically than animals. It also takes a lot more space to raise animals.

Climate justice is tied into this. Around 36% of the calories produced by crops goes to feed animals, with only 12% of that rising through the food chain to human consumption in the form of meat and dairy. Changing the balance of this means that we could feed more of the world’s hungriest people instead of hoarding the calories produced in the global north.

I’ve left an important and surprising one to last. Much of the world’s animal agriculture involves feeding significant quantities of antibiotics to animals, primarily as a preventative to diseases caused by poor conditions. Organisations such as the World Health Organisation believe that this is leading to an increase in the antibiotic resistant bacteria plaguing hospitals and healthcare. This is of particular concern for me – my grandfather got MRSA during a hospital stay.

cows-dairy-cows-milk-food-162801.jpeg
Image credit: Pixabay / Pexels

Health

This is highly contested and new science is emerging frequently on both sides of the debate, but there’s some definite points to consider.

It has long been known that vegetables are good for you. They contain nutrients that are important to a healthy human. If you eat less meat and dairy, and more vegetables, you get more off these nutrients. This one’s simple.

Some plant-based alternatives do use more fat and sugar to make the taste more similar to the animal product options, so it’s not true that a vegan lifestyle is inherently more healthy than one with animal products in it. As with all things, it’s about taking charge of your diet and making healthy choices for yourself.

There are some people who can’t eat a vegan diet for health reasons, and this is absolutely one of the main areas where this becomes murky and difficult. However, people with restricted diets are used to managing what they eat and have the autonomy to make their own choices. Nobody eats every single meal in the three establishments owned by the Union and you’ll just have to trust people to manage their own health. There are places I can’t eat for dietary reasons, and I just don’t go there. If I meet friends at a place that doesn’t serve food I can have, I get a drink and eat elsewhere, or I meet them later.

There’s great evidence that because you need to eat more vegan food to consume the same quantity of calories in meat and dairy options, that it’s very beneficial for your satiety and you feel fuller and more satisfied for longer. This can help in a ton of different ways, especially if you’re prone to overeating or snacking between meals. 

Vegan diets aren’t suitable for cats or some babies. Sure, I will give you that. But you probably shouldn’t be feeding your cat or your baby solely on what you can get from Venue anyway.

Cost

There’s not much to say on this one yet, because we don’t know what things will cost on the Union outlets’ new menus. By and large, vegan options are the same price or cheaper than animal based options. As I said above, the point of this motion is to move towards “just and sustainable” food – economic justice included. It would not be just or sustainable if it was prohibitively expensive. If you can trust the Union to stay true to this aim, you can trust the prices not to be out of reach.

One of the things I’m most excited for is the chance to try out a ton of new vegan options. I have a lot of sensory issues around food, and I’m unlikely to cook a whole meal just to try it out, but I will give things a go if they are available cheaply and easily. It’s a very low stakes way of trying something new.

At the end of the day, I can argue this until I’m blue in the face and the cows (uneaten) have come home. What it comes down to is that if I’m on campus and I want something to eat, I value choice and range, and the campus having more vegan eateries encourages this. I don’t need to be able to choose between ten places selling burgers and pizzas. Let me grab some courgette noodles and hummus sometimes. Let me have lunch and feel positive about my personal environmental impact for once.

As far as I see it, as a meat eater, I have nothing to lose and a ton to gain from this. 

Featured Image Credit: Pexels

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