More than 650 academics have called on British universities to commit to 100% plant-based catering to fight the climate crisis, saying that the institutions have “for centuries, been shining lights of intellectual, moral, and scientific progress”.
Cutting meat consumption in rich nations is vital to tackling the climate crisis, with scientists saying it is the single biggest way for people to reduce their impact on the planet.
The letter, sent to UK university vice-chancellors, catering managers, and student union presidents, said: “We are acutely aware – as you must be too – of the climate and ecological crises; not only this but we are also mindful that animal farming and fishing are leading drivers of them.
“Most universities have declared a climate emergency, with many taking steps such as fossil fuel divestment. [Students] deserve to know that their universities are actively working to create a future for them to graduate into.”
“Not vegan? That’s okay,” the letter said. “We are not asking for individual dietary changes. Students and staff can still bring whatever food they like on to campus. What we are asking for is institutional divestment [from meat and dairy].”
Prominent environment and health academics who have signed the letter include professors Frank Kelly, Simon Lewis and Chris Rapley. More than 200 other people have also signed the letter, including the broadcaster and campaigner Chris Packham and the Green party MP Caroline Lucas.
Dr Helen Czerski, an oceanographer at University College London and television presenter who signed the letter, said: “Universities should see themselves as microcosms of society, where a spirit of exploration encourages people to try new things, to test better options, and to assess the consequences.
“Whenever I’ve organised a university event recently I’ve chosen plant-based or vegetarian catering without mentioning it, and I’ve only ever had compliments about the food, never complaints about what’s not there. It isn’t nearly as scary as many people think.”
Another signatory, the Olympic canoeist Etienne Stott, said: “The need for universities to act on their own climate research could not be more pressing. The support of academics from over 90 institutions is incredibly powerful and I urge universities to listen to their calls for change.”
Tom Bradshaw, the deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “It’s right for universities to consider how they can play their part in the climate change challenge, but banning all beef and lamb, regardless of where and how it is produced, is a far too simplistic approach. Instead, universities should be considering their sourcing.”
“British beef and lamb are among the most sustainable in the world,” he said. “Our emissions from beef are less than half the global average and our farmers are working to reach net zero by 2040.”
The Plant-Based Universities campaign is active in more than 50 universities. To date, the student unions’ at Birmingham, University College London, Stirling, and Queen Mary universities have voted to phase in 100% plant-based menus.
Related votes also have passed at Cambridge, Kent and London Metropolitan universities. Votes at Edinburgh and Warwick universities did not pass. The University of Cambridge removed beef and lamb from the menus of its 14 catering outlets in 2016, “dramatically reducing food-related carbon emissions”.
Chris Packham said: “The student campaigners of Plant-Based Universities are making incredible changes in their institutions and it’s only right to see hundreds of academics stepping up to support them.”
In 2020, A powerful coalition of the UK’s health professions said the climate crisis could not be solved without action to cut the consumption of high-emission food such as red meat, and that sustainable diets were healthier.
Public sector caterers serving billions of meals a year in schools, universities, hospitals and care homes also pledged in 2020 to cut the amount of meat they serve by 20%. In 2021, a government-commissioned national food strategy recommended cutting meat consumption by nearly a third.