Over 650 academics and campaigners have written an open letter to UK universities calling for a switch to a 100% vegan catering menu to fight the climate crisis. Coordinated by student-led campaign Plant-Based Universities, the letter compares this shift to the fossil fuel divestment committed by 101 universities.
Founded in 2021 by British activism group Animal Rising, the Plant-Based Universities initiative is calling on university vice-chancellors, catering managers and student union presidents to commit to sustainable, 100% plant-based catering. The letter argues that most universities have already declared a climate emergency, and shifting to a vegan menu is a natural step to take next.
Veganism has been found to reduce climate emissions, water pollution and land use by 75% compared to a meat-rich diet. The letter cites Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek’s landmark 2018 study about the impact of food production on climate change. The researchers found that cutting meat and dairy from your diet is the single biggest way to reduce a person’s environmental impact.
The co-signees also point to Harvard University’s 2019 analysis that suggested the UK could be carbon-negative if it combined the switch to plant-based production with rewilding the land freed up by this change.
Plant-based catering menus at universities
“We are in a crucial period for the future of all life on Earth, the decisions we make now will shape the future of humanity and the natural world,” the letter reads. “Our young people, many of whom study at your institutions, deserve to know that their universities are actively working to create a future for them to graduate into.”
The campaigners stress that they’re not trying to force people to be plant-based: “Not vegan? That’s okay. We are not asking for individual dietary changes. Students and staff can still bring whatever food they like onto campus. What we are asking for is institutional divestment within procurement in the same way that universities are boycotting fossil fuel companies.”
The letter adds: “We are calling on you to use your positions to speak up and begin the transition to 100% just and sustainable plant-based catering at your own institutions… We truly believe in the power of people to come together and make positive change and we are asking you to step up and be part of building a better, kinder, and safer world.”
Many UK universities have already voted to introduce a fully plant-based menu at their eateries. These include the Universities of Stirling, Birmingham, Queen Mary, London Metropolitan, Kent, University College London and Cambridge – the latter had already removed beef and lamb from its catering menus in 2016. But similar votes in the Universities of Edinburgh and Warwick didn’t pass.
Olympic canoeist Etienne Stott, one of the signatories, 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.”
Vega catering in the UK
The UK is the second-largest market for plant-based food in Europe, according to industry think tank the Good Food Institute Europe. And London is said to be one of the vegan capitals of the world. In 2019, The Vegan Society estimated that there were 600,000 vegans in the UK – about 0.9% of the total population at the time. A December 2022 survey by YouGov found that 2% of Brits identified as vegan (about 1.35 million). And earlier this year, Kantar found that the number of UK adults who prefer vegan food and drink has remained relatively static at 11% across the past three years.
French catering giant Sodexo, which operates at 476 British and Irish sites, found that 10% of all meals sold in 2022 were vegan or vegetarian – up from 8% in 2021. While the healthcare sector accounted for the largest share (17%), schools and universities remained lower at 5%, a surprising figure given younger demographics‘ demand for plant-based food. The company has pledged to increase the number of plant-based options to 33% by 2025 – but it could do with some inspiration from its plan across the Atlantic and introduce a higher share to entice more universities to transition to vegan menus.
Similarly, British caterer Compass Group, which caters to universities and schools (among other institutions), said in 2021 that it plans to replace 40% of the animal proteins throughout its supply chain with alternative sources like plant-based meat to reduce its carbon footprint.
And within the UK, public sector caterers introduced the 20 Percent Less Meat campaign in January 2020, vowing to cut the amount of meat they serve in their billions of meals in schools, universities, hospitals and care homes each year. It’s in line with the country’s National Food Strategy unveiled a year later, which suggests cutting meat consumption by a third.
Earlier this month, GFI Europe suggested that the UK must invest £370M in alt-protein by 2030 to boost its food security. While there have been promising signs for cultivated meat, government funding and public research in plant-based meat has lagged behind. The think tank says more research is needed to help drive down costs and elevate vegan meat’s sensory properties – the two biggest barriers to consumer uptake of plant-based food.
Speaking to Green Queen, GFI Europe’s UK policy manager Linus Pardoe said: “While the UK has many of the right ingredients to play a key role in advancing research to make plant-based foods tastier, healthier and more affordable for consumers, most of the expertise in important fields like crop breeding and food science tends to be funded in a way that focuses on other, more established areas of research.”
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