A case for plant-based
Evie Marshall, a Plant-Based Universities Student Campaigner, comments on the necessities for a fully plant-based institution, what that would look like, and how we all could benefit.
In November, an article was written by a fellow student titled: ‘Is veganism a herd mentality?’. Drawn from positive experiences, research, and conversations with farmers, the piece makes the case for sustainable dairy farming. As a direct response to this article, I write with the intention to create space for thinking broadly, offering a different narrative, and igniting conversation about our future. True resilience requires us to consider the complexity of environmental, economic, and cultural challenges. What does the future of sustainable agriculture look like in the UK? And are vegans being unreasonable in their advocation of a plant-based food system?
I am a volunteer with Plant-Based Universities (PBU). This a student campaign, currently active across 40 UK and international higher education institutes, for all university catering facilities to end the sale of animal products and make 100% of their menus plant-based. The campaign aims to limit the university’s contribution to the climate and ecological emergency and shift public opinion in favour of a plant-based food system. Bristol was the first UK university to declare a climate emergency in 2019, followed by Exeter that same year. By October 2022, 100 UK universities had pledged to divest from fossil fuel companies; 65% of our country’s higher education institutes making a definitive commitment to mitigate climate catastrophe.
PBU does not aim to ban animal products from campus or stop people from eating them. Instead, it urges institutional acknowledgement of the damage to animal agriculture and consequent divestment from it. This change happens largely through Student Unions.
Admittedly, the UK’s food system is indeed complex and multifaceted. Animal farming is a deeply embedded aspect of this country’s economy, culture and landscape. People still love cheese and bacon. And while ‘Plant Based Universities’ advocate an animal-product-free campus, in reality, the industry is not going anywhere for a while.
As VP of Liberation and Equality for the Student’s Guild, Emma De Saram, puts it in a collaborative letter with PBU to the Vice-Chancelor, “We are all feeling the impacts of the cost of living crisis, but the cost of living and climate crises are inextricably linked to a government that has failed to plan and mitigate disaster. Ordinary people have been hit worst by rising food and energy costs, including students, with one in 10 students relying on food banks. Food will only become more scarce and expensive because of droughts and crop failures exacerbated by the climate crisis.”
And thus, we ask for a 100% plant-based campus in order to start this necessary conversation about the future of a sustainable food system and what climate justice really looks like.
And thus, we ask for a 100% plant-based campus in order to start this necessary conversation about the future of a sustainable food system and what climate justice really looks like. There are some factors that make ‘sustainable animal farming’ paradoxical, and so we need to be critical about what solutions to the climate crisis we are venerating. The aforementioned article on sustainable dairy makes the following case:
“Dairy farming could not only be carbon negative, but good for biodiversity and soil ecology[…] Patrick’s soil has the potential to sequester more carbon than his farm produces, making it carbon negative[…]Tropical humid climates are really the place for rewilding. They sequester around six times the amount of carbon dioxide that a UK forest could.”
But better meat and dairy is not necessarily the solution. It has been shown that “methane emissions from grass-fed cattle are markedly higher than those from grain-fed cattle”. Further, in a comprehensive Oxford study of 38,000 farms, it becomes apparent that the contribution of factors like transport and packaging is indeed small compared to that of the food type, with plant-based products consistently being less resource intensive (land, water, emissions, fertilizer) than animal products. In the EU alone, animal agriculture is responsible for 78% of terrestrial biodiversity loss.
If everyone wanted to continue eating meat and dairy, and organic, grass-fed methods were the only means of production due to higher welfare and environmental standards, there would literally not be enough land on the planet to sustain demand. Should we transition to plant-based farming, the UK could free up 51% of its land for rewilding and carbon drawdown.
There is also validity in the argument that much of this country’s land is not arable and cannot grow crops, yet. But this is not an impossible barrier to the sustainable transformation of the landscape. Ian Tolhurst, a veganic farmer in the South East, initially owned land whose soil DEFRA classed as infertile. It is now highly healthy and productive with one of the highest populations of earthworms in the UK! And It is true, there is a significant research gap in what a completely plant-based food system would look like ‘on the ground’ in Britain. So currently, we have to work with existing models, to integrate green methods where possible while continuing to strive for a more holistically sustainable food system.
The science backing a plant-based food system is more than compelling. The money needed to support food technology innovations, nature farming subsidies, and agricultural transitions are there, but right now it’s being stiffened into large corporations, intensive agriculture, and international trade. Producers and consumers alike are disadvantaged by this system.
In September 2022, a group of us toured the South West to have conversations with animal farmers, to better understand their perspectives and cultivate better relationships between vegans and animal farmers.
There is a massive value and information divide between these communities. As stewards of the land, and experts in food production and economics, vegans have much to learn. We should seek first to understand, and then to be understood. With this in mind, the conversations were respectful and productive, and farmers told us we approached things in ‘exactly the right way’. We spoke of our shared desire for a more self-sufficient and green food system. And this completely transformed my outlook on activism and social change.
We listened to many animal farmers express the negative impact of cheap imports, inadequate government subsidies, and supermarket monopiles on food prices. Many felt undervalued and overworked.
We need to bring small-scale and organic animal farmers along with us in the necessary transition to sustainable plant-based agriculture rather than propping up meat and dairy agri-giants. And institutional divestment by our universities is a solid place to start. If our centres of knowledge and learning start to act in alignment with the best interests of food producers and future generations, is it much more likely that other institutions, such as the government, will follow?
If our centres of knowledge and learning start to act in alignment with the best interests of food producers and future generations, is it much more likely that other institutions, such as the government, will follow?
Animal farming is a highly valued element of UK culture and lifestyle. People are not going to stop eating meat and dairy anytime soon. And even if they did, individual change alone is simply not sufficient to mitigate the climate emergency (not to discount the profound personal benefits of a vegan diet). Anyway, by transitioning to a plant-based food system, divesting from the gargantuan meat and dairy industries, we can repurpose UK land to allow for rewilding and carbon drawdown in the most effective way possible, and this necessary transition should not marginalise, but rather embrace, animal farmers.
A Call to Action for Students
- If you’re a post-grad, UK plant-based food system research could be immensely valuable for the future of our economy, landscape, wildlife, and society as a whole.
- Please sign and share this petition for a more just and sustainable student’s guild.
- Write to your local MP and urge them to invest, protect, and even expand sustainable farming subsidies (e.g., for rewilding, orchards, and nature integration). Financial support for our food producers, to earn a decent living and protect the environment, are so essential, and cannot be ignored by our government.
- If you’re passionate about environmental justice, you can join Exeter’s chapter of the Plant-Based Universities Campaign to transform on-campus catering to be more just, sustainable, and plant-based. Contact me: email@example.com