The city of Canterbury declared a state of climate emergency in 2019, a decision that the University of Kent celebrated as both necessary and consistent with university initiatives. Vice Chancellor Karen Cox comments on the University of Kent Climate Action website:
We fully acknowledge the climate and ecological crisis facing the planet and strongly support Canterbury City Council’s recent declaration. As an institution that researches and teaches about the causes and effects of global environmental change, we are strongly aware that our staff and students have a combined responsibility – both as a leading exemplar of what must be achieved and as a wider advocate for sustainability – to enable the radical societal changes needed to mitigate the causes of global heating.
Despite this emphasis on sustainability as integral to its mission, the University of Kent continues to lag with regard to environmental policy and sustainability measures.
A number of student and faculty led initiatives have formed to ameliorate this, including (but not limited to) the SAC Working Group, the Sustainability Network, the Hedgehog-friendly Campus project, the Oasis community garden, and several research centres emphasizing environmental politics. Unfortunately, these efforts are not always matched by much needed institutional changes at the university level. UKC has invested in more public transportation and cycling infrastructure, campus-wide recycling schemes, carbon management and more renewable sources of energy, but little to nothing has been done to tackle one of the greatest contributors to the climate crisis: animal-based food.
Multiple scientific journal articles and climate NGOs have pointed to the devastating impact that animal-derived foods (meat, eggs, dairy, and fish) have on the environment, including the pollution of air, water, and land, desertification, the emergence of zoonotic diseases (such as COVID-19), and even the destruction of the rainforest. Even “green,” “sustainably produced,” “grass-fed,” organic, and locally-produced animal products continue to damage the environment at rates significantly higher than plant-based alternatives. The United Nations has noted that animal agriculture is responsible for almost as much environmental destruction as fossil fuels (some organizations such as the World Watch Institute argue that animal agriculture is the leading contributor to climate change).
This destruction, incidentally, is not unavoidable—it reflects cultural norms and industry influence over global consumption patterns. The consumption of animal products is not required for optimal human health (indeed, it often impedes it). The normalization of animal-based diets is instead a response to industrialization and wealth it has manifested in the West. It also reflects processes of Westernization as cultures that once relied on plant-based diets quickly increase their intake of animal products upon incorporation into the global economic system.
The increased consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs corresponds to a nation’s wealth because animal agriculture is resource intensive and expensive to produce (even in the West, government subsidies are necessary to maintain it). Plant-based foodways, as it turns out, are considerably cheaper. A recent University of Oxford study found that whole vegan food is on average about one third cheaper than other diets, including the Standard British Diet. Veganism is often stereotyped as expensive, but this concern pertains to unhealthy convenience foods. Grains, beans, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are far more accessible and nutritionally sound. This is particularly relevant given the current cost of living crisis. Going plant-based would provide the university and its students with significant savings.
The university also has a responsibility to encourage student health. Balanced, wholesome plant-based diets are consistently shown to be healthier, promoting longer life and higher quality of life. Diet-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes which are associated with animal foods and processed foods are significantly less prominent among plant-based consumers. Athletes, too, are recognizing the benefits of a plant-based diet. The heavily streamed Netflix 2018 film The Game Changers documents this phenomenon.
Of course, plant-based foodways also grant relief to the astronomical amount of nonhuman animals who are killed and exploited for food. Kent’s commitment to social justice and inclusion has overwhelming ignored other-than-human species, but students are increasingly concerned about the wellbeing of other animals and are adopting veganism as a measure of solidarity. Veganism, overall, is experiencing unprecedented popularity over the past few years, particularly in the United Kingdom.
For a number of reasons, then, moving to plant-based catering at the University of Kent would be congruent with values held dear to the campus community. A group of SOCI5250 Environmental Politics students agree and have decided to take action. In collaboration with students of environmental science, social justice, human geography, and other social sciences, these student activists have launched a campaign to put Kent’s sustainability rhetoric into practice. The campaign, titled “Plant-based University at Kent,” collaborates with the student union to transition the University of Kent to plant-based student catering. Should the campaign succeed, the University of Kent would join the ranks of other pioneering green institutions across the country that are taking climate change seriously, including the University of Sterling which pledged to go plant-based in November and the London School of Economics which has pledged to go 50% plant-based.
This student leadership could not have better timing. The University of Kent has yet to take any serious steps to address this connection with regard to its catering. Currently, only limited plant-based and vegan options are available across campus dining, primarily for the purposes of catering to student and faculty dietary requirements. But plant-based eating is more than a diet—it is an evidence-based, ethical resistance to climate change. If the University desires to stand as a leading exemplar” and an “advocate of sustainability,” it has a responsibility to not simply cater to tastes and dietary restrictions. It will need to set an example by steering away from animal-based foodways and making plant-based options the default. As an institution where scientific research is conducted to influence policy, global relations, and public wellbeing, the University of Kent has a responsibility to lead by example. Sustainable campaigning taking place across campus demonstrates that many Kent students agree.
Corey Wrenn is a Lecturer of Sociology in the Division for the Study of Law, Society and Social Justice at the University of Kent. She teaches Environmental Politics, Animals and Society, and Social and Political Movements. She specializes in vegan sociology, co-founding the International Association of Vegan Sociologists in 2020.
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