The Students Organising for Sustainability’s (SOS-UK) statement, ‘Why banning beef is not the answer’ has finally opened up a more productive conversation about sustainable food policies within universities. SOS-UK published its statement on Thursday, 22 November.
This is one of the first attempts by any university-centred organisation or institution to break the static narrative, where so many universities and students in recent years view meat, especially beef and lamb, as simply evil. The statement came as a response to recent calls for a ban on beef on UK campuses, notably seen in Oxford University’s Student Union vote to ban red meat at campus eateries.
SOS-UK, a group that sits within the National Students Union, has worked co-operatively with organisations that have a direct understanding of food policy and production including the Soil Association and Compassion in World Farming. This has enabled the issue of food consumed at universities, especially meat, and its sustainability to be approached with genuine nuance and understanding.
The statement rightly encourages greater consumption of sustainably produced fruit and veg, something that as a nation we are poor at doing, with 79% of us eating less than 3.5 portions of fruit and veg a day. And it is clear that there does have to be a shift in diets with a reduction in meat consumption, though the sourcing and type of meat is a far more important consideration.
SOS-UK also recognise that while vegans and vegetarians are important in supporting a sustainable food system, there is a need for awareness about the processed nature of many vegan and vegetarian substitutes, The statement says that ‘It is important to avoid highly processed vegetarian and vegan options’. This was further confirmed by the Food Foundation noting how, despite veganism rising with a 1,639% increase over the last five years in people signing up to Veganuary, there was actually a 6.5% decline in the quantity of vegetables sold in the UK in January 2020. For universities as well, the creation of plant-based menus has often been hit and miss in terms of quality. SOS-UK has taken this into account, encouraging university campus eateries to support the ‘professional training of chefs in healthy and sustainable food, including plant-based cooking’.
Nevertheless, the key point that was made by the SOS-UK’s statement was that ‘no beef on campuses’ campaigns are not helpful to wider efforts to push for more sustainable food in universities. These campaigns ignore how the sustainability of food is heavily rooted in different types of food production rather than simply the types of food products produced. Through emphasising both the need for seasonal fruit and vegetable options to become the default option on menus and for meat to be procured locally, SOS-UK acknowledges the need to recognise differences in the production of food.
SOS-UK defended UK farmers, stating:
Most beef and lamb bred in the UK is not intensively farmed or grain fed and buying beef or dairy that has been grass fed on a mixed farm can reduce the use of inorganic nitrogen fertiliser; reduce the use of carbon fuels through mechanical cultivations; and improve soil health.
This is an important point and offers hope for resolving the growing disconnect between the debates amongst farmers working hard to produce food in the UK and those consuming food on university campuses.
Only last year Cambridge University sought to remove all ruminant meat from its campus menus and events under its Sustainable Food Policy. Following the announcement of this short-sighted policy, Cambridge saw a backlash from those involved in food and farming in the UK, with accusations of hypocrisy aimed at the university as it has funded 17,545 flights since 2016.
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SOS-UK highlighted how a focus on ruminant meat has been a short-sighted policy by many university campuses, with them comparing UK meat production to chicken production. UK chicken production has often been:
Seen as a more environmentally friendly and healthier meat choice than beef, [but chickens] are predominantly factory farmed. Poultry overtook red meat sales for the first time in 2017 and now accounts for over 50% of meat consumption … These chickens experience low animal welfare standards and consume vast amounts of grain contributing to deforestation with serious impacts on the climate, biodiversity and indigenous communities living on the land.
There continues to be a debate on the impact of ruminant meat compared to pigs and poultry within agriculture as well as the links between environmentally-friendly meat production and nutrition. Recent papers from the US have suggested that through better grass-fed beef, there are a number health benefits that need to be further investigated.
Ultimately, the SOS-UK’s statement comes as both a welcome warning and encouragement to universities in the UK. It is right that many campuses are having a conversation about and seeking to pursue sustainable food policies. These, though, need to be holistic, taking into account all factors in food production and recognising differences in production methods, issues around local food or differences in types of animal products.
Cambridge and Oxford Universities aren’t wrong in viewing themselves as leaders in society, and they need to be part of the move towards a more sustainable food system. This leadership, however, needs to be thorough, holistic, and nuanced, actually listening and engaging with the system that produces our food. There is more needed from a sustainable food policy than just a ‘ban on beef’.
A set of sustainable university food policies proposed by SOS-UK is:
We would like to see universities leading the way by committing to the following:
- Offering more seasonal plant-based options, with this type of food being the default option
- Sourcing all meat and dairy products from better production systems
- Having meat and dairy reduction targets which are measured and reported on
- Supporting professional training of chefs in healthy and sustainable food, including plant-based cooking and sourcing better produced meat and dairy
- Checking for university investments in industrial livestock agriculture and, if they exist, supporting a campaign for meat divestment with reinvestment into regenerative agriculture that uses agro-ecological farming practices.
Cambridge and Oxford Universities aren’t wrong in viewing themselves as leaders in society, and they need to be part of the move towards a more sustainable food system. This leadership, however, needs to be thorough, holistic, and nuanced, actually listening and engaging with the system that produces our food.
There is more needed from a sustainable food policy than just a ‘ban on beef’.