Illustration: Anna Webb

Pro: Clarissa

The recent motion passed by the Students’ Union to support a campaign to make University Catering Services fully plant-based has sparked much controversy. The debates around the decision have centred around the scale of the initiative. ‘It’s just five cafes’, i.e. you can live with it, can also be read as ‘it’s just five cafes’, i.e. how will the measure be impactful. Frankly, this reductive dialogue avoids the real issues at stake in this motion. These five cafes are staples of student life and will affect the student population. The green gains of the initiative are similarly non-negotiable: veganism is the single biggest way to reduce your individual environmental impact. The reason that students are getting so up in arms about this motion is that it removes scope for individual decision making. While this might sound spookily authoritarian, it is precisely what we need.

“Intervening in individual decision making is often a necessary step as we face our man-made climate crisis”

When environmental decisions are placed at the door of individuals, those who make carbon conscious choices lose out. Since meat and dairy are the norm in our catering services, plant-based customers are often offered disappointing options low in protein or variety. This in turn reinforces stereotypes that plant-based diets are bland or innutritious. Opting for a plant-based menu will force our University to develop tastier and more varied vegan food options, empowering students to seriously consider climate conscious meals outside of the cafeteria. Plant-based eating is just as balanced and nourishing as meat and dairy when prepared with nutrition in mind: our catering services should reward rather than punish environmentally conscious consumers.

Fundamentally, intervening in individual decision making is often a necessary step as we face our man-made climate crisis. Take single use plastic as an example: when plastic bags are free, the consumer will opt for them. When top-down regulations are imposed, such as a 5p bag charge, we change our behaviour.

However, this is not to ignore the potentially harmful impact of this motion on people with dietary requirements or eating disorders. Dietary requirements can be accommodated by the University Catering Services, but the SU need to step up for the latter group. The SU should consult relevant advisory bodies and students with eating disorders before implementing the motion, then provide affected students with guidance and support afterwards.

Everyone deserves a right to food that will nourish them. However, veganism does not equal restriction. As it stands, vegan students with eating disorders are adversely affected by UCS’ poor provisions. Plant-based catering should be about adding, not taking away. There’s scope here to provide fake meat for familiarity but also, excitingly, to introduce students to new foods. This is an opportunity for Cambridge to destigmatise veganism, reduce our environmental impact and diversify food options. As long as it’s executed sensitively, I’m in favour.

Against: Sam

As radical as the SU think they might be, our diets have served as ideological battlegrounds for millennia. Fillipo Tommaso Marinetti, the Italian Futurist, released a cookbook in 1932 in his peculiar attempt to create a new, virile race of Italians. Within the book he cast scorn on the lethargic pasta-munching habit of his fellow Mediterraneans, advocating the total abolition of pasta across his homeland. This dietary advice was quite convenient given Mussolini’s lack of success in the ongoing “Battle for Wheat” — an autarkic propaganda campaign supported by the Futurists. Strangely, Italians did not heed Marinetti’s recipes for phallic meat sculptures, and have thankfully stuck with pasta to this day.

We are quite right to mock Marinetti and his eccentric pasta prohibition. But they are both no less illogical than claiming, as the motion which passed did, that our mental health would somehow be “hugely boosted” by forcing vegan grub on us all.

“The SU should leverage free choice to its advantage”.

Fundamentally, regardless of what you think about veganism, the root issue with this motion comes down to a question of democracy and liberalism, and to whether you believe in either.

From the reaction the motion has generated, it is clear that only a tiny minority of students actually support what the SU is doing. Even among those who are vegan, the motion is controversial. So it is utterly bizarre that representatives of the SU — an organisation which is meant to represent students and their interests — chose to pass this motion.

Those in favour of the motion argue that it is for the greater good. But deciding what is good for students while totally ignoring their own opinions flagrantly disregards the democratic principles on which the SU is meant to operate.


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So what this debate really represents is a wider debate about how we should approach climate issues. In their vulgar, utilitarian reasoning, the motion and its supporters have fed the narrative that liberal democracy is an obstacle to necessary change. Not only is this narrative untrue, but it is dangerous.

Throughout its history, authoritarians such as Marinetti have always found excuses to overrule liberal democracy. Yet each and every time democracy has shown itself to be more resilient than its cynical naysayers.

Instead of denying it, the SU should leverage free choice to its advantage. While a ban on animal products will deter many students from even eating at university catering sites, simply subsidising and lowering the cost of plant-based foods relative to their alternatives is likely to be a far more successful way to reduce consumption of animal products.