Darwin’s party-goers embraced the ball with open arms.DAVID JOHNSON WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

Darwin’s ‘Meal Discussions’ group-chat pings, it’s a picture of the dictator Fransisco Franco. The day before, the college MCR was compared to the Nazi Party. Why? You may ask. Well, on account of the college’s ‘militant veganism’, it seems. Although waters have now settled whispers of an insidious vegan agenda continue to stoke the paranoia of Darwin’s meat-friendly underclass. Is this paranoia justified? Perhaps. Last year, I, alongside my co-President, Toby Brann, helmed Darwin May Ball committee’s decision to throw the first 100% plant-based May Ball in Oxbridge’s history. 

The project was successful. While the choice to do away with meat, cheese and eggs garnered initial interest from the likes of the Times, PETA and Jacob Rees-Mogg, discussion on the ground was far less feverish. Bar a disgruntled email or two and one refunded ticket, attendees took the plant-based offerings in their stride, overcame the supposed ideological imposition and, against all expectations, appeared to have fun. Tanked up on falafel wraps and deep-fried pizzette, Darwin’s party-goers embraced the ball with open arms. Post-event, reviews were glowing. From the committee’s perspective, we’d pulled-off the un-pull-off-able, and in the process, hosted Darwin’s most sustainable full-scale ball to date. 

"The justification is painfully and inevitably clear"

However, with a fresh batch of students, Darwin’s May Ball committee must, yet again, justify its decision to host a 100% plant-based ball. From my perspective, the justification is painfully and inevitably clear; swapping out animal product-based meals for vegan meals has a profound environmental impact. Our food system is responsible for approximately 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions while requiring the use of 70% of our freshwater and 50% of our habitable land. Even if all other non-agricultural greenhouse gas emissions were erased overnight, the continued effect of the agricultural industry would still take us over the 1.5° - 2 °C global temperature increase stipulated by the Paris Agreement. With 2024 set to be the hottest year ever recorded, why are we so unwilling to forego meat, even for just one night?

Push-back against Darwin’s plant-based ball comes in two forms. The first refutes that swapping to a plant-based offering indeed reduces emissions. I refer to this as the ‘Mexican Avocado defence’. The Mexican Avocado defence pits a pastoralised imagination of well-treated, locally-raised and ethically-slaughtered cattle against an avocado that is flown small-batch via private jet from some far-flung country. The ‘gotcha’ is that the latter is far worse for the environment. In one sense, the argument is correct: if we create an imagined beef burger and imagine it to be more sustainable than an imagined avocado, then it will be. However, we can neither will the footprintless burger nor the oil-soaked avocado into existence. In reality, the carbon footprint of one avocado is around 5% of that of the same amount of beef. Drowned out by the groans of the naysayers is the fact that meat-based meals have a 14-times greater impact on the environment than vegan meals. The typical May Ball serves multiple meals to hundreds and hundreds of guests - the environmental savings are clear. 

The second batch of discontent takes the stance that a plant-based May Ball comprises some form of ideological imposition. The vegan food is supposedly not the issue, but rather the fact that it is ‘forced’ upon attendees. An absence of animal products at Darwin's May Ball is seen as an act that curtails personal freedom and expression. To this, I remind meat-eaters that they can and do eat ‘vegan’ food without complaint (after all, even a chip-butty is vegan). Moreover, our choices are constantly constrained by the choices made by those higher up and a May Ball is no different; the choice to serve burgers may preclude the choice of serving hotdogs, or a Food Officer may swap waffles for churros, and so on. A Ball, or indeed any event or restaurant, is inherently restrictive in its offerings, the difference here is our restriction is delineated by environmental impact, rather than taste or blind choice alone. 

"Decisions to try to reduce carbon emissions need to come from an institutional level"

Restrictions perceived to be motivated by personal belief are rarely well received. Anti-vegan debate, at Darwin and beyond, is often fuelled by the misconstruing of veganism as a purely ideological stance. As a result, many take the implementation of plant-based menus as a political affront. While for some, veganism comprises a set of beliefs, outlooks, ethics, and consequent practices, not all instantiations of ‘veganism’, in the practical sense, are such. Darwin May Ball’s decision to host an 100% plant-based May Ball is driven by the scientifically-backed stance that eliminating the use of animal products at the Ball leads to its decreased environmental impact and not by the machinations of an amorphous liberal agenda. At a time when the validity and importance of the ‘personal carbon footprint’ is in doubt, it becomes clear that decisions to try to reduce carbon emissions need to come from an institutional level, where they will have an invariably larger impact. If this does indeed curtail our individual freedom, we can exercise it by spending our money and time elsewhere, while recognising that our diets are not exempt from pragmatic scrutiny in terms of their environmental impact.