2022 has seen a rise in public awareness of plant-based diets, with over 500,000 people worldwide signing up to the Veganuary project and 259 new Vegan menus released across restaurants and fast-food outlets. Though plant-based diets are approached as an individual choice, the lifestyle begins to be considered an institutional change. Across schools and universities, bans are being pushed forward in policy referendums in an attempt to rid canteen menus of animal products. This report will focus on the Plant-Based Universities (hereon PBU) campaign. I have engaged PBU spokespeople, campaign liaison Vaania Achuthan and social media head Alfie Hall, both 19, in both a conversational interview and a set of written enquiries, revealing an array of insights.
PBU emerged 5 months ago within the University of London, specifically UCL and KCL colleges, and is demanding a 100% transition to ‘just and sustainable plant-based catering’ across university campuses by the 2023-4 academic year. Whilst the campaign receives funding from Animal Rebellion, associates of Extinction Rebellion (XR), the campaign has broken away from its parent organisations due to different emphasis on the measures used to prevent damage to the climate. Where XR focuses on opposing the use of fossil fuels, PBU extends its demands for policy change in regards to new rules for university canteens. They assert that even if fossil fuels were to be ‘outrightly banned’, the ideal reduction of climate damage ‘cannot be achieved’ without mass shifts to plant-based diets. PBU’s informant data is said to be in line with ‘modern climate science’, with the predicted point of ‘irreversible climate damage’ set for 5-8 years ahead. This is the same chronology many students have received from the media and climate movements since early childhood.
Vaania and Alfie recall their initial encounter at a Day of Activism event for animal rights organisation Surge, who published claims that ‘2019-nCoV [Covid-19] is a direct result of animal exploitation’. Surge’s philosophy approaches the spread of Covid-19 as ‘just the start’ of consequences for the global animal trade, with ‘something far worse’ on the horizon: ‘Humanity is beginning to feel the impact of what we have done to non-human animals’ (sic). PBU consequently grew out of a similar campaign, Plant-Based Schools and Councils. Campaign liaison Vaania traces the initial formation of PBU to a strategy meeting that targeted meat consumption in primary schools, with an obstacle being the requirement for provisions of dairy milk and tri-weekly meat or poultry portions at lunchtimes. These, according to government guidelines, are crucial for young children’s nutrition, though bans are considered by PBU to be a ‘fantastic idea’.
PBU has expressed their support for Barrowford School in Lancashire, which has lately made headlines for its ban on meat and fish in school dinners – not only across menus from outsourced catering companies but in the contents of packed lunches provided by parents. Changes in schools have stemmed from attempts to alter local council policies, who are under increasing pressure from Animal Rebellion and associates ProVeg, an international environmental initiative, to intervene in children’s diets.
The focus of PBU, conversely, is not the school but the university campus: ‘We need our universities, our great institutions where most environmental science research comes from, to practice (sic) what they preach’. PBU’s activists have expressed their demands using ‘autonomous, student-led movements within movements’ active in 9 colleges across the United Kingdom. ‘We think we have a good chance with today’s student population’, a demographic that Vaania approximates ‘generally care’ about the climate. PBU’s strategy is to call for institutional change through policies, leaving the individual to consume meat beyond the reaches of their authority. Referendums will be launched in universities, though the campaigners’ high hopes have already faced defeat at Warwick, where the meat-free proposition lost with a 40% ‘for’ vote. Vaania notes that a great deal of students didn’t care to vote – presumably those who are unpassionate about the issue.
Should they face continued failure in referendums, PBU will resort to ‘non-violent direct action’. Though it may ‘seem to alienate some individuals’, by Vaania’s prediction, this will serve to change what is dubbed the ‘overtone window’. Through constantly ‘engaging’ with the mindset of the demographic, PBU’s strategists will attempt to covertly alter the rhetoric surrounding the animal agriculture debate by shifting public perception of the PBU proposition from ‘radical’ to ‘acceptable’. Though similar techniques of mass behavioural influence are commonplace in public information schemes and advertising, the approach is arguably underhand, whilst outwardly justifiable in the name of climate science. Now that Veganism has been adopted by the world’s leading food companies (‘big food’), the isolated drives of radical autonomous groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) have been dulled. Today’s approach is a far cry from the Vegan rhetoric of even 2017, when the ALF boasted in their regular newsletter the liberation of various farmed animals from cages which were individually rehomed to shelters and children’s petting zoos.
It is now known by the Office for National Statistics that ‘three-quarters (75%) of adults in Great Britain said they were worried about the impact of climate change’. Nevertheless, PBU spokespeople stress the urgency of their plan to ‘get into people’s minds that animal agriculture equals the climate crisis’. At the same time, a campaigner vouched in a written statement for the importance of making ‘informed choices in our lives about what we endorse with our money’, which appears inconsistent, as the decisive agency of the student is being manipulated in the contexts of not only what one buys, but the information one trusts. Eating disorders in students are commonplace and are celebrated in online circles, though PBU’s conviction that their goals are not merely ‘beneficial, but necessary’ justifies an intervention in diets and self-attitudes. A matter of such exigency has even surpassed the need to implement long-term plans to reduce meat consumption through positive reinforcement. The climate crisis is already ‘too far ahead’ for a comparatively laid-back nudge theory program, in which Vaania is well-versed and the campaign has given significant and evident consideration.
Whilst the knee-jerk opposition to the movement is quick to mention an infringement of personal freedoms, campaigns such as PBU are only one element of a set of new negotiations of the consumer lifestyle. Notions of ‘moral accountability’ and ‘ethical consumption’ have permeated the private life in every imaginable part; the food one eats, the clothes one wears, the sex one has, the things one says and the presuppositions one holds. Despite the value ascribed to consumptive ‘purity’, the narrative tends to be presented by a vocabulary of societal collapse and paranoia. PBU’s eschatology exemplifies a narrative of humanity’s inevitable reckoning with the consequences of wrongs beyond the control of the individual.