YES: The choice of reducing meat consumption has significant environmental impact
It’s easy to pity a vegetarian. Not only for their incredible sacrifices made towards giving up delicious rashers of bacon we take for granted each morning, but also their ability to put up with, essentially, an assortment of “sides” for dinner. The vegetarian option is usually something that looks variably unappetising to vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike when dining in college.
Most of my vegetarian friends usually end up dining on a plate of side options at the end of each day. Meat-free-days off er an initial solution to the sub-par food that is already served to students who do not eat meat by dedicating a day or two to their preferences each week.
This could also help introduce higher quality vegetarian style diets to students who are otherwise led to believe that vegetarians live a life off of tinned zucchini, and thus are more likely to oppose propositions like meat-free days in the first place.
That being said, the core reason for adopting meat-free-days in hall is neither to extend options to vegetarians nor to introduce vegetarian meals and diets to students. It is something much more simple and blind to dietary preferences: the impact that eating meat produced by modern industrial farm practices has on our environment.
Divestment campaigns run well at Oxford and many are quite active, such as the one at St. Hilda’s, which seeks to reduce the college investment in fossil fuels. Few would question their actions, which are made in the effort to slow climate change.
People are constantly told to do their part to conserve water. We tell children to turn off the tap while they brush their teeth, not only to save water, but also to develop long-term habits of mindfulness around the conservation and efficient usage of water in a world where 2.8 billion people experience shortages.
The introduction of meat-free days is equally reasonable. I hardly believe that people opposing the proposition would oppose specific legislation that prevents sprinkler usage during times of severe drought. This question is no more than a more mindful proposition of the same logic used behind wasting water on keeping your lawns green while other people barely have enough water to drink. A pound of beef requires an astounding 1,799 gallons of water to produce while millions have access to potable water only once a week. Thus, it is no surprise that the Wadham College Student Union chose to adopt meat-free days two years ago.
Do remember as well that no vegan or vegetarian is shackling you to the dinner table with chains made of broccoli and tofu and forcing you to eat piles of lettuce. Most colleges at Oxford, unlike most American colleges, do have a pay-as-you-go system where funds are deducted from your college accounts each time you eat.
At many other universities, you pay for a term of unlimited dining for three meals per day through your total tuition fee. In those cases, the argument can be made that you are being forced to eat veggies for your buck, but eating at hall here is different. If you are rattled at the thought of eating a dinner without meat, you can at least rest easy that you won’t have to pay for it and opt out. Even at American universities, there is often the choice to go to another dining hall that is serving meat that day.
If steak is the light of your life, you can always eat out at the variety of restaurants that Oxford has to offer. For those concerned about protein deficiency—do not pretend that you aren’t already vigorously shaking a can of whey protein mixture, and that you once saw that video of the bodybuilder with a self proclaimed vegan diet and wondered how the hell did he do that?
What would my proposal be in an actual scenario where meat-free days in hall do not meet significant resistance? I would like to see one meat-free day in hall per week, which is a good place to start. The concrete, real-world effects of such a slight change in our eating habits far outweigh any pain we might receive from loss of personal preference. The real challenge lies in inducing students to see that what seems like a purely personal choice is indeed personal, but also happens to impact hundreds of millions of others on this earth. It is valuable to recognise the privilege that we have and try to do our part if it simply means making a deduction in our diet that in a global context is completely trivial and negligible.
NO: Meatless days represent the questionable tradition of universities enforcing lifestyle choices on students
Arguments for meatless days invariably run along the same lines—meat production is bad for the environment, cruel to animals and a reduction in meat consumption is good for our health. Now the voracity of these claims, particularly the last two, can be disputed. However, attempts to debate the ethics and sense of eating meat rather miss the point.
If the arguments for abstaining are so good, people should be convinced on the merits of the argument. If any individual wants to have a vegetarian option, he or she is perfectly free to do so as vegetarian options are provided at every meal. But it is not enough for some campaigners to cleanse themselves of animal flesh-like evangelical preachers they are possessed by the need to purify others as well. This would be fine if they attempted to gain converts by convincing them, but instead they turn to JCR fiat to attain their ends.
This dictates to the entire college body what they ought to be eating, rather than allowing them to decide for themselves. It reeks of classic statist holier-than-thou snobbery. It is the worst form of elitism to imagine those who disagree with you must simply be misguided, and they ought to be coerced into cooperation for their own good.
There are legitimate disagreements to be had regarding the consumption of meat, and I have tremendous respect for vegetarians. However, I encourage anti-meat campaigners to have the same respect, part of which is recognising there are acceptable points of view outside of their own and allowing people to make their own choices.
This paternalistic desire to limit choice is a natural outgrowth of a worldview which attempts to pathologise disagreement. Those with whom certain groups disagree regarding policing are labelled racist. Those with whom they disagree on gay marriage and hate laws are labelled homophobes. Those with whom they disagree on abortion or maternity leave are labelled sexist.
It’s much easier to give someone a label and thereby write them off than actually confront their beliefs. This is not to deny that racism, sexism, and homophobia exist, but simply to say that all of these issues are areas of disagreement which should be settled through discussion and debate, rather than overly simplistic labelling and social censure.
The same is true of debates around vegetarianism. If the advocates of meatless days are so sure they can confidently impose their policy on entire colleges then why can they not attain their ends by convincing students to freely choose to give up meat, even for a day?
Supporters of enforced meatless days will argue people are unlikely to change their ways unless they are prodded to and generally a JCR motion has to pass in order for a meatless day to be instated. However, the first objection could easily be solved by creating a day on which the default option is the vegetarian, and those seeking meat can option to an animal based repast if they wish to.
The second belies a willful ignorance of both the way JCRs work in practice and a fundamental misunderstanding of minority rights. JCR motions are passed by a relatively small number of students who bother to turn up to the soporifically boring and usually irrelevant meetings, and supporters of meat free days generally pack the house for these motions. But even if the JCR does serve as a fair conduit of student opinion, if just one student doesn’t want to practice vegetarianism, they shouldn’t have to.
The purpose of university is to learn and develop intellectually and socially, not to have lifestyle choices thrust upon you. Meatless days are the latest iteration of a proud tradition of universities enforcing moral codes on students. In the past students’ sex lives and friendly associations were governed by authorities who also believed they knew what was best for their charges.
The extreme wing of the vegetarian left has quickly come to resemble the ideological ancestors they claim to despise—Victorian prudes. Meatless days are a cowardly exercise of those who could not attain their goals by reason alone, and therefore seek to impose their moral vision on unwilling victims by force. They are an affront to the basic values of higher education and of the university, and they must not stand.