Encouraged by the advent of Greggs’ vegan sausage roll, The Economist dubbed 2019 ‘The Year of the Vegan’. It was the year that, despite Piers Morgan’s tantrums, plant-based foods finally turned mainstream. With an increasing variety of options on supermarket shelves and menus, plant-based food has become increasingly difficult to ignore. Students, in particular, have come around to the joys of the Linda McCartney sausage and the oat milk latte. We are leading a generation demanding more sustainable – and less bloody – food options. With Cambridge recently banning red meat and Goldsmiths banning beef, vegetarianism is coming to Oxford University – or trying to.

For years, researchers from the Oxford Martin School have been telling us that reducing meat consumption helps us to stay healthy[1] and that it is also a crucial step to take for the planet. Livestock arming produces a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions, contributes towards deforestation[2] and is also a water-intensive process. Now the University is taking tentative steps to follow the advice of their experts: this year saw the opening of the University’s first vegetarian/vegan cafe on the Old Road Campus (for staff only). Currently, the University is formulating a new, more ambitious, sustainability strategy which students can contribute to until the 14th of April and can be found here[3]. It includes the proposal to reduce meat consumption across the University, aiming for a minimum 50% reduction by 2025 and an 80% reduction by 2030.

This sustainability strategy comes from the University’s central management, so it does not directly apply to colleges. This means that students will not feel the direct results in college canteens. However, these schemes could encourage colleges to follow suit, especially if there is encouragement from the student body. Various departments around the University are already testing measures to see how meat consumption reduction could be achieved. Taking small steps to nudge people towards choosing vegetarian options have already been put in place, such as the Maths Institute’s traffic light system in their canteen. The carbon footprint of each serving is estimated with a traffic light colour which indicates whether it has a high or low carbon footprint. Fully informed, students can either choose the high-carbon (and often meaty) options or instead opt for a lower-carbon one.

The vegetarian Norrington Table offers an insight into veggie food offered by each college and its results suggest that many colleges have improved since 2016[4]. However, many of the respondents to the vegetarian Norrington survey despaired at the lack of options and the quality of the food offered. One comment reads “There’s a tendency for college kitchens to think that ‘vegetarian’ = ‘cheese + masses of puff pastry’, rather than getting inventive with vegetables, nuts and seeds, and a range of flavours” (which I can confirm is sadly true).

The same criticism is often levelled at Meat-free Mondays: a meal that could be an exciting range of plant-based food is often just a floppy vegetable patty. Instead of converting students, it irritates them. Rightly, many point out that they are being charged the same amount for a meal which is cheaper to produce. The disappointment often stems from the fact that college chefs do not have the requisite training for cooking plant-based food. However, this is beginning to change, as an inter-collegiate initiative for college chefs will focus on increasing the diversity of college cooking. This will involve kitchen training for catering for a diverse range of faiths, and also an increased focus on vegetarian/vegan food. With this training, Meat-free Mondays could easily be transformed from a chore into a showcase of a new way of eating which is cheaper, kinder and, crucially, doesn’t contribute to the destruction of our planet.

The University’s target is a very important step, but I do not think it is enough. Reducing meat consumption should definitely be a focus, but it needs to be accompanied by an improvement in the current plant-based options. Otherwise, students and staff will simply choose to eat elsewhere. Chefs need to be trained, so they can experiment and create meals which don’t feel like ‘alternatives’ but which make the choice easy. Plant-based food has finally begun to flourish, meaning that you no longer have to compromise on taste for your moral ideals.

[1] https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/news/201603-plant-based-diets/

[2] https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/long-read/food-in-the-anthropocene/

[3] https://oxford.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/environmental-sustainability-strategy-consultation

[4] http://www.veggienorringtontable.com/