We Are the 70 Percent!

I am not a vegetarian and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with eating meat. Despite this, I have recently urged the Harvard University Dining Services to join with the international Meat Free Monday movement and go vegetarian for just one meal a week. In the process, I seem to have riled some of Harvard’s most committed “Meatarians”—and the bureaucracy that caters to their meaty needs.

Earlier this month, Casi S. Karunaratne ’15 made an elegant case for reducing the amount of meat we consume. Indeed, eating less meat is important for the environment. According to a 2006 UN report, the greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector account for around 18 percent of the global total—more than the transport sector. Climate change aside, raising livestock for human consumption comes with a series of local environmental impacts, especially in terms of water depletion and pollution. NPR produced an infographic detailing what goes into your quarter pounder, including over 6 pounds of grain, 50 gallons of water, 70 square feet of land for grazing and feed crops, and 1000 Btu of fossil fuel energy.

What does Harvard think about all of this? Not much, apparently. Despite being a self-professed leader in sustainability, HUDS apparently does not want to join more than 100 other schools across the world choosing to go meatless for one day each week. As was bluntly stated by the manager of the graduate dining hall, “we cannot and will not go meat free for any dinner service.” End of story.

If nothing else, the Meat Free Monday campaign serves as an interesting case study of institutional inertia. HUDS finally condescended to let the issue be put to a vote among graduate students. At first, they wanted a “unanimous” vote in favor of the proposal, then eventually agreed enough to lower the threshold of support to 95 percent of voters before they would consider going meatless. HUDS did not allow student input into the voting survey or provide students with information about the reasons for going meatless.

Eventually, 212 students—close to 70 percent of voters—voted in favor of the proposal. HUDS even received a personal letter from Sir Paul McCartney.  Why does HUDS continue to be so resistant to change?

It turns out they are scared of the Meatarians.

That’s right, Meatarians. Marching under the noble banner of Personal Liberties, this selfless vanguard of carnivorous crusaders is fighting hard to protect our inalienable right to eat as much meat as we want whenever we want—whatever the cost to the environment. For example, one student commented on the survey that voting to ban meat is the sort of dangerous logic that leads societies to “ban unpopular books, restrict free speech, and attack civil liberties.” And it is these Meatarians of whom HUDS is afraid. As one representative from HUDS wrote to me, “if we have even a few people who feel strongly about having meat available, we need to meet their needs.”

Understandably, HUDS doesn’t want a bunch of angry customers on their hands. The dining halls provide two to three meat options and fewer vegetarian options at each meal, catering to the many students who like and want to eat meat. But going without for just one meal a week isn’t a big hardship. It can, however, make a big difference. A report from the University of Chicago suggests that that switching to a plant based diet could do more to cut emissions than switching from an SUV to a high-efficiency vehicle.

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