When Guherbar Gorgulu arrived to study at Erasmus University Rotterdam, she was surprised by the many plant-based options.
“In Turkey, you don’t really have a lot of vegan options,” she says, not to mention many people interested in talking about the impact of what they eat. “I really didn’t have a community of people who also cared about animal rights and the environment.”
That all changed when Gorgulu started attending weekly vegan cooking workshops hosted by the Erasmus Sustainability Hub — a student-led organization encouraging students to lead more sustainable lifestyles. Inspired to join the Hub as Food and Agriculture Manager, Gorgulu, along with her colleagues, have been active in fighting for climate action on campus. Initiatives include workshops, discussions and petitions to demand fully plant-based cafeterias.
The work seems to be paying off. In February, the university announced that they are aiming to make plant-based foods the norm on campus by 2030. The goal is part of the university’s climate commitments; animal agriculture is responsible for around 20 percent of global emissions, and is also a leading cause of habitat loss.
Change is happening beyond Rotterdam. A dozen universities across the U.S. joined an incubator program this year to provide more plant-based foods on their campuses, and across the UK, student unions in Cambridge, Stirling, Birmingham and London voted in support of vegan menus this academic year. In 2021, universities across the entire city of Berlin went predominantly meat-free.
Rising Demand for Plant-Based Foods at Universities
It’s no surprise to see rising plant-based initiatives on campus, says Emma Garnett, PhD, a researcher focusing on strategies for promoting more sustainable diets at the University of Oxford. “Students often form the backbone of many climate campaigns,” she says. The Fridays for Future school strikes began in 2018, and many of those students are now at university.
In 2021, Nathan McGovern helped launch the Plant-Based Universities Campaign, which aims to push universities to serve 100 percent plant-based foods on campus.
McGovern is now a spokesperson for Animal Rising, previously Animal Rebellion UK, a group working on mobilizing student action on campuses.
“Our strategy is to pass motions through student unions,” says McGovern, which become a mandate from the unions to the university itself. “This gives us a platform for negotiation.” The four successful student union votes in the U.K. were part of this campaign — with the group eyeing 36 more universities for future efforts.
Garnett also highlights research which suggests that a big life change – such as moving to university – can an increased willingness to adopt green behaviors. Representatives from the student organization in Berlin, Studierendenwerk, attribute their decision to rising demand for vegan meals on campus. There, 16.5 percent of students identify as vegan, in comparison to an average of 1.6 percent across the rest of Germany.
Universities Hoping to Meet Climate Commitments
A growing number of universities are now committing to reduce their emissions by serving more plant-based foods on campus, says Edwina Hughes, Head of the Cool Food Pledge at the World Resources Institute (WRI).
Universities make up roughly a fifth of the 67 organizations who have taken the Cool Food Pledge run by WRI. The rest include hospitals, hotels and cities like New York, whose mayor has promised to reduce 30 percent of food-related emissions by the end of the decade.
Cities and schools that sign on must aim to reduce their food-related emissions by at least 25 percent by 2030 — a rate calculated by WRI to fall in line with Paris climate targets. The first 30 organizations who took the pledge have already successfully reduced their per-plate emissions by 21 percent, according to the organization’s data.
The Cool Food Pledge team begins their work by looking at each organization’s procurement data, and then calculating their carbon footprint. They measure this with the direct emissions of the food purchased, as well as the carbon opportunity cost — an amount based on how much carbon the land could store if it had been left alone as forest or other wild landscape.
What becomes clear, says Hughes, is that in order to drive down the climate impact of food, “it’s really important to move away from climate impactful foods like ruminant meat and all animal based products towards plants.”
Using Behavioral Science to Promote Plant-Based
Each organization also receives behavioral science recommendations to help them encourage diners to select plant-based options. Such small interventions — known as nudges — can be effective in university settings.
One meta-analysis spanning 21 years and 24 universities across different continents found that over two-thirds of nudges were successful in reducing meat consumption. The analysis also found that multiple complementary nudges were more effective than singular interventions. Nudges can take many forms — like adding more meal options, promotional messaging, pricing incentives, manipulating the layout of dining areas and changing the arrangement of food choices on menus.
Even in the classroom there are opportunities to promote plant-based eating. Economics students at a U.S. college reduced their meat consumption by roughly 10 percent over a three year period hearing a 50 minute informational campaign that talked about the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, combined with information on the health benefits of reducing meat consumption.
The intervention wasn’t coercive, says Andrew Jalil, an associate professor in economics at Occidental College, Los Angeles, and lead author of the study. “It was just saying, here’s what the scientific literature says, you do what you want to do.”
Jalil highlights similar research in which students in a philosophy class were exposed to material arguing for vegetarianism. Based on student cafeteria purchases, this too translated to a reduction in meat consumption. With roughly half of all young people going to university, at least in the U.K., universities are an ideal institution for disseminating information to a range of people from different backgrounds.
Jalil points out there might be other factors influencing students to be more open to dietary shifts. They attend university to learn, they might be more concerned about the climate crisis due to their age and access to dining facilities removes any cooking barriers that might exist to trying out vegan foods.
Universities Still Face Challenges to Climate Action
Shifting what an entire university eats isn’t easy. Many schools, Hughes says, are decentralized in the way they provide food, with different colleges offering their own menus. The logistics of reduction can be complicated.
What’s more, Hughes adds, it would be naive not to think that “there are universities and faculties who are quite opposed to doing this kind of work because it comes into conflict with their ethos or with their research.” Many universities, for example, have research centers focusing on livestock production.
Plus, as the Cool Food Pledge is voluntary, there’s no guarantee that anyone will stick to it, and the same is true of any claims made in a press release separate from the pledge.
“It’s their responsibility if they want to make progress,” says Hughes, adding that she sees students, faculty and investors as the “informal police,” who should act to put pressure on their universities if they fumble their targets. The WRI doesn’t publish any data on individual organizations, which Hughes says universities could do in order to hold themselves accountable.
“Ultimately what you want is data — you want to be able to track progress,” she says. “It’s not very interesting to a lot of people but it is the material way to see whether anything is changing.”
Even if these schools were accountable and making strides to reduce their food emissions, they might be hogging the limelight in a way that obscures trends elsewhere in society. In the case of the Cool Food Pledge, only a fraction of the organizations who’ve taken it are universities.
“We should bear in mind that universities often receive a lot of press interest, so we could be missing similar initiatives at other organizations due to less publicity,” says Garnett.
In April, the mayor of New York, Eric Adams, made a commitment to reduce food emissions in the city by 33 percent by 2030, in part by serving less meat at schools and hospitals. Other councils, such as Cambridge City and Oxfordshire County, have made similar commitments to only serve plant-based foods at events and meetings, and push for more vegan options in schools. Last year, Ingka Group, responsible for a majority of IKEA stores, began selling plant-based foods at the same price or cheaper than meat options in their restaurants.
But for some activists, the publicity that universities attract is exactly why they should be targets for climate action.
“A lot of universities, by continuing to serve animal products on their menus, are giving legitimacy to an industry that has none,” says McGovern. “These are the places we’re referencing when we talk about the need to move to a plant-based food system, and they really need to be aligning their actions and their menus with that.”
This piece has been corrected to reflect that Emma Garnett, PhD, is at University of Oxford not Cambridge.
Jack McGovan is a freelance science writer based in Berlin. His main interests center around food, sustainability, and the multitude of ways in which the human world intersects with animal life.