Two weeks ago, the Yale Climate Strike protested the University’s investment in Puerto Rican debt and the fossil fuel industry. Students argued that Yale was complicit in the international climate emergency. Although this was an important step, student action shouldn’t be limited to a two-hour window. There’s something we can do every day: eating less meat.
Why is eating less meat important? Livestock contributes to climate change in several ways. A 2014 Chatham House study explains that raising livestock leads to deforestation, both in creating pastures and growing crops that are used as feed.
A study published by the National Institutes of Health found that in the northern regions of Brazil covered mostly by the Amazon rainforest, cattle occupy 84 percent of total agricultural land, causing 70-80 percent of deforestation. The destruction of these natural habitats leads to increased levels of carbon dioxide, not to mention that livestock itself releases methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.
We’re often encouraged to use fewer plastic bags, ride public transit more and shift to renewable energy, among other behaviors. But for some reason, changing our diets isn’t included as a crucial response to climate change. This is a dangerous omission: The Chatham House study concludes livestock contributes to 14.5 percent of greenhouse gases, more than the “emissions produced from powering all the world’s road vehicles, trains, ships and aeroplanes combined.”
We, the consumers, are responsible for sustaining the meat industry, and by providing demand for livestock, we are complicit in climate change.
Of course, there’s the “drop in the bucket” argument. The claim is that each of us is a small slice of the consumer pie, and so we will only make a negligible dent in overall demand if we shift our individual consumption. But this argument is circular — if everyone thinks their effect is insignificant, then no one will change their behavior, preventing large shifts in consumer demand. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Moreover, at Yale, our situation is unique — most of our food is sourced from Yale Dining. That means that each student is a much bigger slice of the pie — that is to say, a far more influential consumer. If we alter student demand, starting with a few students and expanding into something larger, Yale Dining is more likely to be responsive to us. Our own diets at Yale are an incredibly powerful tool. If we can change the orders of one big provider like Yale Dining, we can meaningfully have an impact on demand for meat.
By changing our diets, we can also influence other colleges in several ways. For one, our successes can empower student activists and similar movements. Additionally, Yale Dining collaborates with other colleges’ dining halls through councils such as the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS). Thus, if Yale Dining is able to efficiently and affordably increase vegetarian options, it can share this knowledge with other colleges, helping them progress, too.
Another response to my initiative might be: “Yale doesn’t have enough vegetarian options for me to eat less meat!” Again, this argument is circular. There are fewer vegetarian options because there is less perceived demand for vegetarian food.
Indeed, Louis Brown GRD ’21 and Ram Vishwanathan ’21, co-president and vice president respectively of on-campus animal rights group Yale Animal Welfare Alliance, claim that one of the main barriers to increasing vegetarian options has been a lack of vocalized demand from larger groups of students. They say that their cause is perceived as something that only applies to a fraction of the student body. To change that perception, more students need to show support: eating less meat, filling out surveys, emailing the administration and more.
Furthermore, we can find an ally in Yale Dining itself. I met with members of Yale Dining Management, who explained that they have been trying to shift to a more plant-based menu for nine years now. They’ve been increasing vegetarian options, such as the mezze bar with hummus and the Beyond Burger.
But there’s still room for growth. Saijel Verma ’22, a vegetarian student, said that she often has to skip the entree section entirely when looking for vegetarian food and ends up creating a meal out of side dishes. She’s also concerned that the vegetarian options aren’t protein rich. Yale Dining counters these claims by arguing that 80 percent of the food is plant-based. However, this statistic is measured by counting each food item separately, such as each item in the salad bar.
A third response to my argument could be: “I like meat, and can’t possibly give it up!” I’m not arguing that you should go completely vegetarian or vegan. In fact, I want to discourage the harmful perception that eating habits are a binary, all or nothing. That’s far from the case. For example, you could sign up for the Meatless Monday pledge hosted by sustainability officers at Silliman. People’s level of meat consumption varies, and decreasing it, even if not entirely, still makes an impact.
Vishwanathan put it best: “To make sure corporations are being held responsible, people must act in a way that holds corporations responsible.” From the massive turnout at the strike, it’s clear that many Yalies agree that climate change is a real problem. It’s time we act like it.
RABHYA MEHROTRA is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .