What can universities do to respond to the climate crisis? Our most obvious contributions may come from research and teaching across a range of disciplines: from ecology to the environmental humanities, from engineering to economics and beyond, scholars working in labs and classrooms are trying to mitigate the complex, urgent issues we face.
Yet universities are also much more than engines of research and education. They are societies in themselves, as well as cultural and economic drivers for the broader communities in which they are embedded. The contributions that the students, staff, and faculty who are gathered in universities can offer – and the leadership they can provide – come from many directions.
One critical change that is relatively accessible and affordable and more importantly, more equitable, is to adopt a “default veg” practice. This means changing the current practice of emphasizing meat dishes, to placing the spotlight on plant-based foods on our campuses, while still enabling the full range of dietary choices to be met.
Fulfilling our responsibilities to lead change
We know we need more sustainable food habits. The famous EAT-Lancet report demonstrated that largely plant-based, sustainable diets protect human health and our environments. We are enjoined to “eat local,” to cut food waste, and perhaps above all, to reduce our consumption of meat. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offered yet more evidence that animal agriculture is among the top contributors to our environmental crisis. Deforestation, soil degradation, habitat and biodiversity loss, animal emissions and waste all compound to make animal agriculture a driving force in global warming, just behind fossil fuel consumption. Even as we seek to limit our use of environmentally destructive fuels to fight climate change, so too must we rebalance our diets.
We also know that universities can be leaders when it comes to sustainability. I teach at Dalhousie University, where signature research clusters are grounded in the United Nation’s Sustainability Development Goals. Over 30 years ago, Dalhousie hosted a gathering of university leaders who committed to the Halifax Declaration. Echoing an earlier agreement signed in Talloires, France by university leaders from around the world, the agreement made at Dalhousie in 1991 espoused concrete goals and lofty aspirations to direct teaching, research, outreach, and operations toward an equitable and sustainable future. Both declarations affirmed not just the risks to our planet’s integrity but also the urgent responsibilities of universities to lead change.
Behavioural ‘nudges’ to normalize plant-based foods
One way in which members of the Dalhousie and other university communities can respond to the risks and fulfil our responsibilities is to change what we eat. Adopting plant-based defaults in our dining halls, campus catering, conferences, and other events can shift consciousness and consequences. In talking of defaults, we draw upon the social psychology of “nudges” and insights promoted by the organization Greener by Default. They make a compelling case that we can foster meaningful change when we make plant-based food the default, while giving people the choice to opt into meals with meat or dairy. Such an approach normalizes sustainable food. It promotes individual health and well-being. It is more inclusive of people with religious, ethical, or medical reasons to abstain from meat or dairy. And it substantially reduces our carbon footprint.
What does default veg mean in practice? Campus caterers can make plant-based foods more plentiful, more attractive, and more prominent than those that are animal-based. Event organizers can offer the plant-based entrée as the standard and ask participants to tick the box not for the vegetarian option but for a meat option. People who arrange refreshment breaks or receptions can provide plant-based food (that everyone can eat) by default. Such nudges change behaviour without restricting choice and lower our overall impact on the environment.
We need to fuel ourselves as much as our homes, cars, and workplaces more sustainably. Food is, of course, more than just fuel: what we consume is laden with social and cultural meaning. Communing over food – sharing a meal and the comfort that comes with it – creates community. So where better than a university to serve food that serves the interests of us all?
Kathleen Kevany is an associate professor in the faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie University. This article has been written on behalf of Default Dal, a group that is advocating for plant-based menu choices as the default option for catering across the university’s campus.