One of the recent initiatives implemented on campus to encourage an environmentally friendly lifestyle is Meatless Mondays. Starting Feb. 27, every Monday, all counters in D1, except for the grill, will serve only plant-based options. While the rationale behind this initiative is clear, there has been some backlash among students who are unsatisfied with this change in the dining menu. Are their objections justified? How can we implement Meatless Mondays to ensure a satisfactory dining experience for all?
Agriculture is one of the main contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, and the lion’s share of the planet-warming gasses of this sector comes from grazing of ruminant livestock. Out of 14.5 percent
of global emissions associated with livestock, 80 percent of that comes from cattle and sheep. On top of this, animal agriculture is a major driver of deforestation and greater use of land for agricultural purposes: 70 percent
of global agricultural land is dedicated to animal grazing and growing feed for livestock. In short, industrial animal agriculture is a major environmental problem. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s most authoritative body on climate science, recommends
reduction in meat consumption as one of the pathways to bring human civilization back within the planetary boundaries. Applicability of this recommendation varies by region because some parts of the world, especially rich countries in the Americas and Europe, consume significantly more
meat than others.
NYU Abu Dhabi has the opportunity and the responsibility to play a role in promoting this change. In fact, the university has already taken up the challenge as it is a part of the NYU-wide Cool Food Pledge
. Under this commitment, NYU aims to reduce food-related emissions by 25 percent by 2030. A quick look at the data
shows why reducing meat consumption is a key step in achieving this goal: in 2021, ruminant meats accounted for 5 percent of calories purchased at NYU NY dining outlets but were responsible for a staggering 49 percent of emissions. By comparison, plant-based foods provide 40 percent of calories but are responsible only for 5 percent of emissions.
NYUAD is yet to publicly share dining-related data as a part of Cool Food Pledge reporting, so I use the New York figures to estimate possible emissions reductions from Meatless Mondays. Given the diversity of the student body and the international food served on our campus, I do not see any reasons for differences in the composition of food consumed at NYUAD and in New York. The only change is that I remove pork from consumed foods and split the calories evenly among beef and poultry to keep the total share of meat calories constant (reference scenario). Now, let us assume that we remove meat from campus dining outlets for one day in a week and we get these calories from plant-based protein instead (Meatless Monday scenario) — as a result, we would reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent, and we would be halfway through meeting our 2030 goal. If we substitute 35 percent of beef consumption and 10 percent of poultry and seafood with plant-based protein (meat substitution scenario), we will hit our target of 25 percent emissions reduction. This is before we even start reducing food waste, another massive source of emissions.
All of the above are just back-of-the-envelope calculations, and transparency from university administrators going forward will be critical. Students should be able to understand the reasoning behind the implemented actions, and there should be clear channels of communication for exchanging feedback. Students, as the key demographic on campus, should be direct participants in decision-making on matters like this one.
As shown above, the environmental and climate potential of shifting away from meat is massive. However, some objections have been raised that the university does not have the right to limit dietary options in campus dining outlets undemocratically. Unfortunately, this is libertarian myopia. When we look back at the liberal values underpinning individual freedoms in modern society, we appreciate that our freedom is limited so that no one’s actions harm anyone else. In the interconnected global economy of 2023, the impact of our actions goes well beyond our immediate surroundings — we have a good understanding that excessive consumption in developed countries has a direct inverse impact on the environment and climate elsewhere, especially in developing countries. That is precisely why institutions have the responsibility to act.
Now, advocacy in favor of Meatless Mondays is not meant to scapegoat anyone. Institutional action should be underpinned by public support, and environmental groups play a role in building awareness on this matter. As with any climate action postulates, equity considerations are paramount. People with special dietary needs should not be deprived of access to the foods that they need. The concept itself is not relevant everywhere: there are plenty of places where agriculture is regenerative or otherwise sustainable, for example, in indigenous communities whose animal grazing is carbon positive
. It is the disproportionate — compared to historical trends — meat consumption in rich communities that get their food shipped from across the world that Meatless Mondays are trying to target.
One of the main reasons behind the evolutionary popularity of meat is its high caloric density. Historically, few foods can provide the same bang for buck in terms of energy, protein, and some other nutrients. However, in the era of sedentary lifestyle and shelf food, these are not pressing concerns for most of the NYUAD population. Given access to plant-based protein, such as beans, chickpeas, seitan, or Beyond Meat, one can comfortably compose a meal that meets all nutritional needs, and it gets easier with practice. In fact, in many countries meat until recently was, or still is, a rarity, and there are plenty of traditional plant-based dishes.
Have Meatless Mondays at NYUAD been perfect so far? There is plenty of room for improvement. Firstly, the dining outlets on campus need to serve plant-based options attractive to vegans and meat-eaters alike. Plant-based protein should come in fairly sized servings and at a comparable price to meat options. Secondly, there needs to be education on how to compose healthy and nutritious plant-based meals because the nutri-speak of carbs, proteins and fats is not obvious to everyone. Only then can we start transitioning toward phasing out meat options and offering hearty plant-based substitutes. When we do it, we should gradually phase out the most carbon-intense meat options (beef) rather than remove everything overnight, pushing the all-or-nothing mentality. All of these actions should be underpinned with awareness campaigns and transparent communication on what changes are coming up. Scrapping meat and leaving students with salad and noodles will not help us win the minds and hearts of avid meat-eaters.
Beniamin Strzelecki is a Contributing Writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org