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Following the herd: students vote to remove beef from SU outlets

An agriculture expert has said there seems to be “a trend towards campuses free of beef, and sometimes other meats such as lamb” after UEA became the third university to have some kind of beef ban on campus. 

Dr David Rose is an associate professor of agricultural innovation and extension at the University of Reading. He believes we should “encourage free speech and frank exchange of views, rather than banning everything all the time”. He also thinks universities should focus on sourcing local meat. “This is the way forward, not a ban which alienates our hard-working meat farmers who are a crucial part of rural landscapes.”

His words come after UEA Union Council voted to ban the sale of beef in student union shops last week and to lobby the university to do the same. Earlier this autumn Goldsmith’s became the first beef-free campus in Britain. Cambridge University removed beef from its menus to help in the struggle against climate change, yet most colleges still serve it.

Uea(su)’s beef ban, which students proposed on environmental grounds, passed by 1%, with 47% voting for the ban, 46% voting against and 7% abstaining. Although there are hundreds of representatives in Union Council, only 90 people voted on the motion to ban beef. UEA has close to 17,000 students in total.

UEA gained a reputation as an eccentric campus after banning sombreros, sugar, and even discouraged students from throwing mortarboards at graduation. Following the beef ban there was huge student backlash. Megan O’Shea is an environmental sciences student at UEA. She believes it’s “unacceptable that one person or a small council of people should be allowed to dictate what everyone is allowed to eat.”

She added while she understood students’ environmental concerns over beef “it’s not up to them to limit everyone”.

Elise Page is president of UEA’s Jewish society. She says the ban may restrict what some religious students can eat on campus. “Some religious people (such as Jews and Muslims) have dietary laws, which each individual follows to their own individual extent. Some Jews, for example, don’t follow kosher rules strictly, but they do avoid certain prohibited foods like pork and shellfish.

“For a Jew who does want or need to eat meat but doesn’t eat pork or shellfish, not being able to buy beef from SU outlets is going to restrict the range of food they can eat. It seems quite minor but the fact is, it might impact people like Jews and Muslims more than people who don’t follow those religions”.

In a statement uea(su) campaigns and democracy officer Sophie Atherton said: “Union Council discussed and passed a motion to cease the sale of beef products in Union outlets and lobby the University to do the same in theirs.”

She added: “Currently beef products represent less than 0.1% of union revenue. Many items are replaceable with alternative products.”

In an interview with Concrete on page 12 of this paper, Atherton said: “When you look at those 90 representatives, we do represent the student body. I think anybody who wasn’t happy with the decision-making process, go and fill out our democracy survey that’s currently going on or get involved in the discussion of our [uea(su) democracy] review, because if you don’t like our decision making – that’s why that review is taking place.”

David Richardson, UEA’s vice chancellor, made clear in a tweet this was a student union and not university decision. He wrote: “The SU runs a shop and it’s right and proper that they decide what they stock in their shop. But it’s not a University of East Anglia decision”.

The students who supported the motion say beef needs 28 times more land than chicken or pork, and global greenhouse gas emissions are higher from the agriculture sector than from transport.

While Dr Rose at the University of Reading agrees the production of beef has been connected to “a higher environmental footprint”, he believes banning beef is a rash decision. “We too easily tarnish other production systems with the brush of being terrible for the environment,” he said.

“Much of our land in the UK cannot be used for arable production and grass-fed livestock can be sustainable in many parts of our country and is a key part of our production system and rural communities. If consumers buy local, grass-fed, sustainable meat products, then this can help. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Not all meat is bad for the environment.”

Dr Rose hopes the UK is not heading towards a time when all UK universities are beef free. “There is of course a clear trend towards vegetarianism, veganism, flexitarianism. This is helpful for the environment, but we should not forget the crucial role that grass-fed, sustainable meat plays in healthy, nutritious diets.“

Dr Rose’s message to consumers is to “Eat local, eat seasonal, eat grass-fed meat if you can.

“Don’t think all meat is bad and instead of eating avocados flown in from the other side of the world and thinking you’re a saint, think about how you can eat more seasonally and locally, and support your local farmers.” 

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Chris Matthews

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May 2022
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