If you’ve ever bought a drink on campus just to have your straw disintegrate halfway through your meal, it should come as no surprise that Duke Dining has banned plastic straws. This ban is one of a number of steps that the university has recently taken in an effort to be a more environmentally-friendly campus. In fact, Duke is working towards being carbon-neutral by 2024.
But if Duke really cares about sustainability, why hasn’t there been a major push for plant-based options on campus?
Let’s be real here: incremental changes like banning plastic straws won’t do much to better the environment, especially when you consider that straws account for only .03 percent of the plastic discarded in the oceans annually.
While the plastic straw movement might not be doing much, incorporating vegetarian and vegan options into your meals could have the impact you’re looking for. A recent study from the University of Oxford found that eliminating animal products from your diet could reduce your food carbon footprint by 73 percent.
Of course, there are other considerations beyond the environment. Animals undoubtedly experience pain, and factory farmed animals like chickens are kept in horrific conditions characterized by near-constant suffering. People already care about certain animals and not others, but there is no agreement on which species fall on which side of the line. Our beliefs about which animals have a right not to be eaten or mistreated is largely dependent on the cultures we are born into. The arbitrary distinctions are easily shaken with a bit of honest introspection: what makes a puppy different enough from a chicken that we would cuddle one and eat the other? One might claim that moral duties only extend to fellow members of humanity. But it would be difficult to argue that a non-human, sentient, and intelligent species coming to Earth to devour humans would be a morally neutral event, so perhaps we shouldn’t accept each species only valuing the lives of its own members. If we can’t be firm in our beliefs about the morality of animal farming, can we incentivize the industry to kill billions of farm animals each year and still think of ourselves as moral people?
Consider another factor: animal farming has immense externalities on humans. Jobs in slaughterhouses are dangerous and come with immense health risks. Factory farmed animals are fed antibiotics that are accelerating superbugs. Animal waste can often contaminate local water sources, causing a host of environmental and health problems. Farm animals undoubtedly increase the risk of zoonotic diseases which could quickly become pandemics.
To be clear, very few people on this campus seem to care about veganism. Plant-based options are immensely neglected at Duke. West Union does have a vegan eatery (Sprout), but very few other places on campus make an effort to offer vegan and vegetarian options. A quick skim of the Fix My Campus Facebook page will reveal more than a few students complaining about the lack of fresh vegetables or soy milk at the Duke Store and Uncle Harry’s.
So what should Duke do to address this issue?
The university needs to do more to support and promote plant-based eating on this campus. There needs to be more vegan options and these options should be well publicized.
At a minimum, Duke should not regress. I was really saddened to see that Pitchforks took the Garden of Edens salad off of its menu this year; as one of the few vegan options at Pitchforks in previous years, I can’t imagine why someone would decide to remove it from the menu.
Duke’s eateries should also add new vegetarian and vegan menu items! It would be quite easy for Duke Dining to vegan-ize existing menu items. For example, Sprout’s kale salad used to have cheese in it, but the cheese was removed at DUSDAC’s suggestion. Menu items do not need to be fully vegan: however, they should be vegan by default and we could perhaps allow students the option to add animal products if they desire. Having these vegan options as a default would gently nudge students towards making the more conscientious decision without “forcing” students to give up animal products if they do not want to.
In particular, Duke should ensure that the vegan options available are nutritious and varied. While plant-based diets often are very healthy—in fact, probably healthier than a lot of meat-focused diets—I often hear people bring up the concern that if they were to go vegan, they wouldn’t get enough protein in their diets. While this concern is overblown, Duke can and should do more to expand the vegan protein offerings—Sazon calling portobello a “protein” isn’t going far enough.
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Looking beyond Duke Dining, individual students can also take action. Obviously, not every Duke student will become vegan. While I would love to see more students eating vegan on this campus, I know it’s unrealistic to think the whole of the student body would give up meat overnight.
However, you don’t need to be fully vegan or vegetarian to incorporate plant-based options into your diet! For example, at Red Mango, the whey protein and vegan protein cost the same. I suggested a friend try the vegan protein one day, and because she liked it just as much, she now always orders the vegan protein at Red Mango; even though she is far from fully vegan, she is making a point to make some easy plant-based swaps where it’s easy for her to do so. These types of swaps are steps that everyone on this campus could easily take, no matter their overall dietary preferences. Five people reducing their consumption of animal products by 20 percent is in a sense the same as one person going fully vegan—every bit counts.
While Duke Dining should expand its plant-based offerings, it’s also important to highlight the existing vegan options that are already here. We should all be encouraged to try some of these out. If you’re a chicken nugget fan, you should try the vegan nuggets at Sprout. If you like wings, Heavenly Buffaloes has vegan ones and so does Dankery (on food points too!) For my fellow coffee addicts, try choosing soy or almond milk in your morning latte to mix things up.
If you really just can’t seem to part ways with your cherished whey protein or your treasured Pitchforks haystacks, consider other ways you can support animal welfare. Donating money to some of the most impactful animal welfare charities is an incredibly cost-effective way to better animal welfare, with some estimates of preventing a year of an animal suffering in a factory farm at just a couple of dollars.
We shouldn’t just support any random animal charity, though -- the focus of efficacy is of paramount importance. Determining which organizations to support can be a daunting task, but fortunately there is great research out there about which charities do good work in the space, especially from meta-charities like Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE).
ACE does incredible work to highlight which charities best help animals. One ACE charity that has been a standout for a number of years is The Humane League, a highly effective non-profit focused on grassroots organizing and corporate outreach. So if you really can’t seem to part ways with your carnivorous diet, consider donating to organizations like The Humane League as a way of offsetting your meat consumption.
I understand that people don’t want to give up animal products entirely—and that’s understandable. But don’t let labels limit you: just because you may not be fully vegetarian or vegan doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t be prioritizing animal welfare.
Now go try Sprout’s vegan nuggets. They’re delicious, I swear.
This column was written by Trinity seniors Sarah Cogan and Eidan Jacob with input from Effective Altruism: Duke. This column was not sponsored by Sprout. If you have ideas, criticisms, or questions regarding Effective Altruism, reach out via email@example.com.