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Vegans Have a Right to Choose, Too

By Ariel G. Silverman, Contributing Opinion Writer
Ariel G. Silverman ’23, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

Last week, a hamburger hysteria swept through the right-wing media and Republican politicians in response to false accusations that President Joe Biden was attempting to limit Americans’ meat consumption to meet his climate change targets.

This claim originated in a misleading article in a British tabloid that connected Biden’s climate change proposal to a 2020 academic paper discussing the implications of Americans’ dietary habits on national greenhouse gas emissions. Although the article was in no way related to Biden, Fox News host Jesse B. Watters reported that “Americans are going to have to cut their red meat consumption by 90 percent in order to reduce emissions to hit Biden's target.” U.S. House Representative Lauren O. Boebert (R-Colo.) warned Biden to “stay out of my kitchen.”

The frenzy to protect red meat consumption illustrates just how partisan the American Burger has become. This seemingly plain sandwich now embodies traditional values, limited government, freedom of consumer choice, and textbook climate change denialism.

Harvard University strives to embody the antithesis of hamburger hysteria: The institution is committed to the pursuit of truth, and it has taken steps to address climate change. Harvard University Dining Services has also made strides to inform students about sustainable consumption habits.

Despite these differences, HUDS and Fox News do share one similarity: a commitment to serving meatatarians, or people who eat A LOT of meat.

To highlight this point, one must only look back to 2012 when HUDS refused to join more than a hundred universities that do not serve meat on Mondays, even though 70 percent of graduate students voted in favor of the proposal. In response to the decision, the manager of the graduate dining service stated that “we cannot and will not go meat free for any dinner service.”

Almost ten years later, a similar trend remains. HUDS continues to serve around two to four entrees per meal containing meat products and several side dishes (not to mention grill offerings), with limited options for vegetarians — let alone for vegans. Vegetarian and vegan meals are often combined together so that it is difficult for students to eat according to their specific needs. Additionally, many students report that vegetarian or vegan options consist of low-protein vegetables and carbohydrates, and thus lack the nutritional value of a meatatarian meal. Others feel the options are limited, repetitive, and don’t taste good.

In these ways, Harvard seems to predominantly cater to meatatarians, while plant-based diets are an afterthought. The status quo may be more acceptable if the vast majority of Harvard students actually consumed animal-based products. A recent survey, however, reveals that meatatarians make up a much smaller percentage of the student population than the HUDS’s menu reflects.

Several freshmen in Expository Writing preceptor Sparsha Saha’s Animals and Politics course recently surveyed Harvard students to better understand how and why they consume the food they do. 129 survey respondents followed the following diets: 11 percent vegetarian, 6 percent vegan, 26 percent flexitarian (making a regular effort to reduce meat consumption), and 5 percent pescatarian. 45 percent consume meat without restriction.

More respondents preferred diets with reduced or no meat consumption than those who do. In addition, 70 percent of respondents who do not make a regular effort to reduce their meat consumption reported that they “would transition to a more plant-based diet if HUDS offered a greater variety of tasty plant-based options.”

There is an apparent disconnect between what many students want served in the dining halls and what is being provided. In response, many students are currently calling upon Harvard to provide more options through a petition.

HUDS can address this disparity by serving plant-based options in equal proportion to student diet preferences. To do so, Harvard can provide HUDS with more financial resources to expand its total meal offerings. Or, HUDS can maintain its budget while substituting some of the many animal-based meals with vegan or vegetarian alternatives (which have been shown to be cheaper and easier to prepare than meat and fish).

I can already envision critics replying: “But what about my right to consume meat?” From health concerns, cultural values, family traditions, to the simple reality that meat tastes good, there are many different reasons why individuals choose to consume meat — and all of these choices must be respected.

No one, however, is proposing to eliminate animal-based products at Harvard, or nationally, for that matter. Animal-based products are plentiful both in and out of the dining halls.

Is it simultaneously true that vegetarians and vegans have the same right to options as meatatarians do, and for equally valid reasons. Reducing meat consumption is a crucial way to limit an individual’s carbon footprint. Others choose diets to disincentivize the proliferation of animal abuse in the food industry. Many believe plant-based diets are healthier than animal-based diets.

In comparison to meatatarians, these students struggle to live up to their own ethical standards and cultural values while obtaining the nutrition they need because their preferences are not catered to.

There are many complicated reasons why each of us consumes the food we do. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, vegan or meatatarian, we can agree that we have the right to maintain our diets of choice. Let’s work together to make sure that everyone has that right by ensuring that the diversity of meal offerings reflects the diverse preferences of Harvard’s student body.

Ariel G. Silverman ’23, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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