In its final recommendations, the University of Michigan’s President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality heavily focuses, as expected, on carbon offsets, university infrastructure changes and sustainable housing. But it also addresses a crucial yet often-ignored piece of the puzzle: food. Importantly, our community is increasingly recognizing animal agriculture as a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, global pandemics and environmental injustice. To address food’s impact on our carbon footprint, the PCCN’s recommendations include encouraging more plant-based options and changes in choice architecture at dining facilities.
Students, faculty and administrators should support these changes because they are a key first step in challenging the unsustainable status quo in America: cheap meat from factory farms. The vast majority of the meat that any person (or institution) purchases comes from industrial animal agriculture, rather than a local or regenerative farm, which exacts an enormous toll on our environment. According to Science, around 57% of food’s greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to this industry, yet animal products only provide 18% of our calories. And if cows were a country, they’d be the third-largest global greenhouse gas emitter. But the University has the opportunity to kickstart a sustainable new default.
The subtle shifts in dining hall structures, menu options and food defaults recommended in the PCCN can nudge students to eat more sustainably while still preserving their ability to choose the food they want. According to case studies, simply setting plant-based foods as the default (while giving students the choice to opt in to animal products) can lead to an over 80% increase in diners eating these options. This strategy — which subverts our current destructive food norms — aligns with a new, dynamic food initiative known as DefaultVeg. If the University adopts these food policies, it would significantly reduce our carbon footprint — the primary goal of the PCCN.
The University’s current dining policy, Sustainable Mondays, has already shown itself to be an effective tool at curbing food-related emissions. The PCCN provides an opportunity to amplify the impact of these strategies with an ambitious yet simple, scientifically verified approach that is compatible with different dietary preferences and is more inclusive in general. An added benefit of defaults and choice architecture is preserving food choice for students every day of the week.
Food has long been left out of the climate conversation, including in many climate neutrality plans. However, food is rightly gaining momentum as one of the most pressing social challenges of our time, including issues of food justice and access to more sustainable procurement policies and the rise of plant-based products. Locally, consider how the City of Ann Arbor’s carbon neutrality plan, A2Zero, contains a call for more plant-forward food policies. Institutions like the City and the University are now in a unique position to spearhead crucial transformations in food policy.
This straightforward idea — making plant-based foods the default to encourage more sustainable choices — is about more than reducing carbon emissions. It’s also about reframing what we think of as “normal food” and embracing an array of healthful, resilient and versatile plant-based foods at the center of our plates.
As students of one of the country’s most prominent research universities, we should encourage U-M to be a trailblazer in food policy. If our leadership wants to seriously address the deep, systemic flaws in our food system, they will begin by changing the status quo and move toward a more just and sustainable approach.
Trevor McCarty is pursuing an MS in Environment and Sustainability at U-M and is the Program Associate at the Better Food Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.