Meat in College Canteens: The Case for Limiting Choice

Published in The Cherwell, the UK’s oldest & Oxford’s largest student newspaper, February 2018

LMH’s JCR [Lady Margaret Hall’s Junior Common Room] recently voted to run a four-week trial of ‘Veggie Wednesdays’ in hall. The motion prompted lively debate. ‘I know that we should all eat less meat, but I don’t think it’s right to restrict peoples’ choices like this.’ ‘It’s better to persuade people to eat less meat than to coerce them into it.’ These were the remarks typical of those who opposed the policy.

I find this evolution of the debate interesting. We’ve got to a point where we’re arguing about values rather than facts. Everyone accepts that eating less meat is better for the environment, world food security and our health. In this article, I want to discuss whether there’s anything unjust about imposing meat-free days on people who still dislike them.

The first thing to point out is that a policy of meat-free days doesn’t really limit people’s choices all that much. If they dislike what’s on offer, they can choose to cook for themselves or to buy food elsewhere. And it’s only one day of the week!

There’s a worry, however, that pointing this out will undermine the case being made in favour of the policy. If it’s easy for carnivores to eat elsewhere, why should we expect meat-free days to have any effect at all on meat consumption?

Meat-free days are, I concede, easy to avoid. But there are many scenarios when even a committed carnivore won’t avoid them. Perhaps she’ll want to join her friends in hall on the meat-free day. Or perhaps she’ll get halfway down the canteen line before realising her mistake.

This in itself will have some impact on meat consumption. More importantly, it will nudge meat-eaters into thinking about their diet. Having tried a veggie option, many people will think ‘you know, that actually wasn’t half bad; maybe I could skip meat again sometime’. If this happens, then the policy will shape people’s meat consumption well beyond the three years of their degree. A minor limitation on choice will have made a big difference.

Still, isn’t there something paternalistic about all this? I’ve argued that meat-free days limit choice just enough to bring about some desirable consequences. But the way a person wants to eat is an inherently private matter. So perhaps desirable consequences are never enough to justify attempts to alter it. An analogy will make it clear why that’s a silly position to adopt.

Since 2007, indoor smoking in workplaces has been illegal in the UK. This has limited the freedom smokers have over where they choose to smoke. But that minor inconvenience has to be weighed against a huge positive impact on workers’ health. Thus, the smoking ban was an entirely reasonable thing to impose, because it accomplished a lot whilst requiring only small changes in behaviour. Exactly the same can be said of Meat-Free Mondays. The policy will limit people’s freedom to eat meat in hall on Mondays. But that’s clearly not a big deal in comparison with the good that can be achieved. At stake is nothing less than the lives of people who are starving. We also have a duty to future generations of students to pass on a planet suitable for living in.

So, if you’re a member of one of the many colleges without a meat-free day, I urge you to bring a motion before your JCR or MCR [Middle Common Room] calling for change. If you’d like a copy of the LMH motion (including a résumé of facts and figures on the subject) contact Naomi (jcr.green@lmh.ox.ac.uk), our JCR Green Officer, and the proposer of the motion.

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