Should academia be making vegan the new normal? I recently battled with a small scholarly group of historians in Los Angeles about that issue when the organizers served what is annoyingly typical conference fare: premade deli-meat sandwiches.
Little sympathy was given to my being vegan — out of 12 or so attendees, I was the only one who requested a meat-free meal. Offering tasty vegan options at the group’s monthly meetings, I was told, was neither important nor possible. But I don't give up so easily (and an intense email exchange attests to that). The entire experience raised an important question: Are we, as academics, obligated to serve vegan meals at our conferences and meetings?
I would argue that we are. Speciesism and colonialism are both part of the same “othering” that many academics claim to be trying to deconstruct. Providing vegan — a meal free of all animal products — as the de facto meal choice at scholarly meetings makes perfect sense. Animal products are not necessary to maintain health as evidenced by a slew of athletes — boxers, runners, and even weightlifters — adopting a vegan regimen for higher performance. And in today's food wars, providing vegan food is another way to demonstrate social justice in action.
But wait a minute, some will say. Animals are not like us. Plus they taste good. And anyway, we’ve always served meat to conference participants at our lavish keynote dinners at the finest historic hotel in the city center. Now we begin to see the scope of the resistance.
Which is odd since much of the research underlying animal advocacy is trickling out of academe itself — from divergent fields of study such as philosophy, animal-law studies, and environmental science. There is intense debate about cruelty in animal agriculture. More than 100 billion (yes, billion) nonhuman animals — land and aquatic — are killed globally by humans each year, and the arguments about their use has grown increasingly becoming public. If you work at a public university (and even if you don't) this issue should be on your radar. If it is not, you are missing a key teaching moment and a significant development in the progress of humankind.
For many fields of study, say history for example, how can you teach about the American West without also examining environmental impacts? New and exciting fields have developed — animal studies, critical animal studies, human-animal studies, among others — that force us to look at animals differently. True, those fields are fragmented and still in their infancy but they are expanding.
Paradoxically, many faculty departments remain clueless about animal rights. Yet vegans have surpassed 1 percent of the U.S. population. Still a small group, yes, but growing rapidly and their number is higher among the student population. Some colleges and universities have taken note: The University of North Texas has an all-vegan dining hall for students. A student at the University of Manchester convinced the institution last year to offer more vegan options. The University of California at Los Angeles is committed to providing delicious vegan options in the campus food court and the student dorm cafeterias. UCLA is flanked by several outdoor, all-vegan eateries such as Native Foods and Veggie Grill — both extremely popular with students as the long lines will attest.
I myself have been vegan for almost 30 years and have raised my children vegan since birth, with no stigma. It is quite possible that my kids and others like them may soon end up as your students or attendees at your university and at your conferences. If you only serve animal products in your cafeteria and at your meetings, they will see right through you and you will hear about it.
What, then, can we as academics do? This is an advocacy piece, so I will not shirk at advocating for animals. Here are a few good places to start:
- Make vegan the de facto food choice — the new normal — for conferences and meetings. After all, everyone can eat vegan food; not everyone can or wants to eat meat.
- Don't offer a “vegetarian” meal. It may still rely on animal products and cannot be eaten by vegans. Better to offer a “vegan” meal that all participants can eat.
- Unapologetically nudge your department to include vegan meals. While many young people are adopting a vegan lifestyle, elitism within the faculty department is often more entrenched. But they may be receptive to a “nudge,” as a vegan strategist recommended.
- Educate your students, colleagues, and conference participants about ethical food choices. At least make food choices open for public scrutiny. There is a disconnect when lecturing about the merits of abolition during the pre-Civil War era, the benefits of the Civil Rights Act, or the nature of exploitative relationships while you enjoy small animals for lunch. Believe it or not, some people will notice the hypocrisy, and judging how the animal-rights movement has grown on college campuses, more will do so in the near future.
We can all do our part to respect the rights of our nonhuman animal friends, especially at mealtimes during our scholarly meetings and conferences. Remember, a myriad of scientific studies prove that humans don't need to eat animal products to maintain proper health, and despite us humans using most of the planet's arable land for “livestock,” we can opt out of the death culture.
Rather than tolerating nondescript meat sandwiches at your conference, unapologetically stand up for the “others” whose marginalized existence can be seen on that plenary session lunch plate. I assure you, even if you do not live in Los Angeles, there are vegan food caterers available in your area for that next conference.