Students at the University of Edinburgh have voted against a motion titled ‘Cease the sale of beef from Student’s Association cafés and restaurants.’
The motion, which had a small majority of 51 per cent in a council meeting on Thursday 30th January, lost when put to an online student ballot the following week.
Nearly 6,000 voted, with 58 per cent voting against the motion. Due to unclear advertising on the motion, some were not aware that it was a mandate into the conduction of a feasibility study of the cessation of beef sales, not an outright ban.
Despite the motion initially being intended to reduce the University’s carbon footprint, it soon escalated into a debate over the “authoritarian” Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA).
Students Elena Silverstein (who submitted the motion) and Therese Ribeiro received 675 online signatures calling for an end to the sale of beef.
“We wanted to reduce our University’s impact on the climate.” They explain. “Agriculture often gets ignored in climate conversations, and we wanted to bring that to people’s attention.”
A report published by the Food Climate Research Network in 2008 estimated that from agriculture to consumption, 19 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions come from food, 57 per cent of which is from livestock alone.
Globally, agriculture is highly greenhouse gas-intensive, causing 18 per cent of all emissions, with red meat contributing five times more than pork or lamb.
“Lots of farmers have stopped selling beef and are switching to crop production.
“They are not earning less than they did, just changing their source of income. The government needs to help support farmers with making those changes.”, says Elena.
However, with £2,988.6 million spent on beef in 2019 and 135,198 tonnes exported from the UK globally, the beef industry is lucrative.
It is deep-rooted in British culture, providing incomes to families who over generations have reared livestock. Understandably, this has made the topic of banning sales difficult.
“There is lots of funding from animal agriculture, impacting how much people want to change. What we eat is ingrained in us from birth,” Elena commented.
Beef sourced at the university is likely in its most sustainable form, as livestock is sourced within a 15-mile radius and grass-fed.
Compared to industrial farming, the animals’ quality of life is improved, but it is no better for the environment, as reported by the Food Climate Research Network in ‘Grazed and confused?’.
Statistically, each pound of grass-fed beef produces 500 percent more greenhouse gases than grain-fed, counteracting the belief that grass-fed beef leads to carbon sequestration. If this does occur, it is small, time-limited and reversible, outweighed by greenhouse gas emissions.
The motion brought with it a debate over freedom of choice. In the aftermath of the Student Council meeting, which saw some students from the Scottish Rural College asked to leave, student Benedict Willacy posted on Facebook, promising to buy a steak for everyone who voted against the motion.
“For me, and clearly a majority of students, this was a matter of protecting our freedom of choice.”, says Benedict.
“I have often taken issue with the policies imposed by student politics… [This] was about raising awareness of yet another oppressive motion that almost slipped under the radar.”
Both sides were surprised at the outcome. “I am really happy and did not expect to get that much support”, says Elena.
“It shows that lots of people recognise that there is scientific evidence there to say we need change. I was not expecting the vote to pass so I am not disappointed in that respect.
“It was more about raising awareness. Whether people agree or disagree, the fact that they are discussing it is a significant step.”
Benedict was “delighted to see that common sense prevailed”. “I initially expected Elena’s motion to be passed.
“Typically, members of the student body engaged in student politics are much more likely to be in favour of motions like this. This is evidenced by the Student Council’s record of passing motions that infringe on our right to think and act freely.”
Intriguingly, what started as a debate about how to reduce our carbon footprint turned into one of student politics. In the past, the Students’ Association has faced criticism over being amongst some of the most “ban-happy” Student Associations.
In 2016, the Safe Space policy insisted students “refrained from [using] hand gestures which denote disagreement” in student senate meetings.
“Applause is acceptable when a motion is passed only, not if a motion fails to pass”, it continues, with student Imogen Wilson accused of violating these rules after she raised her hand and shook her head in a debate on Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions.
She had “responded instinctively” when told that she had failed disabled students by not responding to an open letter. Previously, contact had tried to be made with the writers of the letter to organise a meeting.
“Authoritarian, unrepresentative and oppressive are all words I have used to describe EUSA, I am not alone in possessing these feelings and stand by them – currently 53 per cent of students “feel represented by EUSA”: this is not enough,” stated Benedict.
Matters such as these come partnered with misrepresentation and even online abuse. “People on the opposite side of the campaign were eager to strawman and misquote my arguments in an attempt to paint me as someone who does not care for the planet,” said Benedict.
Elena too was called a “disgrace” and a “joke” by one Instagram user, for her “typical woman’s view on how the world should be run – in a dictatorship by feminist control freaks such as [her]”.
However, both parties are arguing for the same position from a different vantage point. Elena, who never tried to stop people from eating what they want, wanted students to make conscious decisions when choosing what they eat.
“The motion was about reducing the universities’ greenhouse gas emissions. I would not think to ask the government to stop selling beef but asking this of the University is a small-scale change that could bring about a large impact.
“There are lots of rules at University to stop people from doing harm. When things do damage to people and the planet, I consider that harm. I was not asking people to stop eating beef and go vegetarian, I would not want that to happen.
“It is about making a conscious choice and getting people to think about what they are eating. It does not matter whether greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are at 10 per cent, 14 per cent or 18 per cent, it is still something we can do better.”
Benedict also raised an important point: “We can and must do more to reduce our greenhouse emissions…The university has a huge endowment which is used to invest into projects all around the world, why aren’t we campaigning to support ventures in ocean clean-up technology, sustainable energy, removing single-use plastics from cafes or food supplements that reduce the methane emissions of cattle?
“…If I, as an individual, can name but a few policies to help combat the climate crisis, think of what 43,000 undergraduates could do if we worked together on this… Not wanting to save the planet is an indefensible position.”
Ultimately, both realise that the University must do more to tackle greenhouse emissions. Whether regarding the climate or the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, it appears that students have a greater appetite for solutions and change than they do for beef.
‘The Student’ would like to thank both Elena and Benedict for answering questions considerately and in great detail. Below are the full transcripts of these interviews.
Interview with Benedict Willacy
Why did you oppose the motion? What were your motivations behind getting students involved by posting about it on Facebook or hosting an event where you offered a steak to anyone who agreed with you?
For me, and clearly a majority of students, this was a matter of protecting our freedom of choice. I have often taken issue with the policies imposed by student politics and this was a fun yet effective way to speak out against a motion I completely disagree with – this wasn’t about rewarding “anyone who agree[s] with me”. It was about raising awareness of yet another oppressive motion that almost slipped under the radar.
How does the outcome differ from the result you expected?
I initially expected the Elena’s motion to be passed. Typically, members of the student body engaged in student politics are much more likely to be in favour of motions like this. This is evidenced by the Student Council’s record of passing motions that infringe on our right to think and act freely.
I was delighted to see that common sense prevailed in the end. A record number of people turned out to vote and, despite the odds being against us, the people of Edinburgh had their say and overwhelmingly said “no”.
Did it start off as more of a joke? How did you go about getting sponsored? Was this in place before you started?
Fighting oppression (in any form) is no joke to me. Despite my jovial tone on Facebook, I take this very seriously. That said, I did not expect my offer to receive so much attention. Initially I thought it would struggle to receive 20 steak orders, however we quickly reached over 120! I admit that when I woke in the morning, I was rather intimidated by the large number staring at me!
Once coverage of this began, offers of sponsorship (monetarily and practically) came in very quickly. We even have a previous MasterChef winner who has offered to cook for us! There is no way I would manage to pull this off if it were not for the generosity of strangers.
The debate seemed to turn into one over the issues of EUSA. Do you think this detracted from the importance of talking about climate change? If you believe EUSA to be bureaucratic how would you suggest it otherwise not be?
Unfortunately, this was one of the results. Rather than debating my reasons for standing against the “beef ban” people on the opposite side of the campaign were eager to strawman and misquote my arguments in an attempt paint me as someone who does not care for the planet. It is important to realise, however, that fighting for the planet and fighting for freedom of choice are not mutually exclusive.
There are many words I have used to describe the Students Association, however “bureaucratic” is not one of them. Authoritarian, unrepresentative and oppressive are all words I have used to describe EUSA, I am not alone in possessing these feelings and stand by them – currently 53% of students “feel represented by EUSA”; this is not enough. The 2016 EUSA President, Jonny Ross-Tatam, introduced the current online ballot system for referenda, which has done a huge amount for student representation, but there is more to be done. One of my key manifesto policies for this year’s EUSA elections is to run a university-wide survey to determine where the silent majority’s views lie on divisive topics such as these.
The resounding conclusion seems to be that the university does need to do more to tackle their greenhouse emissions. How do you think this could be improved on in the future?
I wholeheartedly agree that we can and must do more to reduce our greenhouse emissions. There’s no need to be placing Elena and me at odds with each other; she and I both have the same desire to save the planet. However, our methods of achieving this vary drastically.
My fellow liberal students should be fighting for people’s right to make their own decisions. They should not be producing motions to ban something simply because they disagree with it, because that is, ironically, the exact bigotry they should be fighting.
The university has a huge endowment which is used to invest into projects all around the world, why aren’t we campaigning to support ventures in ocean clean-up technology, sustainable energy, removing single-use plastics from cafes or food supplements that reduce the methane emissions of cattle? The 43,000 students at this university are represented by EUSA, let’s be working with the Council and Scottish Parliament to make Edinburgh a cleaner city.
There is so much we can do to reduce our carbon footprint without imposing restrictions on people’s behaviour. The one, and only, role of EU SA is to improve the student experience for everybody. EUSA has no mandate to legislate on morality. If I, as an individual, can name but a few policies to help combat the climate crisis, think of what 43,000 undergraduates could do if we actually worked together on this.
I’m not quite sure why we are still discussing the “beef ban”. Let’s move on. Let’s get working on a solution that we can all get behind.
Less than 10% of the student body voted against the motion – is this entirely representative of all students?
As with all referenda, the poll takes a sample of the current population’s views. A record number of students (6,000) turned out to vote, so I believe it is slightly disingenuous to suggest that the result of this referendum is unrepresentative. That said, I suspect that the majority of students simply do not care about the “beef ban”. Personally, I’m bored of this now, so I hate to imagine how other students must feel.
In the BBC Radio interview I discussed how banning British beef would be ineffective in the fight against climate change, so I feel no need to repeat myself, however I suspect the sentiment of most students is either apathy or confusion: confusion as to why so much noise has been made about something so small when there are far more effective ways of saving ecosystems that are screaming out for our help.
How would you increase student interaction into issues as pressing as climate change?
As Elena said in the BBC interview, 42% of the vote in favour of the beef ban shows that there is a large number of people who desire to save the planet, and I’m certain that many people on my side of the campaign share that desire. Not wanting to save the planet is an indefensible position.
Increased student engagement in the fight against the climate crisis is definitely something I would like to see. Making people aware of the critical state of our climate is the key to making change; but awareness isn’t enough, we need to come up with solutions that actually work. The time for putting plasters on the haemorrhaging wound that is our climate is over.
At least one positive of this debate is that people might realise that standing against a motion such as Elena’s and having a desire to reduce greenhouse emissions are not mutually exclusive positions.
Interview with Elena Silverstein
Why did you start the motion and what did it entail?
Me and my friend Therese started the motion because we wanted to reduce our University’s impact on the climate. We were looking online at different things other Universities were doing and we knew that our University was doing some things with clean energy already. Universities like Cambridge had stopped selling beef and lamb already . We thought that that was a really good idea as agriculture often gets ignored in climate conversations, and we wanted to bring that to people’s attention to gain some awareness for it and hopefully get the University to cut down. So, the motion proposed that student-run shops and cafés should stop selling beef or giving it away as freebies.
Why is it that you think that agriculture often gets ignored?
It’s a complicated situation as there is lots of funding from animal agriculture, impacting how much people want to change and talk about things. What we eat is ingrained in us from birth and embedded into society, it’s very personal to us.
How was this done at Cambridge University and how was it implemented?
It was just done by the University. They barely told anyone about it before they did it which meant that it ran quite smoothly as there wasn’t any debate over it. They thought as that’s what is good for the environment, that is what we are going to do. I understand completely why it is not like that here. Every student should have their opinions heard.
The beef that we source at the University is meant to be sustainable as it is sourced within a 15-mile radius. Is this the case?
People say that Scottish beef is sustainable because it is grass fed meaning that corn and palm is not imported for feed. The transportation is less as it is closer too. People also argue that there is carbon sequestration into the grass when ruminants like cattle are on the land, which cannot be used for anything other than grass. However, the reason that grass fed cattle is not good for the environment, also when compared to industrial farming, is that it is a lot less efficient. While it is less cruel for the animals, they are living for a lot longer, producing more methane and waste, eating more and using more water. In industrial farming, a cow can be grown to full size in a shorter amount of time than grass fed cows. The land that they are on can be rewilded, meaning that it can be brought back to nature, increasing biodiversity. It is not true that it cannot be used for anything else. Carbon sequestration in the grass doesn’t balance out the emissions produced.
Would farmers be worried that if they switched to crop production, then it would be less profitable?
Lots of farmers are starting to stop selling beef and are switching to crop production. They are not earning less than they did, just changing their source of income. I understand completely why it is so difficult and there is so much pressure on farmers to keep things as they are. It is the same with pesticides and fertilisers, but some farms are starting to go organic and plant based. When it is what your parents did and what your grandparents did, I understand that it is a horrible thing to face to think about changing it when that is what your family have done for all these generations. I think that the government needs to help support farmers by making those changes. We shouldn’t not address climate issues because of this, we just need to support farmers in the process.
When you quoted figures about greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, you were criticised for using global figures. In the UK, it accounts for 10% of total emissions. Why did people react badly to this?
It does not matter whether greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are at 10%, 14% or 18%, it is still something we can do better. It is something that does not have to take as long as clean energy will take to innovate further, . Clean energy is an area that I’m interested in going into. But agriculture can be changed so much faster. Farmers need to be supported to make that change, which takes time, but not as long.
How did you reply when people argued that you were removing choice?
I am happy for people to eat whatever they want to eat and if you want to eat beef outside of the university then that is completely up to you. I just want people to think about what they’re eating and the impact it has. The motion is about reducing the university’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is a change that could happen locally. I wouldn’t ask our government to stop selling beef, that’s extreme but when it is a University, it is a small-scale change that could have a large, positive impact. People can still bring beef in if they want to, it is not like they can’t bring it on campus. I’m just saying don’t buy it from us. I think that when things do damage to people and the planet, that it’s doing so much harm, it’s not a terrible thought for it to not be there. There’s lots of rules we have at University to stop people from doing harm and this could have been one of those rules. Our rights are fairly protected here, it’s not like saying let’s ban beef and expect everyone to go vegetarian. That’s not going to happen, and I wouldn’t want that to happen. It is just about making a conscious choice and getting people to think about what they’re eating.
Why do you think this became an issue over EUSA?
I think that it brought up issues people have with EUSA already. Lots of motions get passed at a student council vote and they don’t necessarily show what all students think about, just the people who show up to the meetings. For example, lots on both sides, against and for, couldn’t come on the day to make their voice heard and that did have an effect. I think that people just think that when students are voting for something it shouldn’t be just 100 people voting for something but the whole University and that is completely fair. We don’t really know what’s going on in the University a lot of the time. An issue that needs to be addressed is that a small number of students vote on who is going to be elected in the Student Council. It is always hard to get a large proportion of students to vote on something like that and lots won’t. If there is a way that we can get more students to vote, then we should. If we can get more students to have a say in who gets elected, then that can only be a good thing.
There seemed to be some trolling and people used this to raise their opinion on matters unrelated. How did you feel about getting those messages and why were some so passionate about it?
It was a small number of people, who aren’t students at the University, who were driven to send messages. It isn’t representative of any large number of people. It is generally a bit unpleasant and it isn’t nice to receive something like that. It shouldn’t be taken very seriously either as when people bring up feminism in the debate, it has no relevance as it is clearly unrelated.
What was it like when students from the Scottish Rural College turned up at the Student Council meeting?
They came in and I didn’t actually notice that they were there for a while. They were frustrated that they weren’t allowed to vote but it is a typical EUSA protocol that if you’re not matriculated at the University then you’re not allowed to vote. That has nothing to do with the motion, but it is the rule for any motion. They were asked to leave as the room was at capacity due to it being a very controversial topic. There were lots present, both for and against, and the council asked about three people on each side to have their opinion heard, as can be seen from the minutes online. One person complained that they weren’t allowed to speak but three people had already asked their questions on the opposite side. Lots wanted to speak, and I also wasn’t allowed to say something because there’s not enough time to have a really good debate about it before a vote is called. I would have liked to have said something about the amendment before people voted on it, but I didn’t get time to . Having enough time to get everyone in a room to say something is definitely a challenge!
One thing that could be focused more on by the University is plastic. Is there anything immediate that could be done about this?
Lots of food is still in packaging that is single use and a lot of the items supposedly recycled are difficult to get sorted properly. I think we should change the plastic packaging to something like Vegware. They need to make that switch. Sometimes we do need single use packaging. For students with disabilities it is really important, for example straws might be needed to help a student with drinking. It’s not about getting rid of single use items but the actual issue of waste management for industrially composted materials like Vegware. We are trying to find a way that Vegware products could get thrown into the correct bin so that there is not so much contamination. It has to be industrially composted, which is separate from recycling and landfill.
Were the University responsive as you tried to create the petition?
There were definitely people who were supportive but trying to talk to catering services just to have one meeting with them was difficult and we still haven’t. It would be nice if in the next few weeks they had a conversation with us about potential changes that they could make to reduce our climate impact. However, when we first brought out the petition, they wouldn’t speak to us since it wasn’t until now that we could evidence that the students here do care.
Were you happy with the outcome and what next? Is there anything more that the University can do to help reduce their impact on the climate?
I am really happy and did not expect to get that much support. I think it was nearly 2,500 people who voted in favour, which out of 6,000 shows that lots of people recognise that there is scientific evidence there to say we need change. I was not expecting the vote to pass so I am not disappointed in that respect. It was more about raising awareness. Whether people agree or disagree, the fact that they are discussing it is a significant step. There are so many people, not just at the University but in the country and globally discussing our University’s motion and that’s a really cool thing for me to think that people are talking about their food and the climate. We’re not going to give up, we are going to take a pause to think about the best way to approach the next step. We need to be smart about it and continue to try asking the University to stop producing so many greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture and continue to get people thinking about what they buy and eat.
Image: Dennis Jarvis via Wikipedia