When it comes to addressing the monumental challenge of climate change, many college students are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. Sometimes, that effort even extends to what they eat—or don’t eat.
When people think of the causes behind climate change, they probably think of the usual suspects: coal power plants and big oil and SUVs. But there’s one factor that isn’t as widely discussed—animal agriculture. In fact, according to the United Nations, raising cows and other animals for food contributes to 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire transportation sector.
Cutting back on meat can make a big difference: Switching to a vegetarian diet can reduce your culinary carbon footprint by 35 percent. Switching to a vegan diet can cut 50 percent. If every American became vegetarian, the carbon reductions would be equivalent to taking 46 million cars off the road for good.
Many Millennials are taking the message to heart. John Hao, 20, is an Environmental Biology major at Columbia University. He spent his childhood in Nebraska surrounded by animal agriculture, but he went vegan overnight after watching the movie “Cowspiracy,” a documentary that explores the environmental impact of meat.
According to the New York Times, 12 percent of Millennials are “faithful vegetarians” compared to just one percent of baby boomers. The number of “flexitarians,” or those who eat a primarily vegetarian diet, is three times higher.
On some college campuses, the proportion of vegetarians is much higher.
Sage Max, 19, is an Environmental Policy major at Barnard College. She estimates that 30 percent of the women’s liberal arts college is vegetarian.
Hao, now President of the Columbia Vegan Society, says the Society has seen huge growth since he became vegan. He attributes a lot of it to interest in environmentalism among his fellow students.
“I think young people are more in tune with the science behind climate change,” says Hao. He easily tolls off a few of the ways animal agriculture harms the environment: deforestation, drought, species depletion.
According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 76 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds say climate change is a serious problem facing America—compared to 56 percent of those aged 50 and over.
When the Columbia Vegan Society put on a screening of “Cowspiracy” in 2015, Hao made sure to reach out to many of Columbia’s environmental student groups ahead of time, students he knew would already be receptive; when passing out pro-vegan pamphlets to passersby on campus, he prefers ones that make arguments based on animal rights and environmentalism.
Molly Golski, 21, is an Environment and Sustainability major at the University of Virginia. She became vegan her second year of college after taking several environmental science classes: “Majoring in Environment and Sustainability, it would be hypocritical for me to maintain animal agriculture through my diet when it is one of the most harmful things to the environment,” she said.
Adrienne Brown, 22, graduated in May from Dickinson College with a degree in Environmental Studies. She says around 20 or 30 percent of the school is vegetarian or vegan, but that number jumps closer to 50 percent in the Environmental Studies department.
Brown explains that so many Dickinson students are vegetarian because of a campus culture that emphasizes sustainability: “Dickinson is such an environmentally aware campus…No matter what you’re involved in, you’ll be exposed to sustainability.”
That isn’t to say that it’s easy to be vegetarian on any of these campuses. Peta2, the youth wing of the animal rights organization PETA, ranks the veggie-friendliness of colleges around the country. Some colleges, like Dickinson and Columbia, received an A. Others don’t do so well.
Max says that Barnard, which received a C, is pretty lacking in choices, especially for vegans like her. Despite robust Kosher and Halal sections, the dining hall doesn’t have much to offer vegans other than the salad bar. She’s had to compensate by doing a lot of cooking (her vegetarian dad taught her some simple recipes before she left for college). She also looks to the greater-New York City vegan community for support. She attends vegan potlucks around the city, often organized by college vegan societies like the one at Columbia.
Brown has seen similar problems at Dickinson. Even though her school received an A from Peta2, Brown was forced to give up her vegetarianism due to dining halls’ slim pickings. With the added challenge of a gluten-intolerance, she found it impossible to continue living in line with her morals while on a meal plan. Although it’s unrealistic to expect every diet to be accommodated, this problem wasn’t unique to Brown: she said that many of her vegetarian friends at Dickinson developed iron deficiency and her vegan friends could hardly find anything to eat at all—and if you were picky about your food sharing a cooking surface with meat, you were totally out of luck.
Most of the students I talked to said they relied on their own cooking to pick up the slack. While many of their classmates were relying on convenient on-campus dining, these college vegetarians were at the grocery store or in the kitchen preparing their own plant-based food. Golski has found that a vegan diet has actually been cheaper financially, but she had to spend some time researching how to keep herself healthy and find affordable meals. While learning to cook vegetarian food on a college budget is easier with websites like Plant Based on a Budget and Forks over Knives, time is a valuable commodity for most college students, and spending time researching and cooking might not be an option for every student. It’s just one more barrier for prospective vegetarians, especially for low-income students and students who work a job during the school year.
Colleges could easily help out on this front—and some are. Schools around the country are beginning to consider their growing vegetarian and vegan populations. Although not all schools have the resources for robust veggie options, many are doing their best. A Peta2 poll found that the number of colleges offering daily vegan meals doubled from 2013 to 2015.
When Hao became president of the Columbia Vegan Society, he realized that there was a lot of demand for more vegan options on campus. Although Columbia Dining already participated in Meatless Mondays and had adequate vegetarian choices, there was no vegan station in the dining hall.
Hao says that the biggest concern he hears from prospective vegetarians at Columbia is on maintaining balanced nutrition. If dining halls aren’t overly welcoming to vegetarians, it can scare away potential converts.
After reaching out to Columbia’s student council, Hao set up a meeting with Vicki Dunn, director of Columbia Dining; Hao says Dunn was very eager to help but needed suggestions on how best to serve the vegan community, so he brought a list of requests from his club. Upon returning from winter break, there was a brand new vegan dining station.
Not all students are as lucky.
Henry Kellison, 21, is a Philosophy and political science student at Macalester College who became vegetarian at the start of his sophomore year.
“When I came to school, I was in charge of my own diet for the first time in my life,” Kellison says. “Young people—college students in particular—often feel very empowered when they leave home to start eating and living in ways that are more in line with their own values.” Like other college vegetarians, he faced the challenge of climate change head-on, starting with his own day-to-day choices.
Another student, Beren Davidson, 20, took this one step further.
After researching and switching to vegetarianism in high school, he became so concerned about the outsize influence of “Big Ag” that he decided to go to agriculture school. Leaving behind his suburban Dallas roots, Davidson started last year at The Farm School, a small, one-year agriculture program in Orange, Massachusetts. At the school, Davidson and his classmates were responsible for taking care of an organic vegetable farm along with several dozen farm animals.
“It was really eye-opening to see how small farmers in Massachusetts were very animal-conscious. The cows were grass-fed; the chickens were given organic feed and had space to graze,” he says.
But he still couldn’t get over the environmental costs of meat.
“Grass-fed cows, even though they’re healthier and happier, use more land than factory-farmed animals. Most people don’t know that. People don’t understand the connection between animal agriculture and climate change. They don’t understand that it’s the number one cause of deforestation.”
Davidson is starting in the fall at El Centro Community College in Dallas. While he’ll no longer be eating self-grown organic vegetables, he’ll take his knowledge—and his vegetarian diet—with him. He’s hopeful he can keep eating healthy, meat-free food, but he isn’t sure how supportive his new school will be.
Young people are passionate about protecting the environment. They are willing to sacrifice a lot, even their own meat consumption. Colleges shouldn’t stand in the way of their students trying to live more sustainable and compassionate lives.
When our generation looks at climate change, we see a problem that dramatically threatens our future. Although we may not have been the generation to cause it, we must be the generation to stop it—as the growing number of college vegetarians can attest. After all, there is no Planet B.