Sustainability: Cutting red meat will make schools greener

Saving the planet may feel like one job too many but cutting red meat from meals could have a massive and immediate impact, writes Thomas Martell

Saving the planet may feel like one job too many but cutting red meat from meals could have a massive and immediate impact, writes Thomas Martell

8 Jan 2023, 5:00

The past few years have been filled with heartening examples of schools’ engagement with their wider civic role: the warmth with which they welcomed Ukrainian families, the care for the vulnerable and for all pupils at the heart of their Covid response, and the help they are offering their communities with the rising cost of living.

These and myriad other ongoing pressures mean schools are stretched, so tackling climate change too can easily feel like a request too far. After all, schools can’t fix all of society’s problems. But the truth is that by virtue of the size of the education system alone, not to mention its immeasurable influence, schools are needed to drive sustainability. Climate change is an existential threat to humanity, and there is compelling evidence that the wars, diseases and poverty we are already battling will only become worse if nothing is done.

The good news is that we can achieve a massive impact without time-consuming curriculum reviews and resource-intensive capital investments. Schools can maximise their impact by focusing on a single key issue: serving less meat (especially red meat from cows, sheep and pigs).

Overall, food accounts for one-third of global greenhouse emissions and our schools serve millions of meals every day. This means the food we serve is a big part of the problem, and it can be a big part of the solution.

There is a lot of misinformation about food and the environment, but a key insight is that what we eat matters. Many people think eating locally is key to sustainability, but this is false; the overwhelming scientific consensus is that where our food comes from is close to irrelevant by comparison. For example, according to the University of Oxford’s ‘Our World in Data’ project, supply chain emissions account for only 3kg of the 88kg of CO2 produced to get 1kg of beef onto our plates.

To protect humanity, we need to make drastic cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions this decade. Reducing meat consumption is high-impact, low-cost and relatively easy to implement. Perhaps most crucially, the benefits are felt immediately; this will buy more time for other necessary political and technological breakthroughs to happen.

Debate about the environment has an awful tendency of making the perfect the enemy of the good. I am vegan and I do not fly, but I still drive a small petrol car. Like me, schools do not need to be perfect to help. We can do an enormous amount of good by reducing red meat consumption.

Many universities and local authorities are already leading the way. For instance, some universities have outright removed beef and lamb from their menus. Cambridge has done this since 2016 and it has reduced their food-related emissions by a third. Many other universities have made similar choices and found that giving more prominence to meat-free options or making them the default option increases uptake.

There are challenges to changing school menus – especially when money is tight – but it is possible. Michaela Community School serves a vegetarian menu to all pupils save for a portion of fish on Fridays. Proponents of meat are often quick to point to health concerns about vegan and vegetarian diets. The NHS guidance is clear that these diets are healthy and that red meat has a range of negative health consequences.

Last year, the children’s commissioner published the results of a survey of over half a million pupils which found the environment was an overwhelming priority. Many pupils felt the same as one 12-year-old cited in the report: “If we don’t fix climate change, we won’t have a future.” An eloquent 15-year-old was quoted as saying: “The effects of it may be irreversible, and it is very daunting for young people to have the responsibility of dealing with [them].”

We cannot wait for these pupils to reach positions of power to address climate change. We must act on their behalf. School leaders are uniquely placed to make significant progress with nothing to hold them back. So let’s make 2023 the year schools cut back red meat.

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Schools Week Reporter

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