Sustainability is not a cheesy matter
“Self-righteous, pale, scrawny, joyless” – that is an excerpt from my online dating profile, but it also sums up the general perception of vegans. That’s a shame because, as Paul Smeets has illustrated at the Opening of the Academic Year, even an occasional hand in the cookie jar of veganism can have a great impact.
So why bother? While a plant-based diet might help combat obesity and heart disease – vegetables tend to be fat-free, low in calories but very nutritious – any claims about individual health outcomes must be taken with a pinch of (pink Himalayan) salt. There is also the moral side of battery farming and dairy production: the matter of animal rights. The most pressing aspect though is the ecological impact: CO2 emissions and water usage.
Associate Professor of Social Finance Paul Smeets used a quiz during the Opening of the Academic Year to draw attention to the matter. Replacing regular cookies with vegan ones (no eggs, butter or milk) at the reception saved as much CO2 as a return car journey between Maastricht and Paris. “You need 15,000 litres of water to produce one kilo of beef.” Even avocados – a topping of choice for many a vegan or hipster – only need 2,000 litres per kilo and they’re by far the most water-intensive option, with the average vegetable around 300 l/kg.
Smeets not only proved that people are partial to free cookies but also that individuals’ actions can have an impact on global problems. The small print of consumerism reveals to anyone willing to squint that there’s a cost beyond a product’s price. Ninety percent of Amazon deforestation is due to cattle ranching. Still, why is vegetarian not enough then? The cows that produce the milk still consume a lot of water (and rudely emit greenhouse gases). “It takes around 5,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of cheese – it’s not only the milk production, which in itself is problematic, but also the process of making cheese.”
Paul Smeets has launched the Vegan Lunch Challenge.
Sandwiches in bathtubs
Speaking of cheese: “A vegan alternative for an average lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches for around 20 people would save 80 bathtubs of water and enough CO2 to have a hairdryer run continuously for 365 days.” Martin Paul, in his address during the Opening of the Academic Year, restated UM’s aim to have a zero carbon footprint by 2030, as part of our commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. Smeets took up that baton and ran with it, launching his Sustainable Lunch Challenge: “I wanted to encourage people to just give it a try: have a vegan lunch to see if you like it and let me know. I will keep track and give regular updates on how many bathtubs of water and hours of running hairdryers we have saved.”
Not deterred by the negative connotations of hairdryers in bathtubs, the Executive Board has already taken up Smeets’ challenge, as have many others: “The response has been great so far – I hope many more people will give it a go and get in touch.” Smeets describes himself as ¾ vegan and is not out to proselytise. “People tend to see it too black and white – either vegan or not – but there is a lot of grey in between. That’s where the greatest potential for gains lies: a lunch, breakfast, even a couple of full days per week – it all makes a difference if enough people do it.”
UM's Executive Board is rising to the challenge - over lunch.
Green shoots – no longer a matter of taste
Veganism used to be a rather forbidding affair: the selection of available foods was limited and the minority of vegans using their morals as a yardstick with which to beat others certainly didn’t help. But nowadays, vegan alternatives are readily available, their quality vastly improved. The vegan option on the menu is no longer to go home and stay there. Most restaurants in Maastricht offer vegan dishes. Also, more and more people follow a purely plant-based diet without feeling the need to use that laudable ethical decision as a conversation starter.
For some, veganism may still conjure unnerving images of highly processed soy pressed into sparerib shape, but it’s essentially eating an apple, ratatouille, falafel, salad or, if you must, French fries. So give it a go: lunch your way towards sustainability – and tell Paul Smeets about it.
Professor of Migration Studies
"I went from mainly vegetarian to one vegan week a month to fully vegan in January 2017, mainly to be healthier. The movie "Cowspiracy" tipped me over the edge. Learning about the huge environmental impact of eating animal products was something I could not ignore. People always ask me why - for me it is about health, the environment and animal welfare. It has had a clear impact of my health: I have even more energy as a vegan and I almost never get sick. I have even completed an IRONMAN and a Marathon as a vegan."
Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience
“I went vegan in the summer of 2015 (after more than five years as a vegetarian). My reasons at the time were animal rights, but over time, I have become more aware of the environmental impact as well. The biggest challenge for me is dealing with those among my family and friends who either don’t care or don’t understand. I now politely but assertively request vegan options at social gatherings. My social circle in Maastricht is very supportive, so it’s hardly an issue. When I do encounter prejudice, I try to overcome it by bringing along some tasty vegan dishes!"
UM Green Office
“I’ve been vegan since 2012. Animal rights and the environment are very important to me but initially it was a health thing. I learned about it on social media and, although sceptical, I gave it a go. It changed my life – I’ve been feeling much more energetic since. Growing up in rural Austria, where schnitzel is the gold standard, eating out and family gatherings were difficult. I had to be creative about vegan cuisine. Thankfully, my father – a passionate carnivore – taught me how to cook. It’s more than food though: I try to be more sustainable throughout from vegan shoes to second hand clothes."