Akshay Swaminathan and Wasan Kumar are first year MD candidates.
Last year, on a sunny August afternoon, we lined up with our fellow incoming medical students on the Dean’s lawn to receive our white coat and stethoscope. The White Coat Ceremony marks the start of our training as future physicians. Held annually before the beginning of the first quarter, the ceremony is a time for students to celebrate the start of their medical career with friends and family and enjoy a nice meal courtesy of Stanford catering. At our ceremony, however, several of our classmates were unable to celebrate this occasion over dinner with our loved ones. As we approached the food station after the ceremony, we found that there were no dinner options left for vegetarians.
Unfortunately, insufficient vegetarian options are not a rare occurrence at Stanford events. Throughout our first year here, we have attended lunch seminars, dinner seminars, orientations, club meetings and other events where the food options for vegetarians were limited or nonexistent. Not only does a lack of vegetarian options mean that our cultural or moral commitments are not recognized, but it also means that we are unable to choose a food option that reduces our impact on the environment.
Having spent my [Akshay’s] entire life on the East Coast, I had never heard of the abbreviation AQI (air quality index) until coming to Stanford. During my first few weeks on campus, I found myself googling “Palo Alto AQI” nearly every morning as I saw the smog from forest fires floating over campus. The haze was not very different from the smog I had seen in Beijing during a trip a few years ago. In fact, the AQI in Palo Alto sometimes exceeds that of Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world. Stanford is already doing a lot to address climate change, from its electric shuttle buses, to departmental carbon emissions goals to eco-friendly cleaning solutions. Why can’t we adopt a similar environmentally conscious approach when it comes to food?
The evidence is clear that plant-based diets are generally more environmentally friendly than non-vegetarian diets. In fact, the UN IPCC report indicates we could reduce greenhouse emissions by six gigatons a year (or 16.5% of total emissions) if everyone reduced their meat intake to once a month, and eight gigatons (or 22% of total emissions) if everyone completely stopped eating meat. Plant-based meals are typically cheaper than meat-based meals and would save money for Stanford and its dining services if implemented at scale. Plant-based meals are also more inclusive because non-vegetarians can typically eat vegetarian, but not the other way around. Non-vegetarians may even prefer to eat vegetarian depending on the options available. In fact, at our White Coat Ceremony, the shortage of vegetarian meals happened because non-vegetarians snatched up the limited number of vegetarian meals before the vegetarians could (we don’t blame them — those enchiladas looked good!). Similarly, as the cost and taste of plant-based meat substitutes approaches those of regular meat we hope to ameliorate meat-lovers’ concerns of compromising on the flavors and textures they know and love.
There are ways to encourage plant-based dining habits without alienating those who prefer meat-based options. One effective approach is “default vegetarianism,” in which vegetarian meals are the default option and non-vegetarian meals must be explicitly requested. This method opposes the status quo, where vegetarians must specially request a plant-based meal because the default option is typically meat-based. In a default vegetarian world, everyone can eat whatever they want, but folks are nudged toward choosing the more environmentally friendly option. Opt-out strategies, like default vegetarianism, have been successful in diverse settings, including raising organ donation rates, encouraging healthy decision making and even increasing philanthropic donations.
This approach is not unheard of at Stanford. Pockets of the Law School, School of Earth Sciences and Business School are vegetarian by default, if not completely vegetarian. There are also the DefaultVeg, AltProtein and One Plate, One Planet movements, which aim to encourage sustainable plant-based eating habits across Stanford. As we expand access to plant-based meals, the quality of Stanford catering’s vegetarian meals will only improve.
Food sustainability is a complex and nuanced issue. A rigorous approach to sustainable food practices may consider whether or not food is locally sourced, what type of farm produces the food, how far the food travels from where it was produced to Stanford, etc. We must be thoughtful about how we encourage climate-conscious food, but there are steps in the right direction that we can take immediately. While not all plant-based foods have a low climate footprint, it is clear that on average, plant-based diets are more environmentally friendly than animal-based diets.
Stanford can continue to strive for a campus environment that is sustainable, inclusive and tasty for all students by learning from those in our community who are already taking a thoughtful approach to sustainable food practices. As medical school acceptances were released earlier this month, we hope that the incoming class of students can look forward to a delicious plant-based meal to share with their friends and family at the next White Coat Ceremony.