Before the end of this year, Trinity is set to launch a new strategic plan, outlining the goals and vision which will, at least in principle, guide the college through the next five years to 2024. One goal it will outline, identified in draft papers, is for Trinity to become a sustainable university which acts responsibly and puts questions of sustainability at the heart of its research and actions.
Trinity is not the only institution with a five-year outlook. In February, the Met Office released its long-term forecast. In the same five-year timeframe covered by Trinity’s new strategic plan, the earth’s temperature may temporarily rise to more than 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels.
Given the global threat posed by the climate crisis and a strategic plan that promises a commitment to sustainability, Trinity should seize every opportunity at its disposal to publicly reinforce its commitment to its promises and to be a leader in fighting the climate crisis. The newest restaurant on campus, Forum, represented one such opportunity. College failed to take it.
“Trinity should seize every opportunity at its disposal both to publicly reinforce its commitment to its promises and to be a leader in fighting the climate crisis.”
Here’s the thing: menus matter. Specifically, in considering sustainability, the environment, and how to slow down the climate crisis, meat matters. Studies which take the effects on energy, land and water use into consideration indicate that meat-free diets are more sustainable for the environment and use fewer resources than their meat-based counterparts. More importantly, studies conducted as recently as 2018 show that cutting out meat and dairy products is the single most effective way to reduce our environmental impact on the planet.
At the start of this year, the Buttery’s lasagne dish spent two months revamped as a vegetarian option. College stirred up some fanfare for the switch in the months leading up to it, publishing an online poll for staff and students to vote on which Buttery dish would spend January and February meat-free – would it be a vegetarian lasagne, a vegetarian stir fry, or chili “sin” carne?
The vegetarian lasagne, in which meat was replaced with red lentils, was the popular choice, and it was reported that for every lasagne dish served, the vegetarian version reduced College’s carbon footprint by 4.55kg of carbon dioxide. For a restaurant which serves an average total of 680 meals a day and is open most days of the year, this is not to be sniffed at.
The two months passed and meat returned to the Buttery’s lasagne as according to plan, to the celebration of some and the chagrin of others. With it returned the 4.55kg of carbon dioxide for each portion of lasagne consumed.
The Buttery has been around for quite some time. It has its recipes, its contracts, its delivery orders. It has established modes of operating, and it has expectations from its customers as to the kind of food which can be purchased. This is not to suggest that a revamp is impossible. But to considerably change something which is long established poses more challenges than working from a blank slate.
Forum offered this blank slate. Forum could have been Trinity’s display of dedication to fighting the climate crisis. Trinity could have been brave and made a bold statement by launching a vegetarian or vegan restaurant, publicly showing its commitment to its strategic plan and sustainability goals while cementing Forum as a vibrant, modern restaurant in the heart of Dublin. But College chose to play it safe instead, and in doing so, it lost a valuable opportunity to make a change with real impact.
“Studies conducted as recently as 2018 show that cutting out meat and dairy products is the single most effective way to reduce our environmental impact on the planet.”
The typical lunch menu in Forum during the first few weeks since its opening has featured a salad bar, a soup, a hot meal with a meat or vegetarian option, and a weekly “Global” meal such as Shawarma with a choice of beef, chicken or lamb. There is an additional 50c charge for non-dairy milk in hot drinks. The fact that this has become increasingly standard across cafés makes it no less disappointing. As an aside, the locally brewed coffee beans which have been heavily advertised as a cornerstone of the café are available only at an additional 40c charge.
In developing the new Trinity Business School building which houses Forum, College made heartstring-tugging statements about revitalising Pearse Street and bringing a new lease of life to its side of campus. The building was designed to be near zero-energy. This is excellent. But College must now look to what is happening inside. In a building for business which promised to put innovation at its core, an innovative Forum could have been an anchor on which to hook Trinity’s sustainability promises. Instead, it is just another restaurant.
Reducing the use of meat and dairy in catering outlets on campus is not the only thing College should be doing to fight the climate crisis. Sending College officials on fewer flights and switching to renewable energy sources should also be at the top of Trinity’s agenda in order to prove the extent to which it takes its sustainability goals – and by extension, its entire strategic plan – seriously. However, it is a change which can be made with comparative ease and which would have a significant impact, as well as being a very visible switch would have particularly benefited the many vegan and vegetarians in the College community and in Dublin.
“An innovative Forum could have been an anchor on which to hook Trinity’s sustainability promises. Instead, it is just another restaurant.”
Instead, catering outlets on campus continue to base their menus around meat and feature only one or two vegetarian options. But simply having vegetarian options is not enough to counter the harmful effects of excessive meat use. Making an impactful change requires drastically lowering the amount of meat offered in restaurants like Forum.
There is a sign in the new restaurant which encourages patrons to make “smart swaps” like changing a tuna melt for a tuna sandwich to lower calories. One such recommended swap is to “swap meat for beans, pulses or lentil-based dishes one day a week to benefit both your health and the environment”. This is not enough. This is not nearly enough to create the kind of change the planet needs and which Trinity needs to pioneer to uphold its promises.
The persistent use of ingredients which we know to be damaging to the planet is absolutely not good enough. It is not good enough for vegan or vegetarian students and staff, and it is not nearly good enough for the environment. If Trinity wants to be a global university, as its upcoming strategic plan delineates, it must engage with global issues meaningfully. It must do this in a manner which affects real, tangible change, and not in one which only offers temporary placation. The climate crisis is the single most pressing global issue of the present moment and the foreseeable future. If Trinity hopes to keep up, it cannot afford missed opportunities.