Young people, like us, are set to bear the brunt of the climate emergency, yet we often feel powerless in generating meaningful change amongst a cohort of leaders, largely dominated by older generations.
Medical students, who have their time split between studying and clinical placements, have an almost impossible task in contributing to the wave of youth climate action due to the perceived time commitments. With industrial action in the NHS, the threat of more pandemics and the climate emergency all looming over us, it can feel like we are pulled between multiple urgent disasters, but we do not have the time or resources to address them.
That was until now, and the emergence of the Plant-Based Universities campaign.
What is Plant-Based Universities?
Plant-Based Universities (PBU) is a student-led Animal Rising campaign active in over 70 universities in the UK and internationally that calls on universities to recognise their own research on food security and sustainability by transitioning to fully just and sustainable plant-based catering.
The campaign recently released an open letter signed by over 1000 academics, healthcare professionals and notable figures in climate action spheres, including Chris Packham CBE and Caroline Lucas MP.
Whilst the PBU campaign is targeted at all universities, it could be argued to provide medical students, and all healthcare students more broadly, with an opportunity to educate the public and our future patients on how a shift in our food system can mitigate the worst effects of climate breakdown on human health.
The case for plant-based:
Many of us will know that the fossil fuel industry is a large driver of anthropogenic climate change, yet animal farming and fishing is often highly overlooked.
Global greenhouse emissions from animal based foods are twice those of plant based foods, and uses significantly more land. Research has suggested that the UK could be carbon-negative if it combined the switch to plant-based production with rewilding the land freed up by this change. Moreover: the EAT-Lancet Commission poses a planetary health diet which is both healthy for people and planet, with meat making up a very little part of it.
Another major concern for the future of medicine is antimicrobial resistance. Around 70% of antibiotics sold globally in 2017 were given to animals used for food production, often to prevent infection and encourage growth. This is a huge driver of antibiotic resistance in humans, from direct contact with these animals or with uncooked meat or contaminated surfaces. When we also consider that the COVID-19 pandemic showed us what can happen when the use of animals can go dramatically wrong in the realm of public health, isn’t it time to rethink our use of animals in this way?
Our responsibility as medical students
Having the privilege of caring for the vulnerable comes with great responsibility. The public holds the medical profession in high regard and places trust in our decision-making, which is why we need to be the voices for positive change. Within PBU, we also feel a profound sense of responsibility to dispel nutritional misinformation about plant-based diets, and support policies that benefit both public and planetary health.
Medical students may already fear beginning their medical careers in a struggling NHS, but the climate crisis adds further anxiety as to how it will affect the health of our patients. Urgent climate action now will mean that we can minimise the climate harms, and in turn, reduce the future demands on our healthcare system.
Finding joy in climate activism
Climate activism can be tiring and distressing, which is worsened when accompanied by the heavy demands of studying for our chosen careers. We have learnt that true leadership involves rejoicing in moments of joy. Meet-ups and networking events are often accompanied by homemade vegan bakes and supporting each other’s achievements on social media. Alfie’s favourite moments include the PBU pub quiz and the free student summer camps hosted by PBU for students to meet like-minded individuals and take part in workshops from experienced climate-focused campaigners. These strong connections and moments of fun when fighting for a liveable and healthier future are necessary, especially when the rest of the world and its authorities make this so hard to achieve.
Spreading the message
PBU has made great strides in pioneering sustainable food system change, through its work on campuses and inspiring similar campaigns such as Plant-Based Councils which recently urged Oxfordshire county council to go plant-based. Alone, these campaigns do not have the power to create the level of change that we need to see in the coming years to prevent the worst of climate breakdown, but through positive engagement with these campaigns, others can be inspired to lead further transformative green efforts.
Hospital catering is uniquely placed in its ability to champion planet-friendly catering. As present and future healthcare professionals, we are responsible for caring for the patients we see and the world we share together. The NHS accounts for 4% of the UK’s carbon emissions, but there are hidden costs of catering that lie in what is known as the NHS Carbon Footprint Plus, as well as the damaging costs that go way beyond carbon alone. There are programmes such as Greener NHS that try to remedy this, however, the urgency of climate breakdown and recent research from EAT-Lancet into optimal diets for public and planetary health—primarily whole-food, plant-based items—it is crucial that we address the issue of animal farming and fishing more seriously within the healthcare industry.
By transitioning hospital menus to plant-based catering, we have enormous potential to reverse the negative impacts of our catering system on the wellbeing of our patients and our planet. Perhaps it’s also time for a “Plant-Based Hospitals” campaign? This would send a clear message to politicians and the public that transitioning to a just and sustainable plant-based food system is a key solution to the climate crisis as well as a path to improved community health too.
Our leadership journey at PBU is far from over, but as with all leadership challenges, there is strength in numbers. We invite students to join the campaign by completing our interest form.
Academics and healthcare professionals, we invite you to sign our open letter by emailing us at email@example.com and be a part of the change.
Alfie J Hall
Alfie is a fourth year medical student at University College London (UCL) who recently graduated from an intercalated degree in Neuroscience. Alfie has been an active campaigner with Plant-based Universities since its inception, coordinating UK universities in the south east, east of England and east midlands as well as the UCL campaign.
Declaration of interests
I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: I coordinate the Plant-based Universities UCL campaign and formerly held the regional coordinator role for universities in the South East, East Midlands and East of England (all unpaid).
Hollie is a third year medical student at Imperial College London. After being inspired by the successes at universities including UCL and Cambridge, Hollie is setting up a Plant-based Universities campaign and hopes that Imperial will see similar wins. Ever since adopting a plant-based diet herself in 2018, Hollie has had a particular interest in lifestyle medicine and global health, and is now excited to start her clinical years.
Declaration of interests
I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: I coordinate the Plant-based Universities Imperial campaign (unpaid).