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Friday, July 19, 2024

Dear Yale-NUS, Do You Really Like Meat That Much?

All PostsOpinionDear Yale-NUS, Do You Really Like Meat That Much?

Story | Arena/Topaz Zega (she/they)

Photo | Ansh Akshintulu (he/him)

Vegetarians and vegans know you have heard it, O’ Yale-NUS student, bastion of free thinking, esoteric meme making, and SATS Food bashing, that darkness in the back of your mind. The cognitive dissonance of knowing that your dietary preferences, blessed be Vegan Teacher, are killing cows. You are aware that this delicious piece of beef before you is contributing massively to Climate Change and the destruction of global ecosystems, that it is a byproduct of animal oppression, and that it is arguably unhealthy for your own body.  But meat is so tasty, you say, so juicy, so proteic, so texturized and… wait, did you say gross?

It is with the absurdity of self-righteousness that vegetarians sit at the dining halls to listen to our friends complain about how gross they find SATS Food meat meals. How gamey the chicken! How dry the salmon! How bleach-tasting the shrimp! Yet, when the comment inevitably comes up, “just don’t eat the meat la,” it is as if we have offended the person across from us. In fact, a quick 200-respondent survey that I conducted on Telegram indicated that 40% of our community never takes the vegetarian option, and around 65% takes it less than twice a week. Beyond a preference for meat, it often feels as if the idea of even casual plant-based meals is not a possibility for a lot of our community. A meal is meat or it is incomplete, even if the meat you are eating—in your own words—plainly sucks. That is where the wisdom of the great Childish Gambino screams in my mind: “Shit, do you really like that shit that you like? Or do you like the way they gave it to you?1

In our contemporary world, eating meat is not a preference for most; it is more of a passive acceptance of a social norm, especially for Western (or Westernized) dinners. A colonial social norm at that, since the establishment of meat as the center of global diets and as a symbol of class status and mobility is directly correlated to the diets of colonial hegemonies. The exportation of violent birth, nurture, and death—delivered by an industrial machine that paints non-human animals as objects to be exploited—is a reflection of the destructive system that is leading us to ecological collapse. Furthermore, through the immense lobbying and marketing power of the meat industry, we have been misled to believe that protein and its nutritional importance equals a piece of meat in every plate. The strategy has been so effective that SATS firmly believes vegetarians and vegans want to eat meat too, just, like, fake. The world offers this much meat, despite all its problems, because big people with big money benefit immensely from its harms, and they are manipulating us. 

When a regime has managed to set its objectives as a natural order—when its subjects only need to be passive to contribute to them—you know that you are in danger.

In this case, to go plant-based individually means to struggle against a very strong social and economic current. Going for the moral superiority of neoliberal veganism and guilt-tripping people into eating the vegetarian option can sometimes be a source of great malignant joy. But, the cold reality is that righteousness politics is not going to make society plant-based by 2030, which is an urgent carbon emissions deadline. Even framed by the urgency of the ecological crisis and the powerful moral imperative of anti-speciesism2, the vegan approach has been demonstrated to be a complete failure worldwide because it has failed to be accessible and political. Instead, it has become a trend for rich people to judge others with, flaunting their privilege while they consume niche products that are sometimes just as harmful as meat. 

Structural change within the food system requires much more strategy, however. As Donella Meadows, the legend of environmental studies, maps in nine useful points, diverse centers of pressure create differentiated change in social systems3. This is where the anticapitalist veganism that has recently flourished in the Global South has placed its pressure: dismantling industries, cultural norms, and matrixes of power manufactured by big meat. One of the important centers of change is school canteens, because they are major consumers and also define eating habits for young generations. As part of joining that change, two interlinked leverages are very useful to changing the way that we consume in Yale-NUS: feedback loops and paradigm change.

Feedback loops are the methods through which a system reinforces itself, essentially equivalent to vicious or virtuous cycles. In our case, a simple cycle is that, as more people consume meat, more people see others eat meat, and so more people associate the standard of dining with meat, so more people eat meat. These reinforcing circles can also be very powerful to install better system norms, however, as the snowball effect of self-organizing agents takes form. The core of the better norm is the implicit assumption, the paradigm. For example, if we think of meat as the quintessential protein, we will believe we need meat. Likewise, if we think of non-human animals as objects of consumption, and not a huge population of exploited lives, what we can consume changes drastically. What you need to change a paradigm cycle from one to another is a nudge, a powerful discharge of social pressure on a single leverage point. Or, you know, to appeal to the laziness of overworked students. 

For our school, the nudge resides in the very options of the meal offered by SATS, in changing the majority option to plant-based (the three main offerings) and the deviant option to meat (the single offering). The tidal force of the system changes direction, and thus passivity supports a much more ethical option. Meat would still be offered, but because it is the deviance, it would now require much more moral energy to choose—it must become intentional. No one judges you for the effects of your dietary choices, just make sure that you really like what you like when it is not backed by the social norm. In turn, this will trigger feedback loops of more plant-based meals, which our planet needs much more than the moral high horse of individual veganism. 

Figure 1.2 The legendarily sad misrepresentation of a vegetarian diet. Options have improved, but only major changes in provider priorities can deliver on the required nutrition and taste.

Yes, I hear your counter, O’ Yale-NUS student, the VE meal has indeed really sucked historically. We all saw that sad, sad excuse for a veg lunch that was just fries, some tomatoes, and corn, blessed be corn. But the faults of the offering result from the fact that the SATS VE offering is not conceptualized as a meal in the first place, rather as a placeholder for the meat in the other options. Personally, I hold the suspicion that the vegan meal is designed through the ingredients that have already been selected for the other three meals, instead of its properly balanced elements. Otherwise, you would not give so many burger buns to people that you never give burgers to.  If the dining halls reallocated spending from costly mock meats to whole nuts, vegetables, legumes, and spices—which, if sourced properly, are more affordable than meat—we would all eat better. By changing paradigms we would also be changing provider priorities, which should considerably improve the quality of the vegetarian meal. 

Especially now that the NUS College set meals are being negotiated and we are defining what the legacy of Yale-NUS will be, we should push for a change of the dining hall options to those that display our integrity in respecting Mother Earth. In fact, by supporting transitions to offer more meat-free meals, we would be doing much more in passive consumption than we can do in greenwashed lifestyles like plastic policing and “sustainable” spending. The catch is that you, O’ Yale-NUS Student, real island boy, have to support the policy change for SATS. The systemic nudge is in your feedback asking for more options, in your support for upcoming petitions, and in our collective stand to redefine the practices of our administration. I do not know about you, but if I am going to complain about the meal anyways, I would rather have something that causes the least harm possible. Who knows? Perhaps, like many of its students, Yale-NUS will find out that it never needed meat in the first place. 


[1] Childish Gambino. (2014). Late Night in Kauai in STN MTN/Kauai. Glassnote Records.

[2] Anti-speciesism is a critical framing of human and environmental relationships, arguing that the exploitation of animals is a system of oppression, just like white-supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, and that it is an ethical duty to fight actively against it.

[3]  Meadows, Donella. (2008). Six: Leverage Points—Places to Intervene in a System in Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: yncoctant@gmail.com

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