by Tim Bonner

In September the University of Cambridge claimed that it had "dramatically reduced their environmental footprint" by replacing the meat with plant-based products for its 14 outlets and 1,500 annual events over the last three years. The Countryside Alliance has revealed that not only are the University’s academics producing ten times more carbon through airline flights than it claims to have saved, but also that it runs a commercial beef and sheep enterprise on its own farm.

Professor Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science, claimed earlier this year of the University’s ban on beef and lamb that "It is hard to imagine any other interventions that could yield such dramatic benefits in so short span of time." 

This was a very bold claim and did not ring true with us. After all farming contributes under 10% of EU greenhouse gas emissions and sheep and beef production make up only a proportion of that. Surely there were other sources of carbon emissions that Cambridge University was contributing towards which could be modified to yield equal or greater benefits? Transport, for instance, contributes a quarter of EU greenhouse gas emissions. Air travel makes up a significant proportion of those emissions and is also, arguably, an activity that can easily be addressed to yield environmental benefits. We therefore asked Cambridge University for information about its use of air travel over roughly the same period that its ban on beef and lamb had been in place. The response revealed that the University had spent £13,431,166.66 on 17,545 flights including 627 to New York, 136 to Cape Town, 127 to Sydney, 115 to Vancouver, 108 to Dubai and 39 to Las Vegas.

Not surprisingly when the sums were done it transpired that the 500 tonnes of carbon emissions the University claims to have saved by not serving beef or lamb were dwarfed by the emissions from its employees domestic and long-haul flights which produced over ten times more carbon. Professor Balmford’s claim that no other intervention could have had such dramatic benefits is clearly nonsense and the charge of hypocrisy is not a hard one to make, not least because Professor Balmford himself had chosen to take a sabbatical in Australia.

But the hypocrisy does not stop there. Our investigations also revealed that Cambridge University has a significant commercial farming operation including “dairy, sheep and beef enterprises”. The University is quite willing therefore to profit from sheep and beef production, yet publicly promotes the compulsory replacement of beef and lamb. It is difficult to describe this as anything other than virtue signalling hypocrisy and worse than that its actions are having a real impact on the lives of cattle and sheep farmers across the country. By promoting the myth that banning beef and lamb is a panacea to drive down carbon emissions, Cambridge University is having a direct impact on demand for British produced meat and the businesses that produce it. People believe what Cambridge University says because of its academic reputation. It has a responsibility to ensure that it does not mislead.

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