In October 2019 YLVA announced that their UniCafe restaurants are removing beef from their lunch menu and cafe items by February 2020. UniCafe is owned and operated by YLVA which is the Student Union’s (HYY) asset manager, owned by the students of University of Helsinki. Similar decisions to remove beef from the menu have been made in university cafeterias in other countries before. In the announcement YLVA reported that removing beef will reduce the carbon footprint of their restaurants by 11%. Now that the time has come and beef has left the building, it is a good time to return to this topic.

The public reception of YLVA’s decision in the autumn was very diverse. The decision was widely discussed in media, and many people from students to politicians shared their opinions on the decision. There were arguments for and against based on varied grounds, e.g. sustainability, agricultural values, and freedom of choice.

As part of ECGS Master’s Programme course we were assigned to deepen our knowledge in environmental social sciences and to carry out a small research project. We all had followed the discussion around UniCafe’s decision to stop serving beef and the attention the decision drew. We wanted to know what students thought about this decision and what arguments they use as a basis for their opinions. We created an online survey and distributed it among student email lists and our fellow students. Through the survey we got huge amount of answers – 2 871 answer of which 2803 were students using UniCafe’s services. These 2803 answers were used in our analysis. We got answers from different study fields, but not all fields were equally represented as can be seen in the Figure 1.

Figure 1. Amount of answers from different fields. Two major fields represented in “Other” category were business and engineering.

Based on our survey, the reactions to UniCafe’s decision were mainly positive – 2 out of 3 respondents thought that the decision was good or very good. Although, the minority of negative answers shouldn’t be overlooked, because we are discussing of a large number of students. There still were 614 respondents who didn’t support UniCafe’s decision to remove beef.

Figure 2. Opinion of students as a percentage of total 2803.

The positive arguments were mainly based on sustainability, corporate responsibility and environmental values. On the other hand, negative responses seemed to focus on the disappointment in UniCafe’s decision, which many found to be mostly political, unfounded, and incorrectly argued or fallacious. There were some differences of opinion distribution between different study fields. Students from social sciences as well as biological and environmental sciences reacted most positively. More negative perceptions were emphasized within the field of agriculture and forestry.

It was also apparent that there is a connection between respondents’ dietary choices and opinion. Those respondents who don’t eat meat (i.e. beef, pork or poultry), at least in UniCafe, had a much more positive reaction compared to those who consume meat. In addition, this was evident in the argumentation – there were many who explained their reaction, good or bad, with their personal preferences and dietary choices.

Based on our research project we can say that students who do use UniCafe’s services occasionally or frequently see YLVA’s decision to remove beef from its menu mostly as a good decision.

With our survey we were able to reach a good range of students from multiple study fields, and the topic attracted a lot of interest. The open answers allowed us to hear the respondents in their own words and further showed how climate change and other environmental impacts were used in many arguments for and against YLVA’s decision. We conclude that based on these findings a majority of UniCafe’s customers have reacted positively to the decision to remove beef from the menu and that these findings show support to the future implementation of this decision.

Janina Harmanen, Laura Kalliokoski, Anna-Emilia Laitinen and Oona Sellman

Janina Harmanen, Laura Kalliokoski, Anna-Emilia Laitinen and Oona Sellman study Environmental Change and Global Sustainability at the University of Helsinki. The UniCafe case study was conducted as a master’s degree course project.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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