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Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance

Clara Ma, CEENRG Researcher and PhD Candidate in the Department of Land Economy, has received the Vice Chancellor's Social Impact Award for Sustainability for her extraordinary contributions to food sustainability programmes at the University of Cambridge. The Sustainability Award, presented to Clara by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Deborah Prentice, acknowledges an individual who has made significant contributions to sustainability through innovative and impactful initiatives.

Clara is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at Selwyn College and alumna of Churchill College. She assists organisations across the University in transitioning to more sustainable food procurement.

In her acceptance speech at the Awards Ceremony, Clara said about her work on advancing food sustainability initiatives at Cambridge:

"My PhD research on the environmental impacts of food production and consumption has motivated me to work with Cambridge departments to adopt more just, sustainable and humane catering practices, and to urge colleges to move in the same direction. I am extremely proud of what has been achieved so far by the dedicated Cambridge students and staff members who have been working on this issue.

In 2023, as a result of this work, the Cambridge Student Union voted to support a transition to 100% plant-based catering across University Catering Services outlets. Multiple Cambridge departments have adopted fully plant-based food policies and a number of catering managers I have worked with are raising the bar for what is possible in Cambridge colleges. But there is so much more that needs to be done considering the scale and urgency of the problems we face."

She then put those efforts in a larger context of urgent transformations needed in our food system:

"The evidence is clear: it will be impossible to meet Paris Agreement climate goals without addressing emissions from our food systems, especially from animal farming and fishing as the environmental impacts of food and agriculture are dominated by the production and extraction of animal-source foods. Animal agriculture uses about 4/5 of global farmland despite providing less than 1/5 of our global supply of calories. Even the lowest-emissions animal-source foods tend to be worse than the highest emissions plant-based foods.

The negative impacts of animal-source food production extend far beyond greenhouse gas emissions. One animal can produce as much as 250 times the amount of excrement as a human does in a day, and the burden of managing cities worth of solid waste is often put on the shoulders of individual contract farmers. Fecal waste from livestock runs off into the water supply, contaminates the food supply, and may be sprayed into the air, resulting in severe health problems for those who live near intensive animal farms.

Over 800 million people are still affected by hunger, yet intensive poultry, pork, dairy and fish production uses 1/3 of the world’s grain and 2/3 of soy, maize and barley as animal feed. Meanwhile, growing food for human consumption directly could feed billions more people.

Three quarters of the world’s antibiotics are used in animal farming, which caused about one million deaths in 2019, a number that will only increase if we do not move away from current methods of food production. When we confine animals together by the tens of thousands, we create breeding grounds for the transmission, emergence and spillover of viral diseases in humans, which is likely to cause the next global pandemic.

Each year we slaughter about 80 billion land animals and trillions of marine animals for food. To put that into perspective, more animals are farmed every year than all of the human beings who have ever lived. It matters how we treat individuals who can feel pain, who are capable of suffering, who have complex emotional experiences and physical and behavioral needs. Pigs are routinely gassed during the slaughter process using high concentrations of CO2. The CO2 gas forms an acid that burns their eyes, nostrils, mouths and lungs, causing excruciating pain and distress. In commercial hatcheries, male chicks and imperfect female chicks bred for egg production are also asphyxiated in CO2 gas, dropped into automatic shredders or simply thrown into the bin, where they are crushed to death. Because of the breakneck pace of slaughter lines, millions of chickens reach the scalding tank fully conscious, where they are subsequently boiled alive. Many sows spend their entire lives in enclosures so small that they’re unable to turn around. Could you imagine what it would be like to live the whole of your life in an airplane seat? These are the harsh realities we impose on the animals we eat.

Changing the way we produce and consume food, challenging entrenched cultural norms and disrupting large agribusiness corporations will not be easy, but every one of us here has the power to do this every day. The choices we make about food consumption for ourselves, and about food procurement for the organizations we are part of, are some of the most frequent, powerful, and important decisions that we can make to improve conditions for all life on this planet, and these choices matter deeply.

I am hopeful that the University of Cambridge will lead in the important transition towards truly just, sustainable and humane food systems."