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As the vice president of policy for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), I’ve spent much of the last year visiting college campuses across the country and being inspired, challenged, and motivated by top debate teams as we sparred over the ethical implications of eating meat. After dozens of such debates, one thing is clear: a vegan lifestyle is more mainstream than ever on college campuses.

Of course, this won’t be news to many MIT students, who have come to expect a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan food options in the campus cafeterias. Last fall, peta2 — the student wing of PETA — unveiled its annual list of the Most Vegan-Friendly Colleges in the U.S., and the competition was (impressively) fierce. Vegetarian barbecue riblets, vegan Southwest steak wraps, and dairy-free chocolate coconut cream pie are just some of the countless delicious and cruelty-free menu options that grace campus menus across the country.

So what’s driving this unprecedented demand for meatless meals?

Whether they are concerned about the environmental devastation associated with feeding massive amounts of corn and soy to farmed animals, are outraged by the ruthlessness of an industry that refuses to make even the most minimal modifications to lessen animals’ suffering, or simply can’t understand how someone could love some animals (e.g., dogs and cats) while eating others (e.g., chickens and pigs), thoughtful students everywhere are ditching meat, eggs, and dairy products in favor of healthier, more humane cuisine.

Right now, more than 70 percent of the grain grown in this country is fed to animals who are raised for food. Similarly, nearly half the water consumed and 80 percent of the agricultural land in this country is used for livestock instead of being utilized to grow food to feed people. The massive amount of excrement produced by farmed animals — approximately 130 times as much as the entire U.S. population produces — makes its way into our local waterways, including those right here in Massachusetts.

Chickens and turkeys have their throats cut while they’re still conscious, piglets have their tails and testicles cut off without being given any painkillers, fish suffocate or are cut open while they’re still alive on the decks of fishing boats, and calves are taken away from their mothers within hours of birth. Mother pigs are crammed into crates that are too small for them to turn around in, and chickens are killed using a method that guarantees that millions of birds will be immersed, fully conscious, in scalding-hot water. PETA investigations have found repeatedly that sadistic abuse on the part of workers is the norm, not the exception.

And more and more students are realizing that there is no ethical consistency in doling out affection to our pets while dining on the bodies of other animals who are every bit as deserving of our compassion and respect as any dog or cat. Most people are revolted by the idea of dining on Fluffy or Fido, but good luck coming up with a moral or scientific argument to defend eating chickens but not cats or pigs but not dogs.

These are issues that affect each and every one of us, so it’s understandable why there is such a thirst among students to learn more. My recent peta2-sponsored debates at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the Universities of Texas and Georgia, and many other major institutions have been jam-packed with hundreds of people eager to explore the ethics of eating animals.

Bruce Friedrich debated members of the MIT Debate Team yesterday from 7–8:30 p.m. in 10-250.