Or... why animal feed needs to be a key indicator for sustainable foodservice.
Most sensible people agree that animal products have a disproportionate impact on natural resources, climate change and, in the certain cases, our own health. And whilst most metrics for understanding your impacts tend to make beef look like the bad boy of food sustainability, there is also a general consensus that we need to reduce our intake of animal products in general, and eat more fruit, vegetables and healthy grains. What is less clear is how we decide what meat/fish/dairy we should be eating, even when we are eating less (you can watch a short explanation of what "Less But Better" meat really means here). For example greenhouse gas emissions always make beef, lamb and cheese look like a bad choice. The same goes for land-use requirements, when "land-use" does not differentiate between cropland versus grassland and so on.
So this is all helpful to give us metrics to reduce our overall meat intake, but it does not help us make decisions between and within types of meat. Is pork better than chicken? Is this chicken better than that chicken? Here we use data from FAO as a baseline to illustrate how knowing the type and source of animal feed can help us make informed decisions.
Impacts from different types of animal feed
Firstly, some definitions. Here I use two key impacts:
- land-use change carbon impact, estimating the carbon emissions from deforestation etc to clear land for growing animal feed. You could also see this as a very rough proxy for biodiversity loss, albeit with some caveats.
- competitive land-use, estimating the land-use requirement to produce animal feed when that land could have been used to produce food that could be eaten directly by humans. This matters in a world of limited agricultural land, growing populations and persistent hunger in some regions.
In this article I use three different types of feed to show the different impacts:
- soy from South America. High land-use change impacts; high competitive land-use (assuming the land is now competing with human food since it has been changed from a natural habitat).
- grains from Europe. Low or no land-use change impacts; high competitive land-use.
- ecological leftovers (eg grass, byproducts from agriculture that are not suitable for human consumption). Low or no land-use change; low competitive land-use.
Bear in mind that these types of feed have different feed efficiencies (ie the conversion rate of feed to meat) with ecological leftovers being generally associated with lower feed efficiency. So the below scenarios are simply models to illustrate how we can use this as a principle to go "Beyond Carbon" in terms of indicators for more sustainable meat choices.
This chicken or that chicken?
Imagine that two staff restaurants both serve a chicken casserole for five hundred guests each, using 100g of chicken per serving. So each kitchen buys 50kg of chicken breast. Restaurant A uses chicken that has been fed an even split between soy from Brazil and grains from Europe. Restaurant B uses chicken that has been fed only grains from Europe and ecological leftovers. Based on FAO data for land-use change, crop yields and taking an average feed efficiency of 3:1 (3 kg of feed produces 1kg of meat), Restaurant A will have an additional land-use change carbon impact the same as driving over 1000km in a family car, whereas Restaurant B will arguable have no additional land-use change climate carbon impact. For competitive land-use, Restaurant A's chicken meat would need over twice as much cropland than the chicken meat from Restaurant B. So the chicken in Restaurant B is demonstrably a better choice.
This beef or that chicken?
The next day Restaurant A serves chicken (again... but today it's a curry), but Restaurant B serves a beef wok. The same volumes as before, and Restaurant A uses the same chicken supplier, but Restaurant B uses beef that has been fed only ecological leftovers. Classic LCA research shows that beef has a carbon footprint of around 25kg of greenhouse gases per kg of meat (give or take a bit), and chicken normally comes in around 5kg of greenhouse gases per kg of meat. However, this normally assumes a low impact for land-use change carbon impact for the chicken, so in this case (based on FAO data for soy from South America) the actual carbon footprint of Restaurant A's chicken could increase to around 9kg of greenhouse gases per kg of meat. It is still lower than the beef, but the gap has been closed a bit. Note that we have not included the potential for carbon sequestration on the land the cattle may be grazing or indeed put a value on the carbon stock of that land if the carbon is stable, so the beef could in fact be no worse that the chicken based on carbon footprint alone. And then let's look at competitive land-use: the beef is fed on ecological land-use so has virtually zero competitive land-use requirements, but the chicken's cropland requirement would be very significant (around 500 metres squared of cropland, loosely calculated from feed efficiency rates and FAO yield data).
And remember this is just one day in the life of two restaurants. Multiple that fifty times and we're still nowhere near the volume of chicken being served on a daily basis, even for a medium-sized foodservice business. So the beef has a higher carbon footprint, but the chicken is putting more pressure on limited cropland, and in this case, deforestation. Are we done with the "just eat less beef" thing now?
Animal feed as an indicator
These scenarios are just examples, using FAO data with a big old bundle of assumption thrown in. It is not a peer-reviewed research paper and it of course does not mean your chicken has this impact, or your beef is not impacting competitive land-use (it almost certainly is). But it does show how understanding what your food eats is really important for understanding the impacts of what you eat, and what decisions you can make to reduce your impacts. Eat less meat, but eat better meat. Animal feed is one of the factors you need to consider, and IntoFood can help you start to understand this.
On The Hot Plate video series, episode 1
What does "less but better" meat really mean?
There has been a lot of talk about blockchain as a tool (platform?) that will help food systems to become more sustainable, transparent, accountable and many other things. But on its own, blockchain is just a ledger, albeit one that is distributed and in theory cannot be altered. But it is still a data in / data out mechanism at the end of the day. Here are some thoughts on how blockchain solutions can really add value, what we should be wary of, and where they would need some "help".
The good bit...
- it should be possible to verify that your beef does not have any horse in it. Or that your honey has not been bulked out with sugary syrups.
Be wary of...
- who will police this? This is a potential issue that we come back to often later on. It does not mean that all information on a blockchain will be false, but we do need a verification mechanism.
Needs help with...
- making this information truly valuable will need some thought. Yes, it is good to know your beef is beef not horse, but what are the truly dangerous things that we need to catch? These are the bits that are really going to matter in the future.
Sourcing & supply chain
The good bit...
- transparency for sourcing and across the supply chain. It can give you a map of what happened to your food, from farmer to delivery at point of sale, without lots of human hours to connect the dots. Great potential for food safety as well.
Be wary about...
- what does this really mean to a consumer? People get very excited about being able to prove food is "local" but that in itself is a pretty meaningless concept because it says nothing about the actual sustainability of the product.
Needs help with...
- augmented data from specialist analysis could add KPIs to this and show, for example, the environmental impacts of that product across the whole supply chain and what the key impacts across the supply chain really are. In winter, should you buy tomatoes from spain or the UK, and why? For those who lose sleep over this, the answer could be forthcoming!
The good bit...
- providing verification across the supply chain that certain criteria have been met. Sustainable seafood is an obvious example.
Be wary about...
- it still needs policing in some way. So audits will not become a thing of the past, because a verifiable system still needs verifying. Most things can be faked unless you do some audits or have a system for catching the cheats. How this will work is not yet clear.
Needs help with...
- certification schemes are only ever as good as the criteria behind them. As we learn more about food sustainability, will certification schemes keep pace with research or will they remain based around "old knowledge"? For example, organic certification is based around certain criteria, but increasingly research is suggesting that non-organic farming is, if done right, just as or more sustainable along different criteria. The organic label, even on a blockchain, would not help us move forwards unless it evolved the criteria to reflect new knowledge.
Animal / human welfare
The good bit...
- proving that welfare standards are met, that all farm employees have proper contracts and a living wage etc.
Be wary about...
- as with everything else, it still needs policing. Most things can be faked one way or another, so someone still needs to check things.
Needs help with...
- this is a very complex area, and we still need better definition of good welfare, for both animals and for people.
The good bit...
- sustainably-sourced products such as sustainable soy and so on. This overlaps somewhat with certification points of course, and could make it much easier to differentiate between similar products based on whether they are meeting certain sustainability criteria.
Be wary of...
- whether a product has a positive or negative impact on the environment is more complex than just having a sustainable label attached to it. For example, does chicken that has been fed "sustainable soy" have lower impacts than farmed salmon that has been fed insect-based feed? With too many labels, how can foodservice procurement managers (let alone consumers) make sense of this? Data needs to be meaningful and comparative.
Needs help with...
making sense of this! For example, it is possible to give more accurate carbon footprint, land-use and biodiversity impact KPIs for products when production and supply chain data is exposed on a blockchain (assuming the above challenges around policing are met). This evidence-based data will be more useful for making comparisons between and within food product categories. But on its own a blockchain approach will not give you this. (if you are interested in this, see IntoFood's new research project "Beyond Carbon" here).
So blockchain is no silver bullet, but it is a strong contender to increase transparency and, if combined with other research and data solutions, it can give us better indicators with which to make sustainable purchasing decisions. If blockchain enthusiasts are willing to collaborate with other specialists, this could be a reality. What we do with such knowledge remains to be seen. Will this be a powerful tool for improvement or just more information that everyone ignores as cheaper, unsustainable consumerism wins the day? Let's hope for the former!
IntoFood provides sustainability metrics and KPIs to foodservice businesses, via reporting on menus, sales and procurement, either as standalone reports or integrated with recipe, procurement and compliance systems. We also provide online learning programs for your chefs and F&B managers in food sustainability, and run consultancy services for sustainability project implementation. If you want to here more about ow we can help you to improve and prove your food sustainability credentials, please get in touch here.
It does not seem to matter what KPI you are going for, in food sustainability projects things will get messy if you do not have clear plans in place for skill requirements, measuring outcomes, and audience-specific communication plans.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, you need plans or the wheels fall off. Of course. It goes without saying. But there are "nice to have" plans, and there are "must have" plans. Hard-earned, coal-face experience has taught me that, when it comes to food sustainability projects, there are three kinds of plan you cannot do without: a skills plan, a measurement plan, and a communication plan. Here is why they matter and how they are interrelated.
Almost by definition, food sustainability initiatives involve some changes to routines, to menu plans, and to procurement policies. And for people to be engaged in change they normally need to know why, how and what. "Why is this a sustainability issue? How will we do it? What is the expected outcome?" Staff who are fully engaged in the sustainability issues at hand - be it food waste, climate change, sustainable seafood, plant-forward menus or any other issue you care to pick - will almost always respond more positively because they understand the reasons and they can build a sense of ownership for the solution. It sounds obvious, but it gets missed more often than it should. And the kind of skills needed will vary in different parts of the organisation; the sustainability skills you need in the kitchen are not the same as for front of house, or for client relationship management. Try implementing a new food concept without making sure that your client account managers or regional managers have got the skills to explain why you are doing it, and you'll see what I mean.
How you measure - the tools you will use - means having a plan in place that includes a usable tool for accurately measuring the impact you are trying to affect. A food waste tracker, an analytics tool for procurement impacts, customer satisfaction tools and so on. Test the tools before you commit to a full-blown industry-wide project. What you measure needs a bit more thought too. For example with food waste, you might want to define categories of food waste that you will measure; for climate change you might want to measure recipes (to define "planet-smart" recipes) and procurement (to benchmark your actual carbon footprint). But you might also want to measure sales of different recipes to understand which recipes sell best and how that relates to your sustainability. And of course for food waste, wouldn't you want to measure on a daily basis? But probably not for a project to increase the amount of sustainable seafood you are buying - here a monthly procurement analysis might be enough. One common mistake is to rely on annual audits alone. Annual audits give us an overview of what happened, but give us no real data on how or why. And if you are not sure that your measurements are meaningful then you cannot really communicate your outcomes very clearly.
I tend to view communication plans in terms of who they are intended for: internal on-site, internal management, client on-site and external client relations. Each group needs a different message in terms of goals, and then later on what you achieved, any new best practices, revised targets, and areas for improvement. Each communication plan needs to be clear, concise and tailored, but linked to the measurement plans. It's about storytelling, but storytelling is just data with a soul so your measurements and data should act as your evidence. And get this, if you communicate a new project to someone and their response is along the lines of "I don't know why we need to do xxxx, why does it matter?", then you've got yourself a skills gap and something to add to your skills plan.
So these plans are not old school project management file cabinet fillers - they are early phase plans that you improve over time. Assess your skills gaps, build a draft measurement plan, provide first stage communication plans. Take onboard questions and ideas, and then revise the skills plan, adjust the measurement plan, and polish the communication plan. Two or three iterations of this and you will avoid the trap of going ahead with a bold initiative only to find the staff do not really know what the issue is, you cannot make sense of the measurements, and key people are not really aware of what is going on and what to tell your guests and clients.
want our free checklists toolbox for food sustainability projects?
In a staff restaurant, somewhere near here, 2025...
Wednesday morning 8.30am, April 30th. Weather: cloudy and cold.
Executive chef Maria checks the app for meals ordered, showing how many guests are due to eat lunch today, and who has pre-ordered the hot main dishes, salads and take-away. Her team uses this to plan the production for the day, combined with historical data showing them how much food from the salad bar and deli station is normally eaten on a cloudy day in April, the average portion size per guest, and how much is normally wasted.
The hot main dishes are designed to provide 30% of the daily recommended volumes of all key nutrients, and stay within the suggested carbon, water and resource-use budget per person. They do not always stick to these limits, because not all guests like the same thing, and Maria and her team have license to create their own menu plans as long as it keeps them within reasonable boundaries. They also receive the allergy and nutritional alerts for the guests who have specific dietary requirements, so they can ensure every guest has a good lunch option.
By developing food concepts that are optimised for health and environment, and by minimising waste, Maria has been able to cut environmental impacts by 40% in the last 2 years, without having to make drastic changes to the way she runs the kitchen. She just has better information, especially now that guests can provide accurate feedback on the lunch app. Back in the old days, she never really knew which dishes were most popular, so there was always a bit of guesswork as to whether new dishes would fly or not. Maria can now predict pretty accurately which new ideas will be popular by looking at the guest satisfaction history. If you're going to try a new dish, fail early and fail gently.
She is even trialing RoboSoup, the first product designed for large scale catering that takes data from their stock control and creates soup recipes that will use up any food at risk of going out of date. The soups are pretty good too, and this could be extended to the salad bar and delis soon, as well as providing take-away suggestions. The "food to go" trend of 2018 & 2019 didn't really last, but the remnants of it can be seen in the small but regular number of guests who want their lunch to take-away.
Wednesday morning 9.30am
In his office, Ed receives an alert on the lunch app asking him if he would like to choose his lunch for tomorrow. He doesn't always choose, because sometimes he needs to be elsewhere at short notice, but because he has joined the company's Green & Mean cycling group, he has signed up to get recommendations for the healthiest and most "planet smart" choices for each day. To be honest, Ed's not too sure what all the different metrics are, but the gizmo that shows him which dishes will give him the biggest nutrient bang for its environmental buck does the job.
Ed gets an alert showing 30 seconds queuing time for lunch, so head downstairs to the restaurant, scans his smart phone and collects his lunch. After lunch he swipes right for sweet potato curry, but swipes left for the root vegetable panna cotta, and later that afternoon Maria gets all of the feedback on her phone for that day's service. She was right, the root vegetable panna cotta was a step too far.
Maria needs to make her food order for next week and she still does most of her ordering for twice weekly deliveries. The really fresh produce from the indoor salad gardens can be delivered every day by drone, but she only uses this for the ultra perishable produce and at certain times of year when the ordering system shows her it will be a better choice. For everything else she gets recommendations based on previous orders, the time of year, best price options, and which producers have updated their sustainability data. Apparently this is all provided on the Foodchain, which is a bit like the system they used for bitcoin before the crash but it deals with food not money. Maria doesn't really care how it works as long as it helps her make good ordering decisions from the different suppliers she uses. She knows really talented chefs who still have their recipes in their heads so that they can be creative every day, but even they use the Foodchain for making purchasing decisions because it can all be done on their smart phones.
Because it is also the end of the month, she gets her sustainability report for the food they have bought, sold, and wasted for April. Good news; she is 8% better than March for total procurement, with 99.2% production effectiveness. Guest food waste is down to 10g per guest as well. Her food costs are within budget, the nutritional quality of food served in April is within the recommended ranges, and they only used 80% of their carbon, water and resource budget. Still, she's done her six hour day, so anything else can wait until tomorrow.
In an office in oslo, 5th january 2018...
You may not think all of the things that happened above are (a) on the cards or (b) will be used by everyone, but the reality is that by combining better information with human talent, we can create a food service industry that is a cause for good in ways that are measurable and evidence-based. And in fact the underlying technology for a lot of the things I described are in some shape or form already here, or at least not that far away. The question is, how far down the road are you and how far do you want to go? I know caterers who get accurate daily waste reports, who know the environmental impacts of their recipes (at least on some metrics), and most caterers have "level 1" nutritional and allergy data. Guest feedback systems exist, and we are learning more about communicating healthy and sustainable diets every day. Indoor food production systems are all the rage in the urban agriculture world and drone delivery is not that far away. Caterers can already get monthly and quarterly data showing their sustainability across multiple dimensions (clients of IntoFood can at any rate), and a "blockchain for food" has been successfully tested for food safety. The gaps are only really in some data areas, scale, and software integration. Seven years to get there, so who'd bet against it?
PS - with apologies to fans of root vegetables and panna cotta, and soup gurus the world over.
PPS - I checked, 30th April 2025 will be a Wednesday.
It is a bit of a corporate mantra isn't it? "We are only as strong as our people". Or for Richard Branson: "Clients do not come first. Employees come first". All well and good, no arguments there from me. I am not here to argue whether organisations walk the walk or not, but I do think I can argue that, for sustainability, there is no doubting the power of employee engagement. Sure, you need to measure and manage your impact against goals, but in my experience a critical factor is also about the people, and how they engage your customers. Why is this especially important in sustainability? Because shifts to a more sustainable way of doing things involve change by definition, and normally require a new way of looking at things. And change is always our biggest challenge.
In food service the need is clear. I have seen food waste initiatives struggle because of a lack of leadership, and new menu concepts die because of lack of engagement from front of house staff or resistance from key members in a kitchen But I have also seen 25% reductions in climate change impacts, 20% increases in servings of fruit and veg, 50% reductions in food waste, with both happy teams and happy customers. Part of this is down to smart solutions, but a big part is down to the people.
Organisations, NGOs and advocacy groups are latching on to this too. The Chef's Manifesto, part of SDG2 Advocacy Hub, is a great example of getting chefs together and creating awareness and solutions. As they say, working together we can help deliver a better food system for all. When it comes to food waste, renowned food waste reducers Winnow are running a chefs campaign For The Love Of Food, focusing on food waste. Again, getting chefs talking and sharing solutions. At IntoFood we have recently taken a very concrete "skills-based" approach. In the autumn we ran a set of surveys and interviews with chefs in order to learn more about what they knew about food sustainability. While the sample size was small, the message was clear. Only 5% of chefs felt they had a good enough understanding of the environmental impacts of food. Indeed, the majority said they wanted to know more about key impacts such as food waste, climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean habitat loss, deforestation, and how to apply this knowledge to their jobs. These are the sort of issues that research is clear on: we need change.
Why does this matter? Because if you really want to succeed in sustainable food service, you cannot just tell people what to do. You need to engage them in the "why", not just the "how" and "what". And you cannot just pin all your hopes on the chefs. Like I said, I have seen initiatives fail because middle managers assumed the on-site staff would just nail it, or the front of house team totally disengaged from what the kitchen team were trying to achieve. But I have also seen restaurant managers walking around talking with guests about food sustainability, and inspiring people to go on that journey with them. It's not just down to the chefs. So we need to give people across the industry a good understanding of why it matters and what they can do in their jobs, every single day, to be part of the solution. All the way down from the CEO to the dish wash team. And if you really want to create change... start 'em young with more focus at catering colleges, schools and apprenticeships. Food sustainability should be a core education for food service professionals at all levels and all ages.
Food service will benefit from this on a business level too. The people who understand the issues (the "why") are not only more likely to implement initiatives successfully, but they are also more likely to find new solutions on their own. Which means you have a greater opportunity to let them get on with it, rather than always checking that they are doing what you asked them to do. I have not seen any research on staff turnover, but my gut feeling is staff that feel part of a cause for good are more likely to stay. I know I would anyway. So we need to give power to the people in order to benefit from the power of the people.
IntoFood helps food service businesses with two key things: reducing food-related environmental impacts and training their staff. You can see more about our software solutions for measuring and managing impacts here, and our online sustainability training courses at The School of Sustainable Food Service.
The last 5 years have seen a welcome acceptance within the food industry that we need to eat fewer animal products ("we" being us lot in developed countries, by and large). The practical implementation of solutions is more challenging however.
Here we do our bit and throw into the pot 8 no brainer "meat free" dishes, and their under-estimated cousins, the "less meat" equivalents. The key point is that "meat free" is not the only way to reduce consumption of animal products. Great tasting "less meat" dishes can actually achieve more in the long-run. A little every day, and so on.
Anyone who can make a good curry will tell you that it's all about the spices. You don't really need much or any meat to make a curry shine. I often use lentils as the base ingredient, because they are packed with protein and have a meaty feel to them. Cauliflower also seems made in heaven for curry.
And your "less meat" equivalent? Well here's the thing, if the flavour is in the spices then the amount of meat you use is only really indicative of your customers' expectations. If you re-frame the dish as "Lentil and chicken" rather than "Chicken", then you shift people's expectations, and you don't need to use 100 or 120g of meat. 80g is plenty in a well-spiced dish.
Obviously, anything where you are using garlic, tomatoes and olive oil. No need to tell chefs how to do this! Many different vegetables can bulk out the dish so that its not just a bowl of carbs. Your use of seasonal vegetables fits really well here: spring greens, summer veg, autumn roots. All on a base of garlic and tomato sauce. Or pesto. Etc.
And their "less meat" cousin? Bacon. Does any other animal product provide so much flavour for so little volume? Or a good smoked ham if you are feeling fancy. You could just go for a carbonara, but its more interesting to use small amounts of strong flavoured meats with your seasonal veg, no?
So you get the idea. Here are the other dishes that make sustainability easy!
3. Pie (part 1: pastry-based pies)
A vegetable quiche is nothing new to the culinary world and, again, plays very well with your seasonal sourcing goals. And the "less meat" cousin? Quiche lorraine with a twist. Smoked fish (please go "beyond salmon"). Amazing flavours for tiny amount of meat or fish. 20g goes a long way.
4. Pie (part 2: Shepherd-ish)
I know people say you shouldn't mess with classics, but really? Classics are only classics within the time-frame we give them, so let's give the food snobbery a miss and see the opportunity. A meat free shepherds pie is a wonderful thing. The key is to use the right vegetables: mushrooms, beans, lentils (hello again) are great for that fill-you-up pie feeling. And you go "less meat" by using some meat, but not too much. Lamb for the shepherd's pie purists, beef for the cottage pie converts. But you don't need to make it all about the meat. Change the name, change the game.
Ok, so you want to annoy some purists? I'm with Jamie Oliver on this one. Food purists are only a few steps away from food fundamentalists, and that's not what we need right now. Pælla is perfectly suited to both meat free and "less meat" options. Why? Because the flavour is in the dish and its clever use of ingredients (see curry, pasta and so on). You can use tiny amounts on chorizo and mussels to give a pælla a lift. If you go meat free, charring some of your veg to accentuate the flavour, or even smoking them (smoked red peppers?) will add an extra flavour dimension, and loads of colour. And colour counts in a dish like this.
Same principles as pælla. Say no more.
Recent work by the Wold Resource Institute looks at the concept of "power dishes" - those dishes that are culturally influential and good options for re-framing how people think about their food. Burgers are one of these "power dishes". And with good reason, partly because you find burgers everywhere, and partly because they are the kind of poster boys for unsustainable food systems : the massive associated environmental impacts from beef and connotations with junk food. But they're popular, so there is a lot of scope for creating change. Most people will have seen good and bad veggy burgers, but it is fair to say that the "standard" is improving. The best in my opinion combine the stodginess of beany/starchy ingredients with the some crunch. We could of course just wait for the Impossible Burger to get their price low enough and off we go, but I fear that is going to be a long and winding road my friends. And here is the beauty about a burger... whilst there is a strong burger trend for all things "gourmet", not many people have seen the light with "less meat" burgers. You don't really need 150g of beef to make a great burger. Swap out 60g of meat for beans, sweet potato, lentils, mushrooms and so on and you create something with a new dimension in flavour and texture.
Ok so we are dipping deeper into fast food territory here, but let's be honest, there is a growing trend for good food on-the-go, so we might as well get it right. Apply the same rules to a burrito (or any of the wrap family) and you can make something truly delicious with no meat. Again, your protein rich veg features a lot here, partly because of the "proteiny-ness" but also because they can handle a bit of chili. And the "less meat" cousin? Instead of 150g of meat in a large burrito, use 75g. Easy. We had a client who did just that. They did the marketing for the new dishes really nicely and everyone was happy.
So there you go. Lots of menu areas where meat free and "less meat" ideas are already considered mainstream (mushroom risotto, carbonara and so on). What we need to do is add some good old chef creativity and we create a whole new food movement around new twists on old classics. The real challenge is how to change menus when they are rooted more in meat as the star of the show. Steak is a really easy example of course Half a steak, anyone? Clever chefs can reinvent these dishes too though, but it is admittedly a bit more challenging. The trick is to focus on the dishes that you can change, make a big deal about them, and over time you can start to make changes in the more challenging dishes.
Tech and food sustainability: the right data in the right place at the right time
Food systems contribute around 30% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, are responsible for 70% of water consumption, cause deforestation and both terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss, and yet about a third of the food that we produce is never actually eaten. Added to that, food demand is predicted to increase globally by a further 50% before 2050. I think we can call that an unsustainable system.
Food service businesses can take a leading role here, and that is where technology and data can help. Smart systems can allow customers and food service providers to understand their impacts in terms of menus, waste, procurement and sales. This can give businesses insights that go beyond profit and loss and allow sustainability to be built into business processes. The key is to have the right data in the right place at the right time, so that people can make decisions from a triple bottom-line perspective: environment, health and economy. How, for example, can a restaurant serve meals that minimise environmental impacts, optimise nutrition, and are still profitable? And still delight their guests?
Here are 3 trends I see helping to drive sustainable food service:
1. Sustainability data in kitchens. Understanding the impacts of your recipes, your production, your waste. And joining it all up so you can really aim for sustainability. Companies like Winnow Solutions (www.winnowsolutions.com) are nailing the waste issue, and my own company IntoFood (www.intofood.no) is tackling some of this from a recipe and procurement angle.
2. Sustainability reporting that is data-driven and research-based. Integrated reporting can apply sustainability to standard KPIs (revenue, sales, costs and so on). This allows food service businesses to understand how their food concepts are performing from a business perspective as well as a sustainability perspective, and adds value in a number of ways. Firstly, unless you are measuring your sustainability, you cannot really communicate it and, in the future, your brand is going to be tied more and more to your sustainability. It also allows businesses to identify which sites are high performers for both the financial and environmental bottom line, and then build best practices across the business.
3. Communication with customers. We are only really dipping our toes in sustainability communication, but new apps and platforms are coming to the fore where customers can make sustainable choices. Customer-facing portals will allow guests to understand more about their food choices and, when applied to a pre-ordering solution, restaurants can encourage guests to make sustainable choices and simultaneously benefit from pre-sales information. This helps front of house to manage bookings and helps the kitchens to plan their production better. Customer feedback can then help to develop menu plans that move continually in a more sustainable direction.
Which all then looks a bit like this (if tech folk ran restaurants!) :
The hunger for sustainable solutions seems to be growing in both the industry and with consumers, so it is key that both research and technology come together to create credible solutions. Many of these solutions exist in some shape or form, but they are not yet very well integrated. It is this integration that will give the full picture.
We took our proven process for sustainable food service, and made it into an online course. written by chefs, for chefs.
Launching end of November 2017!
Schemes that carbon offset our consumer behaviour have their place and their limitations, but carbon offsetting our meals when we dine out is totally missing the point.
There seems to have been a bit of noise on social media recently about offsetting the carbon emissions attributed to our food choices when we dine out. And whilst this may give customers the feel-good factor that they have had a great night out and done something to help fight climate change, it is somehow managing to completely misunderstand the issues around food sustainability. It gives people a false sense that their actions are now somehow guilt free, and it absolves the restaurants of taking responsibility for their own sustainability. Think of it as the eco equivalent of making weekly visits to church to ask for forgiveness, and then going on another crime spree.
Here are 3 big reasons why carbon offsetting for food is not the solution it claims to be.
1. the environmental impacts of our food systems go way beyond climate change.
The biggest greenhouse gas emissions from our food systems are related to the production (and therefore consumption) of animal products. So if you are offsetting the carbon footprint of a meal, then really you are offsetting the meat, fish or dairy. But there are a whole host of other negative environmental impacts caused by the production of these products that a carbon offset (even if it is a tree planting scheme) cannot really cancel out. Key impacts that will go "un-offset" are:
- water requirements for livestock production (hint: livestock need a lot of water)
- land biodiversity loss. Its not just the trees that get cut down to clear land for soy production, grazing land, and palm oil. Everything else in that habitat goes with it. And these are some of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet.
- marine biodiversity. Planting a tree somewhere to offset carbon is going to help maintain healthy fish stock levels and protect marine biodiversity is it? Really? Nope, didn't think so.
- Unsustainable farming practices. You could maybe just read the above points again, but to spell it out, the demand for animal products is generally agreed to be a key driver of industrial-style monoculture-based farming practices where agricultural land is steadily worked to death. Just so that we can eat what we want.
So by giving people a get out of jail free card, we keep the treadmill going for eating habits that cause massive damage beyond just climate change.
2. behaviour change would give us so many more co-benefits
Imagine an alternative world, where instead we ate less of the greenhouse gas intensive foods in order to reduce the emissions attributed to our diets. Its not just that all the signals from the research world are telling us we need to, we would also relieve the pressure on the other impacts mentioned in point 1. And we would shift towards more healthy diets at the same time. All of this becomes harder to achieve when people sell offsetting as a carbon solution to food. It disincentivises the behaviour changes that we need if we are to make a real difference, and it makes the co-benefits even harder to achieve.
3. it doesn't guarantee cancelling out the bad stuff anyway
Just to be argumentative for a second... history suggests that when we want more land, we tend to throw caution to the wind and cut down trees in order to give us more agricultural land. Food is one of the key drivers of deforestation, after all. And so far we have not been very good at preventing this from happening. Sure, you might be able to argue that global deforestation has slowed, but it is still going on. And at large scale too. So if you offset a meal by planting a tree somewhere, what guarantee do you have that when the push comes to shove, someone with money/power/influence is not going to cut it down at some stage in the near future because we need more land for food (which is a clear prediction based on population and dietary projectons)? What do you think is going to happen to that tree? Its the same madness all over again.
Not to mention that even if that tree stands the test of time, and therefore arguably does its job to offset carbon emissions, you still have all the other environmental impacts to account for. And planting a tree in one part of the world does not cancel out the loss of biodiversity from cutting down a tree in another part of the world. Global ecosystems don't really work like that.
We really cannot afford schemes that give people the impression that they can just carry on regardless and eat what they want. And these schemes risk doing just that. It is surely not their intention, but it is outcome not intention that counts, and the message is pretty clear. "Carbon free dining", "carbon neutral restaurants", "carbon positive" (please everybody, stop saying that); all these phrases are loaded with messaging that there is nothing to worry about. We cannot make an assumption people will also make behaviour changes as well as paying a bit extra for an offset; that just doesn't make any behavioural sense.
In defense of carbon offsetting, and as pointed out by a friend who works in research programs for food sustainability, we may well still need to throw money at offsetting our emissions in order to meet climate change targets. But, as he pointed out, this can only work when it is in addition to progress in sustainable farming practices, reductions in consumption of animal products, and reductions in food waste. If it replaces the reductions in consumption then it just can't work; we will be cutting down trees for more farmland faster than the offsetters will be planting them!
At IntoFood we specifically measure the carbon footprint (among other things) of recipes, menus, sales and procurement for clients in the hospitality industry. But we do it to help them see the opportunity for change in their food service, not so they can sign up for a ticket to "cook what you want" catering. And we use carbon footprint as the vehicle for change not the definition of change, because whilst there are indeed some trade-offs between greenhouse gas metrics and other food-related issues (for example, animal welfare), there are also so many co-benefits, as mentioned here, of eating lower on the carbon scale. Eat climate-smart, don't just try to pay your way out of trouble.
Here we summarise the findings from a new report on grassfed meat production, and explain what your restaurant can do to serve meat in a sustainable way.
The recent report by the FCRN makes a strong argument that even grassfed meat cannot really be considered sustainable, especially at the current and projected levels of meat consumption.
There has been an ongoing debate about whether the real issue with livestock farming is industrial factory farming, or more generally about the impact all livestock production has on the environment. Advocates of grassfed beef argue that grazing livestock avoids many of the pitfalls of factory farming, and makes use of natural resources that we cannot eat ourselves (mainly grass in this case). And this is all valid up to a point. More strident claims are that in fact grassfed livestock is "sustainable" because grazing animals causes the grasslands to sequester (suck in & store) lots and lots of carbon, thereby cancelling out the greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock production itself. And this is kind of the crux of the argument.
Here are the key points made in the report:
- Research shows the level of carbon sequestration to be much lower than that claimed by advocates of the "carbon neutral cow" theory (such as Allan Savory and his holistic grazing).
- The amount of new carbon that can be stored in the pastures due to grazing is much less than the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from raising the livestock in the first place.
- Soil carbon reaches an equilibrium quite quickly and at that stage it will stop cancelling out the emissions from the livestock anyway.
- Soil carbon is not permanent, and it can be easier to lose carbon than store it.
- And the emissions from the livestock are very high, very complex and will keep on coming as long as there are livestock on the land, long after the soil carbon has stabilised.
In other words, it looks like this:
Do we have enough land anyway?
And here is the real catch. Rearing animals on land that cannot be used for much else is ok so far as it goes, but at current levels of meat consumption (never mind projected global levels for the next 30 years) we don't have enough of the "cannot be used for anything else" land. So to convert all of our meat to "grassfed only" would likely require more land to be cleared, which sounds a lot like deforestation. And nobody thinks we need more deforestation.
There is an additional issue here, that if we took the livestock off the grasslands and let the land "rewild" or reforest, then how much more carbon would be stored in that land (and without the greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock)? Nobody seems to have a good answer to that yet, but its an important land-use question.
Is "grassfed" still better than "industrially farmed" meat?
The FCRN report did not set out to answer this question, it focused on showing what the greenhouse gas outcomes are from grassfed meat, so there is no firm conclusion here. However, here is a practical perspective: there are so many things wrong-headed about factory farmed meat that making a direct comparison is missing the point. We know that factory farmed meat has enormous environmental costs, not to mention animal welfare and health issues. But we can also now say fairly confidently that switching over to grassfed systems would not solve one of the key problems : climate change. It could indeed make things worse, if it resulted in more deforestation.
What can your restaurant do?
At IntoFood we are all about taking constructive action, based on what the evidence is saying. And in many ways, this report does not change our message.
Reduce meat consumption for many many reasons, not least because the climate change impacts of eating so much meat will in all likelihood act as a barrier to meeting the 2 degree goals of the Paris agreement.
How much meat?
One off-the-record comment that came out of the webinar for FCRN's report was that consumption of meat per person should perhaps be reduced to about 25% of our current western levels. Which for most countries means going down from about 180g per day to about 50g per day.
This will not happen overnight of course, but setting yourselves a goal in your restaurant to cut meat consumption by 30% within 1 year is actually very manageable, if done right. You are then on a pathway to more responsible food service, whichever way you look at it.
When it comes to what type of meat you should be buying, you need to balance the climate change impacts of different animals (beef/lamb = high, pork a bit less so, chicken a bit lower) with the general consensus that the lower the carbon footprint, the more intensive the production and perhaps the lower the animal welfare and biodiversity. You also need to consider that there is probably an argument that grassfed beef (at very low levels) could be as near to harmless as we can get right now. But this would means a lot less than the total about of beef we are currently consuming.
Think of it this way: if research identifies an optimal level of grassfed beef that can be produced globally in order to be as near to sustainable as possible, (a big ask!), then each of us should not be eating more than our fair share of that anyway. Nobody is sure what that number is, but I would recommend aiming for the 30% reduction within 1 year as your starting point. Anything else seems irresponsible, given what we now know.
You can find the FCRN report here.
Over the last 5 years we have identified 3 key leverage points for profitable and sustainable food service : menu engineering, production control, and sales mix.
A key way to increase sustainability is of course through your food concepts, and this is where menu engineering comes into play.
For fixed price service, small changes towards recipes with a lower climate change impact can give you consistent margin increase. With fixed price service well-designed vegetarian dishes can have a similar effect, albeit probably at a lower sales volume.
For non-fixed pricing, it’s a bit more complicated, but done right it can be really effective. Here is a quick (based on reality) example: a street food outlet sells meatball wraps and falafel wraps, priced at £6.50 and £5 respectively. They want to reduce their environmental impacts and whilst they know that the meatball wrap has a much higher carbon footprint than the falafel wrap, the meatballs are popular so they want to keep them on the menu.
By offering a “half and half, meatballs & falafel” wrap that is priced nearer the meatball wrap price point, they can actually create a dish that sells well to the more environmentally conscious meat-eater and earns them more money. And if they market this dish well, it gives a real win-win (see Sales mix below).
Food waste has rightly been in the spotlight, although I don’t think we can claim job done just yet. Customers often get the blame for high levels of plate waste, but it is not all their fault.
In buffet service, over-production can be a big driver of food waste, where we serve a bit too much of everything, in order to be on the safe side. Reducing over-production of course will have direct and pretty immediate cost benefits.
In restaurant service, inconsistent portion control (which you could see as the “real-time” equivalent of serving too much on a buffet) has the same effect. With a chef background myself, I think I can say fairly honestly that portion control in the industry is mixed, some good, some not so good. Tightening up here can reduce food waste by customers who could not finish their meal, and keep actual margins more in line with theoretical margins. And, as with menu engineering, it is often the small repeatable changes that have the highest overall impact.
This is where the benefits of menu engineering and production control can be multiplied via sustainability-oriented sales. Put simply, if you create a new food concept with dishes that are optimised to be more sustainable and profitable, and tighten up on production, then you can multiply your benefits by driving sales towards these “lower carbon, higher margin” dishes.
As a rule of thumb you should be aiming to introduce menu options in the high sales range that have lower environmental impacts and better margins than previous dishes. The high sales will multiply the benefits.
So having 2 veggie options on a menu of 10 choices is not really going to make a different if the veggie options are not particularly high margin and have low sales. You could achieve more by introducing meat dishes with less meat, but better margins and higher potential sales, on the grounds that the meat-eaters who buy these dishes are probably choosing them instead of even meatier alternatives. The vegetarians and flexitarians can prop up your veggie sales, but the meat-eaters can give you the greater change over time by buying more of your new lower carbon, higher margin, and high sales dishes.
At IntoFood we see our role as giving caterers the right data, in the right place, at the right time. The best bit is when they take this, run with it, and cut their environmental impacts.
I'm not going to throw a spoiler at you, just watch the film about how ISS Catering, Norway, have used IntoFood to become even more sustainable. They take the approach that "meat is a treat" and, whilst animal products are an important part of a healthy food offering, getting a better balance between animal-based and plant-based foods is both healthy and more sustainable.
Oh go on then! Spoiler alert: 10% lower carbon emissions, a 12% increase in servings of fruit and vegetables, and on budget.
Proud of them.
As a climate change solution, the issue of "food miles" is one we should have cleared up a while ago. In this blog we take a closer look at local food, climate change and wider sustainability issues.
When we work with food service business, and indeed with consumers in general, we see a number of misunderstandings about food sustainability. Three common ones that we see are:
- packaging-free food is always best
- fresh food is better than frozen
- local food is more sustainable and climate-smart
We are not going to go into all of these in detail, and we will cover the packaging and the fresh vs frozen issues at a later date. But I do think its important that we shed some light on the data behind local food and its sustainability. Disclaimer: I am not anti local food per se, but I do take the position that supporting farmers should be a global concept, not a local one. But regardless of that, let's look at the arguments for and against local food.
The arguments for local food
- Less travel = less carbon emitted to get food from A to B
- Air travel is especially carbon intensive
- Local food means supporting your local farmer (food sovereignty)
- Local food means you know you where your food comes from (traceability)
The arguments against local food
- Most carbon emissions in fact occur at the production stage, especially for livestock
- Efficient transport systems are not just about actual distance from A to B
- Knowing where your food has come from does not necessarily mean you know anything more about how sustainably it has been produced
- Sustainability is a global problem, and this is no time for protectionism
The last two points for both "for" and "against" are of course very much dependent on context, but I would argue that currently the industry does not really have enough data to be able to say "because the food comes from a farmer near me, then I know more about the sustainability of that food". For some food services this is perhaps achievable, but the workload required to actually do it properly puts it beyond the reach of many.
So let's look in more detail at the first two points, and the carbon emissions associated with the actual transport.
Different impacts for different forms of transport
At IntoFood we have done a lot of work with research groups in order to understand the carbon emissions of transport via road, boat, rail and plane. In summary, boat or rail transport has a lower carbon footprint per kg of food than road transport; air transport has a much higher carbon footprint than all of them. For boat/rail vs road, this is about volumes and efficiency: you can fit more food on a boat or train and this counteracts the fuel requirements per km. For air transport, the fuel usage blows everything else out of the water.
So there is an argument that the shorter the distance, the lower the potential carbon footprint. But that only holds true to a certain extent. A local food distribution system via a small van can be much less efficient than a longer distance truck system that is optimised for efficiency. So local does not really mean better.
Transport impacts vs the bigger picture
The bigger issue of course is that most of the total emissions occur at the production stage, especially for livestock. If we want to make sustainable choices, we need to look at the bigger picture. We don't eat "1 kg of carrots" or "1 kg of pork"; we eat meals made up of different amounts of ingredients. So if we are to eat more climate-smart, it is this and our daily eating patterns that matter. This is illustrated via the different carbon emissions associated with an example meal below: a pasta dish with 120g of pork, some pasta and some vegetables.
A pasta dish that is "ultra local", assuming zero carbon emissions from transport however unrealistic that might be, can be compared to a pasta dish where all the ingredients have come been transported 1000 km by road, and against the same meal where the ingredients have traveled 1000 km by plane. As you can see, the "1000 km by road" scenario (the middle column) really does not add anything significant to the total carbon footprint compared to the "ultra local" pork pasta dish (the left column). This is because the production emissions from pork are high, so in reality the pork dictates whether the dish is climate-smart or not. Transport by plane makes a much bigger distance however (the right column).
Take away message?
For road (and boat/rail) transport, the ingredients of your meal are much more important than whether it is local or not. But this is not the case for air transport; air transport matters.
Transport impacts vs less meat
So now let's look at this meal in terms of the best leverage points to make it more sustainable.
Below you will see the same graph, plus a new column showing the carbon emissions associated with the same pasta dish but with 20% less pork and more vegetables. As you can see, the reduction in emissions compared to the original pasta dish is pretty big. In fact this reduction could only be achieved via a "local food" solution is all of the ingredients traveled 6000 km less by road. Which is a nonsense concept.
Take away message?
If you want to reduce the impact of a meal, then your main leverage point concerns the amount of "high impact" ingredients in that meal. In most cases, this means how much animal-based food you use. Again, air transport is a different case. In all cases, of course, using less meat absolutely will make a difference.
Looking at sourcing as a whole
Ok, so this seems a pretty solid case for a meal-by-meal comparison. But what about looking at your procurement and sourcing more generally? A lot of noise is made about sustainable sourcing and often this includes overtones of "buy local". But if we apply the same concept here to total procurement, how much does transport really matter?
We took anonymised data from staff restaurants serving on average 200 guests per day. We then calculated that if they bought exactly the same food, but all of it traveled 1000 fewer km by road, then the carbon footprint would only be reduced by about 2%. However, if they used 20% less meat with no change to sourcing, then they would reduce their carbon footprint by 10%.
So which way do you want to go? Real emission cuts through changing what you buy, or hard-to-implement and dubious impacts from local sourcing policies? Of course you can do both, but you can't really make big claims about your local sourcing being a meaningful climate change benefit. Support your local farmers by all means, but if your pork and your carrots are from farmer joe down the road, it is buying less pork that counts most with environmental impacts.
To wildly paraphrase George Orwell... All food service businesses can become sustainable, but some will be more sustainable than others.
Let me explain. We know that the food service industry is not homogeneous, but is made up of contract catering, event catering, hotels, and thousands of different styles of restaurants and more. And yet we would like all of them to be more sustainable, without really thinking about what that means, and what is realistic for each sector.
At IntoFood, I have worked on sustainability projects with many different food service businesses, from contract caterers to hotels, high street restaurants, vegan cafes and lots in between. And they all have very different sustainability profiles, which is one reason why generic certification schemes are not really fit for purpose anymore. Its not about getting across the line, its about continuous improvement. What we often overlook are the practical ways (your recipes, your sales, and your production "accuracy") to allow that improvement to happen. I will come back to this later, but that reality looks something like this:
Variations across the industry
Let's take climate change as a key indicator of sustainability - its not the only indicator, but its certainly one we cannot ignore - we see a wide variation in how "climate-smart" the food is across the industry. And when we talk about food and climate change, we are unavoidably talking about the balance between animal-based and plant-based foods.
This graphic below shows how much variation exists, using "carbon footprint per kg of food purchased" for different kinds of food service businesses. Note, this is based on real data. And of course variation exists within contract caterers, within hotels and within high street restaurants. Why? Because of differences in their menus, their sales profile and their efficiency.
An obvious example, to make the point. A high street restaurant with a menu that is largely based around meat dishes (think of steaks, burgers, lamb chops, BBQ ribs) will almost always have a higher environmental impact than a staff lunch restaurant because people dining out in the evening are more likely to eat a heavier meal than they would at their lunch buffet. So a direct comparison is not appropriate. What is appropriate is to aim for a reduction in environmental impact, relative to the type of food service business. And the way to understand that potential is to think of food service as a system in its own right.
Key leverage points for sustainability
The food you buy is ultimately the indicator of how sustainable you are, but this is influenced by three key factors : your recipes, your sales and your efficiency. Your three leverage points for being more sustainable are to design more sustainable recipes, sell more sustainable menu items, and minimise waste. In practical terms your procurement is based on ingredients for recipes, volumes for expected sales and some "buffer" that is your waste risk. Here is that formula again in a bit more detail.
For example, a TexMex restaurant might have a beef, pork, chicken and a mushroom burrito. If 95% of their sales are beef, pork or chicken, then small adjustments to those menu items can have a greater overall impact than selling more mushroom burritos. 25% less meat in the meat burritos can mean a much lower overall impact than selling a few more vegetarian dishes. But again, it depends on your sales; you cannot look at your recipes in isolation.
In a different context, a staff lunch buffet might introduce a meatless Monday. This is a good thing. But they could achieve the same overall result by using 20% less meat on Tuesday to Friday. Or double that impact by doing both! And if they do not communicate the meatless Monday very effectively (ie, do not successfully sell it as a concept to their guests), then they could risk over-producing and creating an unintended waste problem.
Or you could focus totally on reducing waste, but end up selling more of the "high impact" meat-based menu items, and actually increasing your overall impact.
It really is: "(Menus x Sales) + Waste". And the great thing about this approach is that you can measure all of these leverage points : what ingredients are you using in your recipes, what are you actually selling, and what are you actually throwing away. Optimising these relationships is the key to being more sustainable.
So where does this leave us when we look at the variation in sustainability across the industry? Well, every food service business is different but all of them have an opportunity to make "non-drastic" changes to their menus, focus on selling the more sustainable dishes, and link these approaches to production routines that minimise waste. This approach should give an overall reduction in your environmental impact, and it is this change that counts. Some types of food service will always be more sustainable, by nature, but all have opportunities to move in a sustainable direction.