Food Sustainability

Blockchain and food: silver bullet or just part of the process?

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".

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Ingredients

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!

Certification

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.

Environmental impacts

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.

3 "must have" plans for successful food sustainability projects

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.

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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.

Skills plans

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.

Measurement plans

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. 

Communication plans

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?

What the future might hold: Food service in 2025?

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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.

Wednesday lunch

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.

Wednesday 2pm

 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.

What the report on grassfed beef means for your restaurant

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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. 
  3. Soil carbon reaches an equilibrium quite quickly and at that stage it will stop cancelling out the emissions from the livestock anyway.
  4. Soil carbon is not permanent, and it can be easier to lose carbon than store it.
  5. 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:

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Do we have enough land anyway?

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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? 

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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.

3 things that food service businesses can do to increase both their sustainability and their margins

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.

Menu Engineering

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.

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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).

Production control

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.

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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

Sales mix

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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. 

Reflections on local food and climate change

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.