Carbon Footprint

"One Planet Plate" shows the many different ways to eat more sustainably.

Why One Planet Plate is a great step in the right direction for thinking about recipe development as a way to tackle the complexities of food sustainability.

Sustainable decision-making can be complex

Food systems contribute at least 25% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions (1), are major consumers of available water (2), major causes of deforestation (3) and both terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss (4), and yet about a third of the food that we produce is never actually eaten (5).  Added to that, food demand is predicted to increase globally by a further 50% before 2050 (6).  I think we can call that an unsustainable system.

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It is also highly complex system with multiple challenges that are sometimes aligned and sometimes not.  Does meat with a lower climate change impact also have higher animal welfare?  Does the lower carbon footprint of most fish always make it a better choice than meat?  If not, why not?

One Planet Plate and recipe "KPIs"

Which is why the One Planet Plate initiative by the Sustainable Restaurant Association is so timely – shining light on recipes that contribute to the solution in different ways, through low carbon footprint, local sourcing, better meat, sustainable seafood or low waste.  As part of this initiative I helped them on the low carbon footprint part of this, looking at a range of recipes that would have a lower (or higher) carbon footprint. 

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The really interesting thing about this work was the variation in recipes and, whilst the vegan or vegetarian dishes were all the lower carbon footprint dishes, there was a big gap between these and “the meat dishes”.  Fewer dishes seemed to be embracing “less meat” for individual dishes, which is in no way a criticism of the recipes, more a reflection on an opportunity that the industry might not yet be making the most of.  A curry with 60g of chicken is more sustainable than a curry with 120g of chicken – it does not always have to be vegan.  I also saw that a number of dishes that were proposed by chefs as low carbon footprint did in fact have higher carbon footprints because of the dairy content – we often forget the role dairy has in the prevalence of livestock in our food systems.

And whilst of course recipes using more meat do tend to have higher carbon footprints, if the meat has come from a farm with high animal welfare then this is in itself a step in the right direction.  The goal really is for us to use “less but better” meat rather than trying to unrealistically remove meat, fish and dairy from our diets, as well as celebrating local, buying sustainable seafood, eating healthier more plant-based meals, and cutting food waste.

At IntoFood I use carbon footprint as one of the KPIs for sustainability because climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time.  But I also know that this needs to be seen within the wider context of these other issues. Yes, we need to serve much more fruit and vegetables, less meat, fish and dairy, and avoid air-freighted food and unnecessary packaging.  But we also need to focus on the quality of the meat, fish and dairy that we are using.  Having a low carbon footprint is a good way of putting real numbers on what you are doing, especially if you combine it with high animal welfare, less waste and the use of certified sustainable produce.  So well done to the Sustainable Restaurant Association for putting these issues into context in what may turn out to be the first real attempt to get the industry to think about recipe development in a way that captures the complexity of sustainability challenges.

References

1.       Vermeulen, S. J. et al. (2012) Climate Change and Food Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 37. p.195-222

2.       www.unwater.org/fileadmin/user_upload/unwater_new/docs/water_for_food.pdf

3.       Kissinger, G., et al. (2012) Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting, Vancouver Canada, August 2012

4.       WWF (2015) Living Blue Planet Report

5.       FAO (2014) Food waste footprint. Full cost accounting (www.fao.org/3/a-i3991e.pdf)

6.       Alexandratos, N. and J. Bruinsma. (2012) World agriculture towards 2030/2050: the 2012 revision. ESA Working paper No. 12-03. Rome, FAO

3 things caterers should focus on to drive sustainability

Recent research highlighted some challenges to, and opportunities for, increased food sustainability in catering.  Here are three concrete areas to focus on that have been shown to bring about success.

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Some recent research has looked at the constraints, challenges and opportunities for caterers and food sustainability, loosely concluding that different caterers have different challenges, but there are in fact some common challenges and opportunities.  Which sounds about right.  (If you want a quick overview of how menus and customer type influences sustainability, have a look at this).  Taking this as a given (that different caterers have different challenges) this research discussed constraints for caterers being related to the consumer base, the sector (public/private), service delivery (in-house/out-sourced), contract type (concession, commercial etc), costs & bottom-line issues, and skills & knowledge.  (Access the research paper here).

Breaking this down a bit, there seem to be some common issues across these different constraints:

- the type of consumer impacts the food you can serve, for cultural, financial, and demographic reasons.

- concerns about cost are prevalent, although this can be overcome by smart pro-sustainability menu engineering.

- knowledge and skills are key within the catering organisation (both in-house and out-sourced) at many levels, from a lack of sustainability management roles and overall corporate culture, to pro-sustainability knowledge and skills among chefs.

So if you want to overcome these challenges you need to focus on these three areas:

1. Understanding the relationship between food costs and sustainability

The idea that sustainability costs more money is only partially true and this misunderstanding normally stems from the idea that "certified sustainability" costs more money (think MSC certified seafood, organic produce and so on).  But while on a product by product basis this may be true (mostly), we are not in the business of feeding people by individual products - we serve meals made up of many different ingredients and it is this ingredient mix and menu sales mix that defines your actual food costs.  Depending on your contract (concession, commercial and everything in between) this will influence your profit. 

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And here is the key point: there is a growing consensus in research that the two non-negociables with food sustainability are that we need to consumer less (but better) animal-based food and we need to reduce food waste.  Both of these will reduce your food costs, and intelligent menu engineering will allow you to include higher cost individual products within a more sustainable balance of ingredients and less wastage.  I bang on this rather a lot and use a simple formula: Menus x Sales + Waste.  If done properly, you can manage your food costs and increase sustainability (see here for more on how this can be done). 

2. Appropriate communication with your customers

"Consumer type" is rightly identified as a challenge to sustainable food service.  So the question we should be asking is "How to communicate this so that guests come with us on the journey?".  I have recently been collaborating with specialists in corporate culture, conflict resolution, and the psychology of communication (see here for our concept for Food Sustainability Heroes). 

You need to do 3 key things here.  1. Build knowledge and understanding throughout the catering business - a lack of "Sustainability Managers" has been noted by Goggins in his research, in addition to variable or low skills and knowledge within catering staff in the kitchen. 2. Understand how to communicate sustainability to different types of customers.  Should you talk about health, or the environment, or focus on food trends? It depends who you are talking to.  3. Relate this to how you present the food in the restaurant buffet.  This is where choice architecture, nudging and how you present each dish gives you the ability to shift consumer choice towards sustainability in a more subtle way. 

3. Measuring your real impacts

If you are going to menu engineer in a pro-sustainability way, reduce your food waste, and combine these initiatives with effective communication, you need some numbers to firstly understand your impacts and secondly to feed the communication decisions.  Storytelling is just data with a soul, after all.  So take steps to understand which recipes and food concepts are more sustainable, and how you can combine these concepts to create a food service that is designed to help customers choose sustainably.  When you have this in place, then you can talk about it with your customers (both directly to your guests, and higher up in the corporate ladder when you are agreeing contracts, bidding for new contracts, or simply reporting to your clients).  No data, no storytelling.  The goal here should be continuous improvement, broken down into goals that can be backed by data.  Cut your climate change impacts by 10% in six months, reduce your food waste by 30% in three months, increase your servings of fruit and vegetables by 15% in six months.  

So this is where you need to focus.  Find the cost profile that allows you to serve more sustainable recipes and food concepts by thinking beyond certified sustainable products and audits, and look more towards the two non-negociables : less but better meat and less waste.  Build the knowledge and skills throughout your catering business, from top to bottom, and understand that you can communicate effectively with different types of customer.  And measure your impacts, because that is the data that allows you to communicate the what and why of your sustainability, allows you to actually track your food costs against your sustainability, and create food concepts that are tailored to your customer type, contract type and all of the other organisational constraints that seem to act as barriers to change.  Knowledge is power, both for your staff, your concepts and for your customers.

If you want to learn more about designing sustainable food concepts, measuring and reporting on your actual environmental impacts, and "best practice" learning opportunities within your catering organisation, just click here. 

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.