Climate Change

"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.


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


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 (

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.


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. 

It's not just what you eat, but what your food eats.

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 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 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. 

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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.

3 reasons why carbon offsetting our food choices is a bad idea

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.

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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

Biodiversity loss is about more than tree-counting

Biodiversity loss is about more than tree-counting

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.

"Its almost the same size as that tree someone will plant on my behalf."

"Its almost the same size as that tree someone will plant on my behalf."

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!

A disclaimer: 

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.

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?


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.

Case study: ISS Catering cut their carbon footprint by 10% in 6 months

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.

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.

comparison transport.png

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. 

comparison transport with less meat.png

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.

Why different food service businesses have different sustainability challenges (and what they can do about it)

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:

The three key leverage points for sustainability.

The three key leverage points for sustainability.

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.

(Burger restaurants and vegan cafes tend to represent to two end points on this line!)

(Burger restaurants and vegan cafes tend to represent to two end points on this line!)

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.