It does not seem to matter what KPI you are going for, in food sustainability projects things will get messy if you do not have clear plans in place for skill requirements, measuring outcomes, and audience-specific communication plans.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, you need plans or the wheels fall off. Of course. It goes without saying. But there are "nice to have" plans, and there are "must have" plans. Hard-earned, coal-face experience has taught me that, when it comes to food sustainability projects, there are three kinds of plan you cannot do without: a skills plan, a measurement plan, and a communication plan. Here is why they matter and how they are interrelated.
Almost by definition, food sustainability initiatives involve some changes to routines, to menu plans, and to procurement policies. And for people to be engaged in change they normally need to know why, how and what. "Why is this a sustainability issue? How will we do it? What is the expected outcome?" Staff who are fully engaged in the sustainability issues at hand - be it food waste, climate change, sustainable seafood, plant-forward menus or any other issue you care to pick - will almost always respond more positively because they understand the reasons and they can build a sense of ownership for the solution. It sounds obvious, but it gets missed more often than it should. And the kind of skills needed will vary in different parts of the organisation; the sustainability skills you need in the kitchen are not the same as for front of house, or for client relationship management. Try implementing a new food concept without making sure that your client account managers or regional managers have got the skills to explain why you are doing it, and you'll see what I mean.
How you measure - the tools you will use - means having a plan in place that includes a usable tool for accurately measuring the impact you are trying to affect. A food waste tracker, an analytics tool for procurement impacts, customer satisfaction tools and so on. Test the tools before you commit to a full-blown industry-wide project. What you measure needs a bit more thought too. For example with food waste, you might want to define categories of food waste that you will measure; for climate change you might want to measure recipes (to define "planet-smart" recipes) and procurement (to benchmark your actual carbon footprint). But you might also want to measure sales of different recipes to understand which recipes sell best and how that relates to your sustainability. And of course for food waste, wouldn't you want to measure on a daily basis? But probably not for a project to increase the amount of sustainable seafood you are buying - here a monthly procurement analysis might be enough. One common mistake is to rely on annual audits alone. Annual audits give us an overview of what happened, but give us no real data on how or why. And if you are not sure that your measurements are meaningful then you cannot really communicate your outcomes very clearly.
I tend to view communication plans in terms of who they are intended for: internal on-site, internal management, client on-site and external client relations. Each group needs a different message in terms of goals, and then later on what you achieved, any new best practices, revised targets, and areas for improvement. Each communication plan needs to be clear, concise and tailored, but linked to the measurement plans. It's about storytelling, but storytelling is just data with a soul so your measurements and data should act as your evidence. And get this, if you communicate a new project to someone and their response is along the lines of "I don't know why we need to do xxxx, why does it matter?", then you've got yourself a skills gap and something to add to your skills plan.
So these plans are not old school project management file cabinet fillers - they are early phase plans that you improve over time. Assess your skills gaps, build a draft measurement plan, provide first stage communication plans. Take onboard questions and ideas, and then revise the skills plan, adjust the measurement plan, and polish the communication plan. Two or three iterations of this and you will avoid the trap of going ahead with a bold initiative only to find the staff do not really know what the issue is, you cannot make sense of the measurements, and key people are not really aware of what is going on and what to tell your guests and clients.
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Schemes that carbon offset our consumer behaviour have their place and their limitations, but carbon offsetting our meals when we dine out is totally missing the point.
There seems to have been a bit of noise on social media recently about offsetting the carbon emissions attributed to our food choices when we dine out. And whilst this may give customers the feel-good factor that they have had a great night out and done something to help fight climate change, it is somehow managing to completely misunderstand the issues around food sustainability. It gives people a false sense that their actions are now somehow guilt free, and it absolves the restaurants of taking responsibility for their own sustainability. Think of it as the eco equivalent of making weekly visits to church to ask for forgiveness, and then going on another crime spree.
Here are 3 big reasons why carbon offsetting for food is not the solution it claims to be.
1. the environmental impacts of our food systems go way beyond climate change.
The biggest greenhouse gas emissions from our food systems are related to the production (and therefore consumption) of animal products. So if you are offsetting the carbon footprint of a meal, then really you are offsetting the meat, fish or dairy. But there are a whole host of other negative environmental impacts caused by the production of these products that a carbon offset (even if it is a tree planting scheme) cannot really cancel out. Key impacts that will go "un-offset" are:
- water requirements for livestock production (hint: livestock need a lot of water)
- land biodiversity loss. Its not just the trees that get cut down to clear land for soy production, grazing land, and palm oil. Everything else in that habitat goes with it. And these are some of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet.
- marine biodiversity. Planting a tree somewhere to offset carbon is going to help maintain healthy fish stock levels and protect marine biodiversity is it? Really? Nope, didn't think so.
- Unsustainable farming practices. You could maybe just read the above points again, but to spell it out, the demand for animal products is generally agreed to be a key driver of industrial-style monoculture-based farming practices where agricultural land is steadily worked to death. Just so that we can eat what we want.
So by giving people a get out of jail free card, we keep the treadmill going for eating habits that cause massive damage beyond just climate change.
2. behaviour change would give us so many more co-benefits
Imagine an alternative world, where instead we ate less of the greenhouse gas intensive foods in order to reduce the emissions attributed to our diets. Its not just that all the signals from the research world are telling us we need to, we would also relieve the pressure on the other impacts mentioned in point 1. And we would shift towards more healthy diets at the same time. All of this becomes harder to achieve when people sell offsetting as a carbon solution to food. It disincentivises the behaviour changes that we need if we are to make a real difference, and it makes the co-benefits even harder to achieve.
3. it doesn't guarantee cancelling out the bad stuff anyway
Just to be argumentative for a second... history suggests that when we want more land, we tend to throw caution to the wind and cut down trees in order to give us more agricultural land. Food is one of the key drivers of deforestation, after all. And so far we have not been very good at preventing this from happening. Sure, you might be able to argue that global deforestation has slowed, but it is still going on. And at large scale too. So if you offset a meal by planting a tree somewhere, what guarantee do you have that when the push comes to shove, someone with money/power/influence is not going to cut it down at some stage in the near future because we need more land for food (which is a clear prediction based on population and dietary projectons)? What do you think is going to happen to that tree? Its the same madness all over again.
Not to mention that even if that tree stands the test of time, and therefore arguably does its job to offset carbon emissions, you still have all the other environmental impacts to account for. And planting a tree in one part of the world does not cancel out the loss of biodiversity from cutting down a tree in another part of the world. Global ecosystems don't really work like that.
We really cannot afford schemes that give people the impression that they can just carry on regardless and eat what they want. And these schemes risk doing just that. It is surely not their intention, but it is outcome not intention that counts, and the message is pretty clear. "Carbon free dining", "carbon neutral restaurants", "carbon positive" (please everybody, stop saying that); all these phrases are loaded with messaging that there is nothing to worry about. We cannot make an assumption people will also make behaviour changes as well as paying a bit extra for an offset; that just doesn't make any behavioural sense.
In defense of carbon offsetting, and as pointed out by a friend who works in research programs for food sustainability, we may well still need to throw money at offsetting our emissions in order to meet climate change targets. But, as he pointed out, this can only work when it is in addition to progress in sustainable farming practices, reductions in consumption of animal products, and reductions in food waste. If it replaces the reductions in consumption then it just can't work; we will be cutting down trees for more farmland faster than the offsetters will be planting them!
At IntoFood we specifically measure the carbon footprint (among other things) of recipes, menus, sales and procurement for clients in the hospitality industry. But we do it to help them see the opportunity for change in their food service, not so they can sign up for a ticket to "cook what you want" catering. And we use carbon footprint as the vehicle for change not the definition of change, because whilst there are indeed some trade-offs between greenhouse gas metrics and other food-related issues (for example, animal welfare), there are also so many co-benefits, as mentioned here, of eating lower on the carbon scale. Eat climate-smart, don't just try to pay your way out of trouble.
Here we summarise the findings from a new report on grassfed meat production, and explain what your restaurant can do to serve meat in a sustainable way.
The recent report by the FCRN makes a strong argument that even grassfed meat cannot really be considered sustainable, especially at the current and projected levels of meat consumption.
There has been an ongoing debate about whether the real issue with livestock farming is industrial factory farming, or more generally about the impact all livestock production has on the environment. Advocates of grassfed beef argue that grazing livestock avoids many of the pitfalls of factory farming, and makes use of natural resources that we cannot eat ourselves (mainly grass in this case). And this is all valid up to a point. More strident claims are that in fact grassfed livestock is "sustainable" because grazing animals causes the grasslands to sequester (suck in & store) lots and lots of carbon, thereby cancelling out the greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock production itself. And this is kind of the crux of the argument.
Here are the key points made in the report:
- Research shows the level of carbon sequestration to be much lower than that claimed by advocates of the "carbon neutral cow" theory (such as Allan Savory and his holistic grazing).
- The amount of new carbon that can be stored in the pastures due to grazing is much less than the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from raising the livestock in the first place.
- Soil carbon reaches an equilibrium quite quickly and at that stage it will stop cancelling out the emissions from the livestock anyway.
- Soil carbon is not permanent, and it can be easier to lose carbon than store it.
- And the emissions from the livestock are very high, very complex and will keep on coming as long as there are livestock on the land, long after the soil carbon has stabilised.
In other words, it looks like this:
Do we have enough land anyway?
And here is the real catch. Rearing animals on land that cannot be used for much else is ok so far as it goes, but at current levels of meat consumption (never mind projected global levels for the next 30 years) we don't have enough of the "cannot be used for anything else" land. So to convert all of our meat to "grassfed only" would likely require more land to be cleared, which sounds a lot like deforestation. And nobody thinks we need more deforestation.
There is an additional issue here, that if we took the livestock off the grasslands and let the land "rewild" or reforest, then how much more carbon would be stored in that land (and without the greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock)? Nobody seems to have a good answer to that yet, but its an important land-use question.
Is "grassfed" still better than "industrially farmed" meat?
The FCRN report did not set out to answer this question, it focused on showing what the greenhouse gas outcomes are from grassfed meat, so there is no firm conclusion here. However, here is a practical perspective: there are so many things wrong-headed about factory farmed meat that making a direct comparison is missing the point. We know that factory farmed meat has enormous environmental costs, not to mention animal welfare and health issues. But we can also now say fairly confidently that switching over to grassfed systems would not solve one of the key problems : climate change. It could indeed make things worse, if it resulted in more deforestation.
What can your restaurant do?
At IntoFood we are all about taking constructive action, based on what the evidence is saying. And in many ways, this report does not change our message.
Reduce meat consumption for many many reasons, not least because the climate change impacts of eating so much meat will in all likelihood act as a barrier to meeting the 2 degree goals of the Paris agreement.
How much meat?
One off-the-record comment that came out of the webinar for FCRN's report was that consumption of meat per person should perhaps be reduced to about 25% of our current western levels. Which for most countries means going down from about 180g per day to about 50g per day.
This will not happen overnight of course, but setting yourselves a goal in your restaurant to cut meat consumption by 30% within 1 year is actually very manageable, if done right. You are then on a pathway to more responsible food service, whichever way you look at it.
When it comes to what type of meat you should be buying, you need to balance the climate change impacts of different animals (beef/lamb = high, pork a bit less so, chicken a bit lower) with the general consensus that the lower the carbon footprint, the more intensive the production and perhaps the lower the animal welfare and biodiversity. You also need to consider that there is probably an argument that grassfed beef (at very low levels) could be as near to harmless as we can get right now. But this would means a lot less than the total about of beef we are currently consuming.
Think of it this way: if research identifies an optimal level of grassfed beef that can be produced globally in order to be as near to sustainable as possible, (a big ask!), then each of us should not be eating more than our fair share of that anyway. Nobody is sure what that number is, but I would recommend aiming for the 30% reduction within 1 year as your starting point. Anything else seems irresponsible, given what we now know.
You can find the FCRN report here.