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Can our food choices cut our carbon footprint?

15th May 2023 - 09:31
What is the evidence that serving more plant-based dishes can actually reduce the environmental impact of the food we serve? Siobhan O’Neill finds out.

A lot can change in three years. Keen to lead the industry’s efforts towards carbon reduction, back in 2020 the PSC Alliance launched its ‘20% Less But Better Meat’ campaign following widespread acknowledgement among members of the growing consumer trend towards plant-based eating, and a greater awareness of the burgeoning climate emergency.

Then chair of the PSC100 Group (now PSC Alliance) Andy Jones said: “We’re being driven by the tastes of our customers and their desire to reduce the impact on the environment. It’s about doing the right thing. We have to start reducing carbon emissions.”

Surprisingly, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns only boosted the efforts of many caterers to accelerate their carbon reduction agenda, with several taking the opportunity to overhaul their menus to a more plant-based offer.

But fast-forward to 2023, and the cost-of-living crisis has forced many of us to prioritise cost pressures and budgeting over saving the planet.

This led current Alliance chair Matthew White to urge members at the Public Sector Catering ‘Most Influential’ event in February to ‘get back on that saddle and crack on’ for fear of caterers falling behind in their carbon commitments.

This could be easier said than done for a sector that’s tackling tight margins and mandated nutritional standards, but there are multiple benefits to be gained from shifting our food choices towards a low carbon menu.

What’s the science?
The UN estimates that about a third of greenhouse emissions caused by humans is linked to food production, so the capacity for caterers and others in the food industry to positively impact CO2 reductions is significant.

The EU Horizon 2020’s Strength2Food research showed that the transport, kitchen processing and waste disposal of food accounted for only about 20%-25% of its carbon footprint, meaning the actual food production is by far the biggest contributor of CO2.

They concluded: “Decisions around food types and menu design have the greatest impact on service emissions.”

The research also showed that ruminant, or red, meat is the biggest carbon contributor, and relatively small amounts of it made a big impact on the carbon footprint of a menu. In the case study with the highest carbon footprint, red meat contributed 45% of total emissions, though it was only 6% of total food weight.

Foodsteps is a company that helps customers within the food system to measure impact and track progress in carbon reduction. It works with food producers to build a picture of their impact and use that data downstream to give detailed impact estimates to caterers and food retailers.

It agrees that choices around what foods to include in a menu make the biggest difference to a service’s carbon footprint. Impact manager Sophie Stevens says: “It may be surprising to some, given contemporary discourse around food miles and packaging, but the majority of the impacts of food come from the primary production phase, be it a farm or a fishing boat. This tends to be because a lot of inputs, such as fertilisers, are needed in order to produce that food.”

Matt White, director of campus commerce, head of function at the University of Reading and also chair of the PSC Alliance, says: “Some of the ingredients we as caterers use on a daily basis can have huge carbon footprints and it isn’t always the obvious candidates.

“Locally grown, but out-of-season produce can sometimes have a higher impact than something from the other side of the world, so it’s key that as caterers we take our responsibility seriously. That isn’t to say we boycott ingredients, we simply look at what is the best option at that time of year.”

What gets measured gets managed
The first step in reducing the carbon footprint of your menu then, is to work out how big it is now. Fortunately a number of calculators exist to help caterers do just that.

Strength2Food developed a ‘Meal Analyser’ with support from LACA and ASSIST FM Scotland. For local authorities it can calculate whole chain emissions and lowest and highest carbon main meals.

Matt White points to a free calculator open to public sector caterers that was developed by TUCO, the University Caterers Organisation, and Foodsteps has also built a platform that businesses can use to build a picture of their own impact, which they’ve recently released in a free version.

Simple swaps make big impacts
Simon Billing, executive director of Eating Better which promotes ‘less and better meat’ for everyone, says public sector caterers play a crucial role in normalising a shift towards sustainable, healthy eating.

He says: “The public sector should be leading based on the best science and evidence, and it has a duty to look after people’s health and the broader environmental impacts of food, and government funds should be used for that.”

He suggests simple swaps like pulses for mince in a curry or shepherd’s pie are a good start, but he says investing in the skills of chefs is key to driving forward the development of tasty, plant-based meals which customers enjoy.

Christine Cornall is head of catering operations at the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which was named the ‘greenest school menu in the UK’. She agrees, saying that delivering more plant-based meals has helped reduce both food bills and the allergens in her menu, but there was a cost around the training of school cooks to create the meals and make them desirable to children.

Waltham Forest has a development chef who designs the menus and then brings taster evenings into schools to help win over parents.

Cornall says that bringing parents on the journey to more plant-based eating was crucial to their success, so they could see their children were getting delicious, hearty, healthy meals and not just a cheap alternative to the meat products they were used to.

Waltham Forest found that its marketing of the meals was also important, so it ditched ‘Meat Free Monday’ in favour of ‘Save the Planet Day’.

Cornall says her kitchens were surprised when jackfruit dishes proved particularly popular with the children in Waltham Forest, and the summer menu now has two days of plant-based eating each week, as well as vegetarian options every day.

Eating Better also says that menu design and language is important to promoting meals with less meat and dairy, and it has developed a guide for public sector caterers to help.

For caterers eager to work on their carbon targets, Sophie Stevens concludes: “Dietary shift is by far the simplest and most effective way for a caterer to reduce their footprint.

“This means changing what meals are on your menu, and designing those recipes to be as low impact as possible - whether this is by swapping like-for-like ingredients or adjusting relative ingredient quantities where possible.”

Written by
Edward Waddell