The science is clearer than ever: food systems account for approximately one third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Changing our diets and redressing our consumption patterns has significant potential to protect our planet and biodiversity.
It’s an increasingly popular trope that young people are more attuned to environmentally conscious decision making than their elders – indeed, behavioural patterns associated with environmentalism and anti-consumption are inextricably tethered to young people. They often measure ecological balance, social equality and environmental impact as part of a collective social conscience, which sets new standards for the ways in which we interact with food. But measuring those factors can feel like an upstream challenge when individual change has not been matched at either organisational or government policy levels.
University catering services have been leading the effort to minimise the impact of their operations on the environment, to promote sustainable changes in consumption and to provide vegan and vegetarian meals. However, more divisive is comprehensive reconfiguration of the university, in particular the proposal to remove ruminant meat.
Diets in high- and middle-income countries that include large volumes of meat are among the worst offenders for driving global deforestation. Livestock like beef and lamb has a carbon footprint approximately three times that of pork, poultry, or farmed fish per 100g of protein. Ruminant meat comes from animals that consume a largely grass-based diet, which includes beef, lamb, goat, buffalo. Their relatively inefficient “ruminant” stomachs releases methane, which accounts for around 40 per cent of livestock greenhouse gas emissions.
Choice architecture, which informs the ways in which our physical, economic, and social environments affect the decisions we make, is particularly relevant to food choice
When the University of Cambridge’s catering service eliminated ruminant meats entirely from its menu, staff were careful not to advertise the change as an omission.
In October 2016, the university eliminated ruminant meat and unsustainably harvested fish from its menus, lowered food waste and promoted plant-based options. Making practical change without compromising on cost was a significant step for the service – in fact, sales and profits increased. Carbon emissions were reduced by 10.5 per cent between 2015 and 2018, despite an increase in volume of food purchased. Carbon emissions per kilogram of food purchased reduced by 33 per cent, and there was a 28 per cent reduction in land on a per kilogram basis.
Dr Emma Garnett, the Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellow in Sustainable Consumption at Cambridge explains that the catering service “went ahead with taking beef and lamb off the menu entirely due to the high methane emissions, the high land footprint [and] the high greenhouse gas emissions that tend to come along with ruminant meat, whether that’s grass fed, or grain fed, whether that’s local or far away. The emissions are very high, unfortunately”.
Choice architecture, which informs the ways in which our physical, economic, and social environments affect the decisions we make, is particularly relevant to food choice. Adjusting food availability can “nudge” people towards behaviour change. These incremental interventions can change the factors according to which we make meal choices. However, before such interventions can be understood, customer interest, attitudes and motivating factors must be determined.
During the initial trial phase at Cambridge, there was a generally positive response among customers, indicating an openness to reducing meal consumption. Appealing to the reasonable interest of serving customer needs by increasing plant-based options also has the effect of cutting the environmental footprint across a suite of different indicators, notably reducing land and water use as well as carbon emissions.
Peter Lumb, the environmental co-ordinator at Cambridge, explains that after this policy was implemented, “there was a definite reduction in carbon emissions associated with food. But also, they noticed that the cost of food was lower. And essentially, that’s because ruminant meat tends to be quite expensive compared to other options”.
Building collaboration across different sectors, especially between researchers and organisations such as those in the food catering industry is essential
He suggests that “at that time, the focus on ruminant meat was a bit newer than it is now, I think it’s a bit more widely known now. But then there wasn’t so much data or knowledge about how that [elimination] could work”.
Without active marketing during the trial period, understanding customer reception of the dynamic plant-based options was important in addition to determining whether the absence of ruminant meat was noticed. Lumb explains that with “a real focus on providing tasty plant-based options, it then doesn’t really matter if you’re removing something from the menu, as long as the alternatives are really good”.
Although the remit of Cambridge catering service does not encompass all 31 constituent colleges, there are approximately 14 university catering service cafeterias that introduced the sustainable food policy. Lumb explains that “similar changes” have been widely implemented in the colleges. With meat production set on a trajectory that compromises our attempts to preserve the viability of the environment and biodiversity, it may be time for organisations to play a role.
Mitigating the effects of the climate crisis requires action from all sectors of society. Policymakers of every scale must step up to the challenge. Garnett explains that “we think of policymakers as someone in government or a civil servant and I would say if you’re making decisions for people outside of your household, then you are a policymaker of some flavour or another. So if you get to decide which energy company your business signs up to, if you’re deciding where company pensions are getting invested, if you get to set the menu for a catered event, you are setting the parameters of what other people are choosing and that’s so, so, so important”.
Building collaboration across different sectors, especially between researchers and organisations such as those in the food catering industry is essential. Garnett says that “really feeling like you’re part of a team,” was essential for the implementation of the policy. “I think if students are approaching caterers, and they’re pulling in opposite directions, I think that you can get really stuck in there.”
We haven’t had any complaints since we’ve introduced this and I think by doing it in that kind of careful and iterative way, the results were very, very impressive
She explains that “building alliances with different groups and being conscious of your own, I suppose, niche in the food space” so that academics, caterers and customers alike can recognise their distinct voices – and the cumulative resonance those voices can have on policy change.
Although reception was generally positive, the change was met with some scepticism outside of Cambridge. Garnett explains that implementing a “step-by-step process, and we haven’t had any complaints since we’ve introduced this and I think by doing it in that kind of careful and iterative way, the results were very, very impressive”.
For many environmentalists, redressing the balance between meat and plant-based meals to encourage sustainable consumption is a major obstacle. “Meat has been hogging the limelight for so long … let’s have vegan food on an equal footing with meat”, says Garnett. Or “preferably even higher”. She explains that redressing this imbalance may afford plant-based options a new social acceptability such that they are not considered insufficient. Encouraging “sustainable choices that are easy, convenient, affordable choices, that is just so fundamental”.
“I think we’re currently in a society where often unhealthy, high carbon food choices, transport choices, housing choices, they are very cheap, can be very delicious, very available. And so trying to make socially and environmentally conscious decisions can really feel like swimming upstream”, which she suggests is “entirely back to front”.
Garnett explains that as knowledge of the direct changes was shared, “there was a lot of reaction about beef and lamb coming off the menu”, such that it was “a particularly sensitive issue”. She explains that “people had misunderstood that our sustainability position was that no one should ever eat beef or lamb, which is not the argument the Sustainable Food Policy was making. [We were] saying: ‘Look, we’re trying to reduce carbon in our cafeteria.’”
As knowledge of the direct changes was shared, there was a lot of reaction about beef and lamb coming off the menu”, such that it was “a particularly sensitive issue
She says that in high income countries, “we’ve really got to reduce our animal product consumption. And beef and lamb, unfortunately, do have particularly high emissions. So in this cafeteria, we take it off [the menu]. But, she reiterates, that doesn’t mean people in rich countries should never eat beef or lamb.
Although the decision “was slightly misinterpreted or overextrapolated”, Garnett says that “it did grab people’s attention”.
An adaptation effort has been underway at Trinity to make small changes to account for the planetary effects of what we eat. However, operational obstacles and trepidation over the alienating effects of comprehensive change persist.
Trinity’s Head of Catering Moira O’Brien emphasises the breadth of outlets and diverse customer groups which makes their operations “very unique”. Trinity Catering covers the Buttery Restaurant, the Perch cafe, the East Dining Hall, the Old Dining Hall, the Forum restaurant and the 1592. O’Brien suggests that reconciling the fact that “everybody has different demands, and different interests” with the proposition for bold action presents a challenge.
O’Brien explains that Trinity Catering sits “as part of the commercial revenue universe, which sits as part of the Corporate Services Division under the Chief Operating Officer … the important thing to note about the catering department … is we’re a self-financing department. We receive no subsidy from the College”. She suggests that “in the context of operating as a business, we’re doing our best. In terms of things like the meat free and more plant-based and vegan options … that’s something we’ve seen increasingly, there is an interest there”.
She explains that vegan and vegetarian options in catering services “probably were less prominent, to be fair than, say, meat-based dishes” but that staff have made “great efforts to improve that and to get more communication out and increase the availability of more plant based options or more vegetarian options”. However, communicating such availability has “been limited, and it’s not been as good as it should be”.
Staff in Trinity Catering have made great efforts to improve that and to get more communication out and increase the availability of more plant based options or more vegetarian options
On the operational side, O’Brien suggests that cost implication concerns add to limitations “by the fact that we have approved suppliers, we have to operate through the government procurements system”.
She suggests that the catering service is giving more comprehensive change like that at Cambridge “certain definite consideration”. O’Brien says that “we do want to be examples of doing things right and protecting the planet and doing our bit to reduce the emissions … if enough people want to see a change, we will of course change. But it’s not about just changing for one loud group”. She suggests that such a “vocal group amongst the campus who might say, ‘No, everything should be plant based, we need to get meat off the menu, that’s it’ and would we potentially be alienating a large group who don’t feel that way about it”.
Accounting for the breadth of the customer base, she says, is crucial. O’Brien says “we have to cater for all dietary needs or all dietary desires…a lot of people, we need to accept, do not want plant-based options, they prefer their more traditional meat-based options. And so we have to be mindful of that”.
Further concerns arise that such a comprehensive policy change would be perceived as overly interventionist. “We, as a department, cannot impose a lifestyle on people, what we’re doing is offering people choice”, she explains. “We’ll respond to feedback, and what people would like to see. And we will then provide that in terms of the service.”
Significant data has gauged the environmental impact at each stage of food production from farm to fork, but O’Brien cites limited knowledge of customer demand that might inspire organisational change. She suggests that “the key for us is about saying we very much support and want to work with sustainability hand in hand … it’s about gathering information, gathering data, gathering feedback from people, and then we make choices and adapt our service in line with that. That’s a given. That’s absolutely a given. And we’re committed to doing that”.
We do want to be examples of doing things right and protecting the planet and doing our bit to reduce the emissions
Martina Mullin, Trinity’s health promotion officer, suggests that overcoming the meat consumption default is a particular challenge because of the nature of government policy. “The gap between what national healthy eating guidelines say and the recommendations of the EAT Lancet report is confusing. We would like to see the Irish government respond to the EAT Lancet report.” The “ambivalence” introduced by the EAT Lancet report, which recommends a 90 per cent cut to meat consumption to avert the climate crisis, and the governmental inaction to reflect such scientific targets, Mullin explains, have stalled progress.
A further issue is found in the lack of data that accounts for the dietary and behavioural change among students. Mullen explains that “it is not clear what Trinity students want. There appears to be an interest in moving to more plant-based diets and yet, meat dishes are predominant in most restaurants. Is that because people want to eat meat, or because most of the dishes offered in restaurants are meat based? Healthy Trinity would like to quantify properly what people want.”
Building such an evidence base may be foundational for bold policy action. “If we can prove that people want more tasty, plant-based options, we believe we can make the case for them”, Mullin explains. In March 2022, Trinity medical students will undertake a survey in partnership with Healthy Trinity to collect such data.
Garnett explains that organisations and intermediate-level efforts are “really important for bringing about this change”. She says that “as individuals, we can make choices. Governments, as seen at COP26, don’t seem very keen to address the impacts of food and diet choices on climate change”.
The environmental impact of our food choices falls on individual lives and livelihoods. Until drastic government policy adapts to appropriately meet the climate crisis, individuals in high-income countries must at least partly shoulder the burden of making conscientious choices. The role that organisations play in facilitating those behaviour patterns that incorporate ecological, social, and environmental concerns must be reconsidered.
Correction: March 21st,2022
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Trinity Catering operates Westland Eats in the Hamilton and the Jolt Cafe in Trinity Business School. In fact, these two outlets are not run by Trinity Catering.