Meeting sustainability goals with a menu makeover

By Riana Topan

Amidst increasingly dire warnings about the fate of our planet, and more frequent reminders about the consequences of climate change in the form of wildfires, floods, and tornadoes, the urgent need to address the global environmental crisis feels more real than ever before. Thankfully, so does the foodservice industry’s remarkable power to make a positive, meaningful difference in prioritizing sustainability and protecting our natural environment and the global ecosystem.

Changing what we eat is one of the largest opportunities for reducing our daily carbon footprint. This topic matters to Canadians, with 61 per cent of surveyed consumers reporting that they plan to pay more attention to the environmental impact of what they consume. This also matters to the restaurant and foodservice sectors, since a 2022 poll revealed that 43 per cent of Canadians believe companies and corporations are the most responsible for improving sustainability.

This is a key reason why the shift towards less resource-intensive, plant-based foods is critical.

First, consider greenhouse gas emissions, for which food contributes approximately 26 per cent of the worldwide total. Globally, meat, eggs, and dairy production are responsible for 56 to 58 per cent of food related GHG emissions, yet they provide just 18 per cent of the world’s calories and 37 per cent of our protein. By contrast, plant-based foods often generate significantly fewer emissions, with items like nuts, pulses, grains, tofu, and root vegetables responsible for a mere fraction of the emissions created through meat and dairy production. In fact, studies have estimated that a global shift to a fully plant-based diet could reduce emissions by up to 70 per cent, showing that even small dietary changes can make a big impact.

Second, let’s look at land use. Despite their relatively small contribution to feeding the planet, meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy production use 83 per cent of all farmland. According to Our World in Data, a project of Oxford University, “If everyone shifted to a plant-based diet we would reduce global land use for agriculture by 75 per cent… thanks to a reduction in land used for grazing and a smaller need for land to grow crops.” This would be an enormous contribution vis á vis climate concerns, given that land-use change and food production are the primary causes of biodiversity loss and deforestation globally, two immense sustainability issues.

Third, when it comes to water use, foods from animals are once again the most resource intensive. Studies show that a healthy vegetarian diet can reduce an individual’s water footprint by up to 55 per cent, which makes sense considering that a staggering 725.6 L of fresh water are needed to produce 100 g of protein from beef, whereas tofu requires eight times less fresh water (only 92.9 L by comparison).

Moreover, intensive animal farming can cause serious water pollution including eutrophication, where excessive algae in the water (caused by run-off of animal feces and leftover feed) depletes the oxygen in waterways, leading to a loss of fish and aquatic wildlife.

Finally, animal farming is an inefficient way to feed our growing global population, because animals have to consume many times more calories from crops than the calories they can produce. In the U.S., an analysis of the efficiency with which ‘feed’ can be converted to ‘food’ found that only about seven per cent of the calories and protein fed to animals go on to be consumed by humans via animal products (dairy, beef, poultry, pork, and eggs). We could feed far more people with far fewer resources if we simply fed the crops we grow directly to humans.

Regardless of any technological advances we make, rearing billions of live animals for human consumption will always be more environmentally taxing than growing plant-based proteins. As the Grazed and Confused report concludes, grass-fed livestock “does not offer a significant solution to climate change as only under very specific conditions can they help sequester carbon. This sequestering of carbon is even then small, time-limited, reversible, and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions these grazing animals generate.”

These facts can be hard to digest, but rather than feeling overwhelmed or discouraged, we can see an incredible opportunity. Food service operations can achieve their own sustainability goals and meet the needs of their guests by making plant-based and plant-forward food options more available, appealing, and affordable. After all, these are the three key drivers of food choices, and there are examples everywhere, from small-scale restaurants to fast food behemoths introducing delicious new dishes every day. Campuses and food service management companies especially are recognizing the urgent need to respond to increased consumer demand for vegan and vegetarian fare, which is good for the planet and for their bottom line.

Dozens of institutions and businesses have signed the Forward Food pledge to make their menus more plant-forward, and some companies including HHS and Elior North America have committed to 50 per cent plant-based menus (HHS has also committed to a 10 per cent reduction in their animal protein purchases). The secret to success is to create delectable dishes that any diner can enjoy, since the more people who choose them, the greater the environmental savings will be.

Some companies are taking this one step further, and incentivizing the plant-based choice by ensuring it is the least expensive one. Last year, Ingka Group – the largest IKEA retailer – announced that they would always sell plant-based foods at the same or lower price than meat-based alternatives. The decision is part of their transition to net-zero emissions and reflects their belief that the “sustainable choice should be affordable for the many,” according to the CEO.

To ensure their success, dishes must be presented as delicious choices with mass appeal. Name dishes to focus on flavour, mouthfeel, and provenance, highlighting key ingredients and cooking methods. Think “Garden Vegetable Breakfast Scramble” rather than “Vegan Tofu Scramble” or “Smoky 7-Layer Black Bean Burrito” instead of “Meatless Burrito.” Plant-based options should also be integrated into regular menus and offerings, and placed first where possible, like at a buffet, for example.

Finally, descriptive consumer messaging presented at the point of purchase can be influential, including menu sustainability messages like these, developed and tested by the World Resources Institute, can boost sales:

“Each of us can make a positive difference to the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference.”

At a time when so many of us are doing all we can to make our operations greener, plant-based foods offer a relatively easy win. Consumer demand for sustainability has never been higher, free resources are abundant, and there is growing consensus that we have to address the way we eat if we want to prevent climate catastrophe. Plus, plant-based offerings can go a long way towards improving public health and protecting animals, too. While evaluating opportunities for sustainability within your establishment, look at your menus and go for the low-hanging fruit – and vegetables.

Riana Topan is a campaign manager with Humane Society International/Canada. She manages the organization’s Forward Food program, which helps institutions across Canada increase their offerings of delicious and nutritious plant-based options that are better for animals, the environment, and human health. Forward Food provides culinary training, recipes, and menu development support, as well as help with marketing and communications – free of charge!