Earth Day

Promoting plant-based foods to protect our planet

By Riana Topan

Earth Day, observed around the world on April 22, began as a celebration of the birth of the modern environmental movement. Today, it has become a global day of awareness and opportunity to learn about and take transformative action for the health of our planet.

This year, the call to action centres on the climate change crisis. To echo the recently released UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, climate change is “a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet”, and it is more important than ever that we respond.

When faced with such a colossal challenge, it’s natural for us as individuals to wonder about the impact that any one person can have. As it happens, the climate change conversation has special relevance to the foodservice industry, since it too often neglects a key factor: our food choices.

Consumers, companies, institutions, and governments are increasingly recognizing the profound impact that agriculture, especially animal agriculture, has on our planet. Its substantial use of resources and environmental costs are hard to overlook, and this is where individual choices stand out.

With the daily decisions we make about the food we eat, each one of us has the power to drive the change that is so desperately needed. In this respect, our individual choices can make a tremendous impact, in their own right and through the larger, systemic changes that they inspire.

It’s also clear that the foodservice sector, which serves millions of meals daily at restaurants, healthcare facilities, educational institutions, and more, has a pivotal role to play in protecting the Earth by expanding the realm of consumer choice for planet-friendly fare.

The case for change is a strong one. Global food production is responsible for about one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the production of animal-based foods is responsible for 57 per cent of these emissions, nearly double that of plant-based foods. 

Our global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, with agriculture alone being the identified threat to 86 per cent of species at risk of extinction. Within this, animal agriculture has a disproportionate impact on biodiversity, land use, and the environment. Moreover, while meat, eggs, dairy, and aquaculture provide just 18 per cent of global calories and 37 per cent of protein, they use the vast majority (83 per cent) of farmland and produce nearly 60 per cent of food’s greenhouse gas emissions.

These data points make it clear why international entities like the UN Environment Programme are calling for a shift towards plant-rich diets. Even Canada’s Food Guide encourages consumers to “make food and drink choices that are better for the environment”, the first suggested action being to “choose plant-based foods more often.”

Forward-thinking foodservice professionals have already begun to embrace the benefits of plant-based foods.

In our work with institutions and businesses from coast to coast to coast, we see countless chefs, cooks, dietitians, managers, and operators shifting their menus, seeking to make guests’ mouths water with dishes like cauliflower tikka masala, jerk tofu, vegetable- and quinoa-stuffed eggplant, and yam brownies. They’ve realized it’s a win-win-win-win: they can serve food that is sustainable, nutritious, compassionate and often more economical, without sacrificing flavour or enjoyment for their guests.

RELATED: Debunking myths: Plant-based foods are the way of the future

It’s no secret that consumers are looking for more plant-based options: Recent data shows that two-thirds (67 per cent) of Canadians consume plant-based foods frequently, and 31 per cent of Canadians plan to eat more plant-based foods within the next year. Recognizing that a large-scale shift towards more sustainable foods from plant sources is needed if we want to prevent a climate catastrophe, we must ensure that plant-based proteins are widely available, delicious, affordable, and convenient nationwide.

That’s why we collaborate closely with the foodservice industry, providing workshops, presentations, culinary trainings, recipes, menu development support, environmental impact analyses, and other services, free of charge. We simply ask that our partners make a measurable, meaningful commitment to helping us build a better food system: sign the Forward Food Pledge and commit to transitioning 20 per cent of overall purchasing and menus to be plant-based, within two years.

A dozen major foodservice companies, networks, and individual operations have already signed the pledge. Together, they serve over 300,000 meals per day – which adds up quickly and will significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. We hope to see this number grow steadily in the next few years.

In honour of Earth Day, we are urging all foodservice professionals to join the growing movement in support of better food for the planet. This industry can play a crucial role in solving our most pressing environmental problems if we make the right choices, do so without delay, and act collectively. The well-being of all animals, including humans, and this planet we call home, depends on it.

Riana Topan is a campaign manager with Humane Society International/Canada and runs the 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.