Climate change and water scarcity are among the greatest threats to the U.S. foodservice industry and the nation’s food system overall. Over the next few decades, forecasts indicate temperatures will continue to rise, precipitation patterns will change, extreme weather events will become more frequent and intense, and many regions will experience a decline in freshwater availability. All this will make growing conditions more challenging and farming and ranching far less predictable. As a result, foodservice professionals should be prepared for supply chain disruptions, heightened risks of foodborne contamination, and more uncertainty in the availability, price, and nutrient content of food. Elevated carbon dioxide concentrations may lead to a decline in the iron and zinc content of legumes and certain grains, for example. These threats are discussed in the Climate Change and Water Sustainability issue briefs in the 2016 Menus of Change Annual Report.
The food and foodservice industries have a critical role to play in addressing the climate and water crises. If global meat and dairy consumption continues to rise as projected, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from food production alone will nearly surpass the threshold for keeping temperature rise at or below two degrees Celsius— the limit for avoiding the most catastrophic climate change scenarios. Shifting toward plant-forward cuisines is thus a necessary and urgent intervention for meeting sustainability goals, a message that has been echoed repeatedly in the scientific literature. The U.S. restaurant industry and foodservice sector—including our nation’s chefs— play a substantial role in shaping the tastes of the world’s dining public as well the priorities for our professional peers around the world.
How much room does this leave on the menu for animal foods? It depends—some are vastly more sustainable than others. Farmed shellfish generally have a minimal GHG and water footprint, while providing the co-benefit of cleaner waterways. The handful of studies on the GHG and water footprint of edible insects, such as mealworms and crickets, show promise. By contrast, the GHG intensities of pork, poultry, and dairy are high.
Ruminant meat—beef, mutton, and goat—has been repeatedly shown to be the most GHG-intensive food group, on the order of 100 times more so than plant foods, and the most demanding of land and energy.
Not all beef is created equal, however, raising questions about the relative sustainability of feedlot-finished beef compared to grass-finished beef. In contrast to intensive or “landless” systems, where beef or dairy cattle are confined to densely-stocked feeding operations, grazing systems capitalize on human-animal-ecosystem relationships in ways that can promote biodiversity, healthy soil, and farmer autonomy, while minimizing or avoiding many of the public health, ecological, and animal welfare harms associated with industrial production. Grazing animals also offer the benefit of converting crops that are inedible to humans (grass) into a food source, and can do so on land that is too rocky or hilly for crop production.
Certain grazing management techniques have also been shown to offset the GHG emissions from cattle by sequestering—or capturing— carbon in soil. More long-term studies are needed, however, to measure how much these practices could reduce, eliminate, or even reverse the GHG footprint of beef on a broader scale—because sequestration by grazing systems occurs only under highly specific conditions, and is time-limited, reversible, and potentially outweighed by the heavy climate burden from other GHGs (i.e., methane and nitrous oxide). And in the absence of ideal conditions, the GHG footprint of grass-finished beef may be higher than feedlot-finished beef, even after accounting for carbon sequestration.
In summary, there are many benefits from choosing pastured and grazed livestock, but it’s not yet clear whether climate change mitigation is one of those reasons—at least not based on the available evidence at this time. Even if certain grazing practices prove to be climate-friendly, we couldn’t simply swap all of our feedlot beef for pastured beef without at least halving the amount we consume— because all the pastureland in the U.S. could only support an estimated 45 percent of current production levels.
Amidst seemingly conflicting information, it can be challenging for foodservice professionals to identify the most sustainable culinary choices. As a general rule, plant-based foods should be prioritized above all else; shellfish and insects can probably be used liberally; and other animal products should be used sparingly as a flavor enhancer, a less frequent side dish, or the very infrequent, larger portion for special occasions (again, with a special emphasis on red meat reduction). Animal foods from pasture-based or agro-ecological operations are a little more complicated—there are many sound public health and ecological reasons to favor them over their industrially produced counterparts, but serving “better” meat and dairy needs to come along with substantial reductions in the amounts served. While definitive answers to “how much is acceptable?” have yet to be quantified, reductions on the order of 60 to 80 percent would substantially mitigate the ecological burdens of production, greatly increasing our chances of meeting climate mitigation goals.
The culinary profession and restaurant industry are making substantial strides in addressing climate change by serving less red meat. The long-term trend of spending an ever-larger share of food dollars in the U.S. on meals prepared by culinary professionals is highly correlated with the long-term decline in beef consumption. Chefs are taking the leading in popularizing plant-forward dining on their menus, increasing the share of plant-based foods they serve—for instance, through the now widely prevalent use of mushrooms to offset portions of beef patties in blended burgers—and also introducing new types of plant-based foods to the public. Both measures influence what we choose to cook when we cook for ourselves.
While the restaurant industry’s efforts are helping to address climate change overall, the industry has made little progress in managing its own near-term risks, including increased volatility in food availability and price triggered by more extreme and less predictable weather and long-term droughts. Companies like McDonald’s are finally acknowledging the risk of climate change. Needed improvements in supply chain transparency (pp. 16) will help restaurant operators better understand where their ingredients come from. They will also help them make menu and sourcing decisions to both avoid risk and support sustainable agricultural practices, including sourcing from farms that effectively sequester carbon.
As leaders of the plant-forward direction for American food choices, chefs and foodservice professionals need to create a culture of craveability around produce and healthy, plant-based foods, shifting from a perception of deprivation to one of pleasure. In foodservice operations, that includes reducing the amount of animal protein in a dish to the profit of plant-based ingredients and developing plant-forward entrées that go beyond a plate of roasted vegetables. In grocery stores and other prepared food settings, that means offering flavorful fresh and frozen plant-forward dishes, selling both raw and partially prepared (peeled and cut, for example) produce that a home cook can use conveniently and rapidly, and providing cooking advice to help consumers make good purchasing decisions.
Creativity in the restaurant and non-commercial foodservice sectors is increasingly showing the way, by offering more choices not less choice, and presenting a multitude of pathways towards “plant-forward” embedded in culturally based flavors from the Mediterranean and Asia to Latin America; by dazzling diners with small plates of fresh, farm-to-table creations; by constructing whole-grain-and-produce-based bowls with meat or other animal protein as a 1- or 2-ounce topping; or by marrying reduced portions of animal protein with savory preparations of legumes (pulses), nuts, and/or seeds. Just as a good investment advisor suggests building the components of a sound retirement portfolio across a whole range of sectors and strategies, innovative restaurants are now demonstrating the promise of diversifying menu categories and concepts beyond the old, simply bifurcated “regular” meat and vegetarian/ vegan options.
The restaurant industry and culinary profession are driving an important trend in reducing red meat consumption, which has the largest GHG footprint or contribution to climate change, and highlighting plant-forward menu innovation, but efforts to promote other, more sustainable animal proteins or source from producers that use far superior growing practices remain sporadic.
- Menus should prioritize plant-based foods; shellfish and insects are among the more sustainable options from the animal kingdom.
- There are sound reasons to transition from industrially raised to pasture-based animal products, but so far this has not been shown to be a solution for climate change despite popular claims to the contrary. A substantial reduction in meat production is the surest way to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of feedlot-finished beef, even as the science around pasture-finished beef continues to be explored and evaluated.
- The restaurant industry and culinary profession are driving an important trend in reducing red meat consumption, which has the largest GHG footprint or contribution to climate change, and highlighting plant-forward menu innovation, but efforts to promote other, more sustainable animal proteins or source from producers that use far superior growing practices remain sporadic.