Vegetarian and vegan menus won't fix the restaurant industry's sustainability problem

The Staff Canteen

as people increasingly consider the impact of their eating habits on the environment, how is the hospitality industry driving sustainability in food?

With the proportion of vegetarians and vegans growing, restaurants are tweaking their offerings, sometimes designing entire menus to cater to them.

In Britain, one-third of people reported a decrease in their meat consumption, according to a study by supermarket chain Waitrose in 2018, and across Europe, Euromonitor predicts that the sales of meat substitutes will grow by 22 percent globally in the by 2023. 

What does sustainability mean for the hospitality industry?

Whereas alternative diets are becoming popular with consumers, and restaurants like three Michelin-starred New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park went down the strictly plant-based route in a move to make the restaurant industry more environmentally responsible, within hospitality, there has been a push to increase the sector's environmental sustainability through other means.

People like Mark Chapman, the founder of the Zero Carbon Forum, are pushing for the industry to reach net-zero emissions; chefs and restaurateurs like Ivan Tisdall-Downes and Imogen Davis, head chef and co-founder of Native, are championing regenerative agriculture to help improve soil health and environmental sustainability in food production. 

Others, like chef Doug McMaster of Silo, and two-Michelin-starred chef and president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, Raymond Blanc OBE, are advocating for better practices in the fine dining sphere: As well as championing the cause through his zero-waste restaurant and book, Doug is currently running an 'invasive species' series, using plants and animals classed as invasive, thus curbing their populations and stop their spread. 

These efforts are being further supported by Michelin which, in 2021, created the new green star accolade for restaurants going above and beyond to keep the environment in mind and act sustainably. Last year, the guide even awarded its first Michelin star to a vegan restaurant in France.

What does a sustainable hospitality industry look like?

When it comes to sustainability, there are three major areas on which the industry can focus: carbon emissions, produce and wastage.

The most obvious environmental impact that the hospitality industry has on the environment is through carbon emissions: operational emissions, supply chain emissions, and consumer emissions.

The most pollutive part of the hospitality industry is actually the supply chain which, according to Mark Chapman of the Zero Carbon Forum, is responsible for 70-90 percent of its emissions. However, it's also an area in which we are witnessing a lot of change. 

An obvious way of affecting the supply chain is to buy local produce. Imogen Davis, the co-founder of Native said: "Obviously at the moment, you are trying not to fly in [produce]."

However, just buying local isn't enough to stop the environmental damage caused by food. There also needs to be improvements made to how the food is produced, and the chemical treatment of soil. As Ivan said, “They’re saying our soil health is deteriorating rapidly, and by 2050 it’ll be dead.

"We’re absolutely tearing it apart and we need to look at a way of inputting more back into the system."

It's not about just going Vegan

While for many, like the team at Eleven Madison Park, being sustainable and going entirely-plant based are one and the same, this isn't a one size fits-all approach.

Raymond Blanc OBE looks at food, in his words, 'holistically'. He said, "Yes, meat has a heavy impact on the environment but if we eat a little less, source it only from regenerative sources, then we can go on to enjoy it and include it in a balanced diet."

"Also, just because a dish is vegan or vegetarian does not automatically mean it is good for you or the planet."

The team at Native take an approach, where, rather than going plant-based, the goal is not to put pressure on the food system.

“Agricultural methods for plant-based food is just as bad as the way meat is produced,” Ivan said,  which is why they focus on the sustainability of the produce they use.“If a cow is ready to be eaten, we’ll have the cow, we won’t order a hundred sirloin steaks.”

In a similar vein, Douglas McMaster at the green Michelin-starred restaurant Silo, is using invasive species as a focus in his menus.

With Silo's current menu, dishes are built around Japanese knotweed, listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world's worst invasive species. Later in the series, the chef has plans to use freshwater crayfish, jellyfish and venison.

By removing those species that are causing a negative effect on the environment, partnered with the restaurant's existing zero-waste ethos, the restaurant's offering of a mixed diet is more environmentally friendly than a plant-based one can be, as it is focused on using what is available.

To be truly climate-conscious when you eat, more needs to be considered than just the nature of the ingredients - and chefs, who are much intimately bound with the supply chain, provenance and production processes, may understand this better than anyone.

"In the UK and the world, there are huge changes happening, both the way we eat and the way we eat out. Today our customers are driven by knowledge, and a sense of responsibility, so they are much more aware [of] where their food comes from and what’s in it," Raymond said.  

"Knowledge is important and empowering: yet a customer doesn’t want to be lectured whilst dining! But a good chef wants to be a force for the good and show clarity, provenance and seasonality to his diner. It is all part of the climate change battle."


Article written by Harper McCarley

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 16th March 2022

Vegetarian and vegan menus won't fix the restaurant industry's sustainability problem