Menu items labeled for their carbon footprint

At the COP26 conference, running from Oct 31 to Nov 12 in Glasgow, Scotland, every item on the food menu had its climate impact indicated.  The COP26 conference is promoted as having the goal of promoting a global response to the climate crisis.  While many commitments have been made by various countries participating, most people agree that their promises won’t be nearly enough to reach the goal of only a 1.5 degree increase in average global temperatures, and this was particularly evident in the case of their approach to food. 

One of the most impactful ways that this goal could be achieved is by eliminating the consumption of animal products, especially beef.  To that end, many organizations and demonstrators have been pushing for the conference to provide only plant-based food during the event, to demonstrate their acknowledgement that meat and other animal products are so devastating to the environment.  While the conference organizers weren’t willing to go that far, they did come up with a novel way to educate attendees on the impact of their food choices.

Every menu item at the various eateries around the conference was labeled with its estimated carbon footprint.  Conference organizers called this their “plant-forward” approach.  They aimed to reduce the event’s carbon footprint by sourcing 95% of the foods served from the United Kingdom, and 80% locally from Scotland, but unfortunately felt the need to keep animal products on the menu, while offering some plant-based meals.

“We have worked hard to create low-carbon menus that are accessible to all. We hope our sustainable food strategy will shape menus of the future as we all work to protect our planet,” SEC Food Business Director Kevin Watson said in a statement. “As well as providing great-tasting and nutritious food, our menus are focused on local and seasonal sourcing, with a plant-forward approach. We have been delighted to showcase and work with so many local Scottish suppliers and our teams are looking forward to supporting the event.”

Delegates had a selection of dishes to choose from, ranging from options that impact the climate minimally (such as the plant-based Candied Scottish Beetroot & Broccoli Salad which emits 0.2 kg of CO2 equivalent) to those with massive impact (such as the Scottish Beef Burger, which contributes approximately 3.9 kg, the same amount of CO2 equivalent emissions as driving a car for 10 miles).

While demonstrators were frustrated that 58% of the menu items still contained animal products, others saw this as an opportunity to educate the attendees on the impact of animal agriculture, and encourage them to choose the plant-based options available. 

This strategy may have contributed to the decision of the conference president, Alok Sharma, to announce that he is going vegetarian for the sake of the planet.  It took some extra pressure from his vegetarian daughter for him to make the move, as she asked him what he was going to “do for the environment?”.  He announced his decision to cut out meat, fish and poultry in a newspaper article, hopefully inspiring many more to do the same.

Many restaurants now list the calories in each dish on their menu.  We wonder if the concept of showing the carbon footprint of each dish on a menu will catch on!