No More Red Meat?

The terrifying and deadly fires in Australia are a grim reminder of climate change. Greta Thunberg should be a prick (indeed more than a prick) to everyone’s conscience, reminding us that each and every one of us has a part to play in reducing global emissions through our individual carbon footprints. Thinking hard about what our personal contribution can be should be a backdrop to our lives. Questions such as ‘is that flight really necessary?’ That is a question that has rapidly risen up the academic’s list of awkward questions as travel to conferences is contemplated, as well as (perhaps) a personal desire to see the world or sun oneself on a balmy Mediterranean beach. If the flight is deemed ‘essential’, then can one offset to mitigate the damage? Is that sufficient?

As head of an institution, considerations regarding sustainability in our operations need to be centre stage. Where can our organisation’s carbon footprint be trimmed? How can our estate move towards carbon neutrality? There are easy wins, and wicked problems. Churchill is a relatively young college among its Cambridge peers, but it still faces many of the same challenges concerning its buildings, which will be hard to bring up to modern standards. Large windows are lovely to look out of, but so far the local council’s planning laws have made it impossible to double glaze them. The heat loss is consequently very great. And so it goes on. We will continue to consider how to reduce our emissions of all types, and as part of the drive I will write on this blog from time to time about our problems and attempted solution.

So, in this first post on the subject, a look at our catering activities. Spearheaded by the Domestic Bursar, Shelley Surtees, and the Head of Catering, David Oakley, there has been a complete reorganisation of the hot plate servery for lunch and dinner over the past year or so.  The eating arrangements are of course of great importance to our students, and making sure that what is on offer is both acceptable and affordable is a key requirement for success all round. The University as a whole has already described how it has changed its catering operation to remove red meat (meat from sheep and cows, the ruminant species) and has indicated the success of these moves. Churchill has been doing the same for some time, nudging our customers – students, postdocs and fellows not just from the College but those from across the West Cambridge site who use our cafeteria – to make more sustainable choices.

You don’t have to understand (or care) why ruminant species in our foodchain are so bad for the environment to opt for a vegan or vegetarian choice; if a vegan platter is the first option you come to in the food queue, and you see other people in front of you selecting this choice, perhaps curry or risotto, you may well follow suit. With the layout we now have, the first choices are vegan, followed by vegetarian, then fish (sustainably sourced of course) and finally a meat choice – but not red meat. At popular times of day our queues are long, and if you want to hold out for the meat you’re going to have to tame your hunger significantly longer. Many folk, we’ve discovered, just go for the first or second choice they come to. And that will be plant-based.

However, to find out more about our (un)sustainable habits, I’ve been reading Mike Berners-Lee’s 2010 book How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything I’m sure there are more recent books on the subject^ with more up-to-date figures for everything from the footprint of laundry to sending an email, but it is a good start for putting things in perspective. Cows and lamb are bad for many reasons, including that they fart methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times worse per kilogram than carbon dioxide. What I found depressing as I read the book, which I should have known but hadn’t appreciated, is that this means milk and cheese are bad news too. A dairy cow may fart less than a beef cow, I’m not sure about that, and the details will depend on a huge number of variables such as what they’ve eaten, but a cow is a cow is bad. So some of my favourite (vegetarian) choices of macaroni cheese or baked potatoes with cheese and beans are not really that good. But certainly better than a cut off the joint or a steak, given that the weight of milk/cheese will be significantly less.

Luckily, I’m no fan of lumps of red meat (though I’m not technically a vegetarian, and am allergic to some fish and seafood and so steer well clear of these choices), but the College is simply not providing these routinely in the servery. To quantify what this means in our kitchens, no lamb was purchased last year or the year before for our standard meals; and beef was reduced to less than 10% of its 2018 figure in 2019. Pork, chicken and turkey were however still on the menu. The first and last were purchased at more or less the same levels in the last two years; chicken purchases dropped by around 25% last year.

Sales, however, at the tills have increased over this period. We are a popular college to eat in! So, without working out (inevitably inaccurately, as all these figures must be) what our carbon emissions’ reduction has been due to these changes, we can see that they will be very substantial. Plant-based foods are now dominant, although perhaps we need to think more carefully about dairy products. Customers have not been turned away by the change in practice. Indeed, one might wonder how conscious some of them may have been of the changes. As our domestic bursar has said, if the first food you come to looks and smells good, and you can see people in front of you in the queue have been helping themselves to it, why would you not do the same?

Next up, in the College Buttery (a place that is somewhere between a bar and a café, with snacks) we are introducing bulk dispensers of various goodies, both the healthy (e.g. banana chips or trail mix) and the less healthy (various kinds of sweets), so that people can purchase snacks without aluminium foil or other excess wrappings. The challenge of paper versus plastic needs further thought. We have banned single use plastic bottles from regular College supplies, and the Buttery will now also keep bulk stocks of liquids for laundry and washing-up so that students can come to fill up their own containers, not throw them away each time they finish one. These latest steps are brand new, so their success needs to be monitored over time.

The government has been keen on nudging as a means to change habits, and the alteration in the servery seems to be working for us. It is one small step forward in making our operations more sustainable, but it has been visibly successful right from the outset. There will be more to come.

^ This ETH Zurich startup/initiative website has been brought to my attention as looking at food carbon footprints, though it isn’t clear how relevant it may be for the UK

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4 Responses to No More Red Meat?

  1. David says:

    I have never been a fan of red meat…ever. I take it minimally even in parties or other gatherings.

  2. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    As you try to find more environmentally sustainable alternatives to milk, please avoid almond milk (“milk” from almonds):

    Methane production of ruminants can be modulated with their diet. They can also be farmed humanely for dairy products. So I would hesitate to categorically rule out cow and goat milk, and cow, goat and sheep cheese in a menu plan. “Vegetarian” alternatives to dairy also can have a significant environmental impact.

  3. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    I put up the wrong link for the article about the almond milk industry’s impact on bees. Here is he correct link:

  4. Kate Jeffery says:

    I became vegan(ish) in Jan 2019 and have never regretted it. I thought I was addicted to butter and cheese and milk but it tuns out I don’t need them after all – there are so many more delicious foods available than I ever realised (helped by the fact that restaurants are catching on to the new pant-based market and choices are expanding rapidly). The side effect is that I feel nice that I’m not eating sentient beings or saturated fat – even though that wasn’t my original motivator. I’m not super strict and if a restaurant has only vegetarian (no vegan) options or if a friend cooks lamb for dinner I’m happy to go along with what’s on offer – but left to my own devices it’s plants all the way (except for a splash of milk in my tea – I couldn’t quite make plant milks fill that gap!).

    People should be taught to appreciate that it takes ten times the crops to feed a human via an animal than to feed a human with crops directly – I think a lot of people don’t realise it’s that much. So if we all gave up eating animals (or even cut back) we could *massively* shrink our land usage and carbon emissions.

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