We can’t bury our heads in the sand when it comes to the environmental impact of the foods that we buy, cook and serve, says Andrew Stephen
Change – it’s one of life’s constants, yet it’s consistently surprising when it comes.
This week the UN has sounded an alarm call to all listening to the gurgling links between our stomachs and our planet. It highlights that a quarter of the 4,000 wild food species we eat are decreasing in abundance, while just nine ingredients account for two-thirds of total crop production.
In other words, what we eat is making the planet and the people on it more vulnerable and less resilient. Fast. This comes just six months after an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that showed we have just 12 years to avoid 2ºC of warming and to save all coral reefs. Not to forget the Eat-Lancet report, which pointed to the clear and immediate necessity to halve our global meat consumption.
One sign after another points to the need for change. We can no longer pretend that the power of our appetites is benign. We cannot now overlook the impact our businesses have through the food they buy, cook and serve. So how can we respond? How can this response be meaningful and restorative? The Sustainable Restaurant Association spends a lot of time chewing over these questions, and in pulling together our insight report, The Tastiest Challenge on the Planet, we set out to ask if our industry’s efforts are match-fit for the fight to fix food.
We spoke to our members, to chefs and to chief executives who have the ability to influence diners but are reluctant to dictate change. We are hospitality, they say, and we feel happier responding to what people ask for. There are pockets of progress, but it took the nation’s favourite naturalist to motivate us to get drastic with plastic – and straws are only the tip of the iceberg.
Diner change is happening, but the pace of change is measured. That’s no longer going to be sufficient as we battle to keep the rise in temperatures below 1.5ºC.
Three issues rose to the top as the most important for us as businesses to lead on: wasted food, the environmental impact of our menus and single-use plastic. By aligning to targets set by WRAP in its Plastics Pact and Food Waste Reduction Roadmap, and the World Resources Institute’s Cool Food Pledge, the industry can help cut food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030, reduce food waste by 25% by 2025 and meet the four targets set out in the Plastics Pact. If we aim for our businesses to be restorative, we must go much faster and further, but the first steps on the journey are clear.
We like recycling at the SRA, so I’ll leave you with a story I heard this week. Many of the stories we tell each other are tales about what change feels like. From Frodo Baggins being given an envelope full of responsibility to Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen and Simba. Our heroes are, at first, paralysed. They err and stutter. They pretend that nothing’s changed. Eventually, they reach a tipping point in which they set out on a new path and in a new direction that’s different from where they’ve been before. They leave the comfort zone of home and feel the call to adventure. They assemble allies and tools before striking back at the fear itself. Embattled, wounded but victorious, they return home with a treasure and leave the world in a better place. They personally have gained something inside that enriches them; they have grown. They know the importance of friendship.
This is what change feels like.
In 2019 we must feel the call to adventure, grab the right tools and build alliances. If we can’t fix food, we can’t fix climate change. And what we do in UK restaurants can make the weather – almost literally. This is the tastiest challenge on the planet.
Andrew Stephen is chief executive of the Sustainable Restaurant Association www.thesra.org