A recent study by University of Cambridge scientists finds that increasing vegetarian options on menus reduces orders of meat dishes by 40 to 80%. This piece of research presents a new solution to encourage more plant-based eating amongst omnivores or flexitarians, a much-needed shift if we are to combat our planetary climate and health crisis. It suggests that the food service industry plays a crucial role when it comes to promoting sustainable dining choices, and can significantly contribute to carbon reduction measures by simply adding more meat-free choices on their menus.
In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Cambridge found that doubling the number of vegetarian options on menus in 3 colleges significantly increased the sales of meat-free dishes by as much as 80%. Importantly, the researchers found that these altered menus had no negative effect on overall sales – demonstrating that diversifying menu options would help the planet without costing restaurants. Analysing over 94,000 meal choices, the study further shows that regular meat eaters were swayed the most to choose meat-free options when menus were diversified.
“One of the exciting things about this study is the scale of information on individual diners’ choices. We discovered that changing the relative availability of vegetarian options had the strongest effect on those who usually eat more meat,” explained paper co-author and conservation scientist Andrew Balmford.
With the meat and dairy industry being a key culprit for releasing greenhouse gases that drive climate change, these findings suggests that simply adding more vegetarian options on menus is a key climate fighting measure. In addition to producing more emissions than global transport combined, meat and dairy production requires hefty amounts of land and water as well, and drives topsoil erosion and species loss. Given this, scientists have repeatedly called for a global overhaul of the existing food system for more plant-based diets in order to reduce our environmental footprint.
Conservationist Emma Garnett, who was a researcher in this study, said: “Replacing some meat or fish with more vegetarian options might seem obvious, but as far as we know no one had tested it before. Solutions that seem obvious don’t always work, but it would appear that this one does.”
In addition, adding more vegetarian and vegan options on menus would be more widely accepted amongst mainstream audiences, and therefore could feasibly be implemented on a large scale to shape more positive choices and consumer demand for planet-friendly dishes. While more stringent measures such as meat taxes might alienate dedicated meat eaters, “altering the range of available options is more acceptable, and offers a powerful way to influence the health and sustainability of our diets,” said behavioural expert Theresa Marteau.
The team hopes that their findings can help shape food policy at the university, to reduce the overall footprint at existing dining facilities and restaurants. Already, beef and lamb – which represent the biggest generators of greenhouse gases from the meat industry – have been eliminated from all menus under the University Catering Service. These changes have reportedly cut their carbon footprint by 11%.
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