The menu at The Canteen in the South West of England doesn’t just tell diners how much a dish costs. They can also check its carbon footprint.
The carrot and beet pakora with yoghurt sauce is only responsible for 16 grams of CO2 emissions. Eggplant with miso and harissa sauce with tabbouleh and Zaatar toast caused 675 grams of carbon dioxide.
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As customers weigh their options, the Bristol vegetarian restaurant’s menu includes a comparison with a dish it doesn’t serve: the emissions from a UK-produced burger.
“Three kilos for a burger, wow! I can’t believe it,” exclaims Enyioma Anomelechi, a 37-year-old diner sipping a beer outside in the sun.
The menu notes that the emissions from a real beef burger are “10 times greater than its vegan alternative”.
The carbon footprint of businesses and consumers is coming under increasing scrutiny as countries strive to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and reach the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
The Canteen in July became the first restaurant to agree to put its carbon footprint on the menu as part of a campaign by British vegan charity Viva!
Restaurant manager Liam Stock called the decision “to see what we are doing, to understand ourselves and to improve”.
The average British person has an annual carbon footprint of over 10 tonnes, according to UK government figures.
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Britain has set an ambitious target to cut harmful emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 figures, to meet its international climate change commitments.
Switching to a plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways for an individual to reduce their carbon footprint, experts from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in April. .
The livestock industry is replacing CO2-absorbing forests with grazing land and growing soybeans for livestock feed. The animals also spit huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Whether diners will let the carbon footprint influence their ordering choices remains to be seen, but Stock said the menu innovation has garnered interest and support.
“In England, if you’re a big chain restaurant, it’s the law that you have to have calories (on the menu),” he said.
“But a lot of people say… they’re more interested in carbon.”
Although Anomelechi noted the “huge” difference in emissions between a burger and other dishes, he said he didn’t necessarily want to be burdened with knowing the calorie count or carbon footprint of his order.
“When I go out to eat, I just want to enjoy,” he added, noting that he would be more inclined to change his habits when shopping.
Laura Hellwig, head of campaigns at Viva!, said the carbon footprint figure should become mandatory.
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“We are in a climate emergency and consumers need to be able to make informed choices,” the campaigner said.
According to her, “most people would actually choose for the planet” if faced with a comparison between the carbon footprint of a meat-based meal and a vegan dish.
Cradle to store
Stock said he knew his restaurant’s dishes would have a low carbon footprint because most of his ingredients are sourced locally.
“We didn’t have to change anything,” he said, while admitting a few surprises, such as learning that imported spices increase emissions.
To calculate the footprint of the dishes, The Canteen sent its recipes and the source of the ingredients to a specialist company called MyEmissions.
It is able to calculate the carbon impact from “cradle to store”, taking into account agriculture, processing, transport and packaging.
“If I had to choose between two dishes, maybe depending on how hungry I was, I might choose the one with the least footprint,” said Nathan Johnson, a 43-year-old diner at the restaurant.
That day, he opted for the chef’s salad, which racks up 162 grams of carbon.
Another diner, Emma Harvey, 29, also backed the idea of increased awareness of carbon footprints “and the ethical effects of the food we eat”.
“We need to incorporate things (like) this into everyday life,” she said.
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