Environmental issues are what’s hot on restaurant menus — and have been for years, according to the National Restaurant Association’s annual culinary trends survey.
This year, the first and third slots on the survey are locally sourced meats and seafood and locally sourced produce, respectively. “Hyper-local sourcing,” environmental sustainability, sustainable seafood, and food waste reduction management all made the top 20.
While those top trends often overlap, myths and misinformation still exist around environmental sustainability and food. That’s because of the complex and often confusing trade-offs that can occur. Here are three eco-myths to explore:
Eco-myth No. 1
Assumption: Local food is always better for the environment.
Fact: Chefs often cite how local or hyper-local food offers fresher flavor, better quality and the excellent potential for telling customers a story on their menus. Customers often believe shrinking the food miles, or distance the food has to travel before it is eaten, will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of their food (i.e., local is better for the environment). However, this is not necessarily true.
According to a 2008 study, Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States, 83% of carbon emissions in the food system result from food production, 5% from wholesaling and retailing food, and 11% from transporting it. Interestingly, only 4% of the total transportation emissions were from the final delivery of the produce to the retailer, which is what most individuals consider as “food miles”. The other 7% was in supply-chain transportation.
Obviously, the benefits generated by buying local food, such as the taste and supporting area farmers, are fantastic. But don’t oversell the environmental benefits of that local produce without knowing how it was grown or raised.
Tip: Get to know your local farmers at farmers markets and ask some questions over time. Those could include whether they set aside wetlands for water fowl, how they use water efficiently and what their thoughts are on no-till farming?
Eco-myth No. 2
Assumption: Egg-laying hens held in cage-free environments are better off than chickens in traditional cages.
Fact: There is often an implicit expectation that free-range laying hens have a better life, are happier and generally have more friends. As with other food purchases, there are trade-offs between free range versus traditionally raised hens that you should take into consideration when buying eggs for your restaurant.
The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply research looked at different egg-laying housing systems for food safety, worker safety, egg affordability, environmental impact and hen health and well-being. In their research they found that while indoor, cage-free chickens had almost double the amount of space per bird, including perches and dust bath “litter areas,” they also had more than double the rate of chicken mortality (approximately 11% per flock) than the traditional cage environment (less than 5% per flock). This higher mortality rate and additional space needs of cage-free hens increased the cost of a dozen eggs by 36%.
According to the study, “The research found there are positive and negative impacts and trade-offs associated with each of the three hen housing systems. Depending on the goals and perspectives of a food production company, egg producer or other food system stakeholder, those trade-offs may be weighed differently,” said Dr. Joy Mench, CSES co-scientific director and professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis.
Tip: Consider the results of this study when buying eggs and what is best for your business and customers.
Eco-myth No. 3
Assumption: Wild caught seafood is always better for our oceans than farmed
Fact: From the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to everything in between, restaurateurs can choose what seafood philosophy best fits their business via different lists of seafood to purchase.
While some of the attitudes are changing, chefs and consumers often say they prefer wild caught fish — especially salmon — and that farmed fish has a negative impact on the environment. But, like local farming and egg production, there are trade-offs and the truth is never simple.
For farmed bivalves, like mussels, oysters, and clams, it’s a no brainer. For example, US farmed oysters on both the East and West Coasts are sustainably grown and harvested under state and federal regulations, help improve water quality and require no feed.
For other seafood types, it gets more complicated. Many fish farms can receive third-party environmental certification from organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Global Aquaculture Alliance. Similar to product certifications from Energy Star or Green Seal, those third-party certifications help ensure fish farms are complying with sustainability best practices, instilling confidence in your purchases and knowledge of where your fish comes from.
So is wild caught better than farmed raised? It really depends on the complex interaction of fish species, where and how it was caught and what the farming practices look like.
Tip: Talk with other chefs and see what they are doing. Look at the NOAA websites and other programs to get more information and make informed purchases.
The world of food sustainability is complex and evolving. Arm yourself with knowledge and ask a lot of questions. When you are comfortable, assess the real world trade-offs for your business and choose products you want to serve your customers.
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