The case for primarily eating plant-based food on environmental and public health grounds is strong, but the full benefits to people, animals, ecosystems, and the climate will only be realized if plant-based eating becomes mainstream. Though more people are giving up or cutting down on animal products in high meat-consuming countries, they remain a minority—only about 2% and 5% of the US population identify as vegan and vegetarian, respectively, and plant-based foods are still unavailable in many food-service contexts. Where plant-based options do exist, choices are often limited and may not always consider diverse dietary needs related to religious observance and allergies. Wide accessibility and increased availability are key factors in catalyzing a paradigm shift toward plant-based eating. What else could help plant-based food to become more broadly accessible?
Good for us and the planet
A number of studies have demonstrated that plant-based diets have notable health benefits, including lowering the risk of common cancers, heart disease, and diabetes. The health outcomes can be improved further if the diet contains more whole foods. Reducing the consumption and production of meat and dairy also has indirect health benefits. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts have warned of the risks of additional dangerous zoonotic diseases like avian flu potentially emerging from intensive animal agriculture. Antimicrobial resistance caused by the overuse of antibiotics in farmed animals has also been a long-standing public health concern.
Research shows that livestock waste and the heavy use of fertilizers on crop fields is the most significant source of fine-particulate air pollution across Europe, the United States, China, and Russia. This pollution causes at least 3.3 million deaths each year globally from heart and pulmonary disease. This is also an issue of environmental justice, given that, in the US, for example, industrial meat, dairy, and egg production is often sited near low-income communities of color, subjecting them to severe pollution that kills around 16,000 people a year.
Plant-based foods almost always have a smaller impact on the climate and on the use of natural resources including land and water than animal-based foods,, whether they are imported or grown locally, or produced using conventional or organic methods. By reducing the amount of land needed to grow food and freeing up more land for rewilding, a shift to plant-based diets in high-income nations could cut those nations’ agricultural emissions by 61 percent and potentially sequester carbon in rewilded ecosystems. This change in land use would also benefit wildlife.
With an estimated 90 percent of farmed animals globally kept in intensive conditions, including farmed fish, a widespread shift to plant-based diets would also alleviate the suffering and slaughter of over 70 billion farmed animals each year.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a nonprofit that promotes plant-based diets for the benefit of humans and animals, has developed an initiative called the Universal Meals Program as a way to help plant-based food appeal to as many people as possible in a wide range of contexts. Plant-based food can include anything from unprocessed whole foods to commercial meat alternatives, but there are some common allergens among popular plant-based ingredients such as soy and wheat. The combination of allergens and diverse dietary needs can make it hard for some people to find an appropriate meal in food service settings. Universal Meals answer these varied challenges with one convenient and inclusive solution.
A Universal Meal is free of animal-derived ingredients, gluten-containing grains, alcohol, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, and mustard. As the name suggests, Universal Meals are meant for everyone, their main ethos being inclusivity. In the view of Dustin Harder, PCRM’s culinary specialist who develops recipes for the Universal Meals Program, one major benefit of planning for inclusivity is that “it just takes a lot of the guesswork out of” catering to customers who could have any number of allergies or motivations for avoiding certain foods, such as religion, culture, animal welfare, or environmental concerns. The Program is designed for schools, colleges, businesses, public sector catering, and restaurants, with Harder’s recipes intended to be easily adaptable so kitchens can make Universal Meals using ingredients they may already have.
Universal Meals may not explicitly seek to address the health, environmental, or animal welfare concerns that motivate plant-based eating or the animal rights ethic that underpins veganism, but they do so nonetheless. The Program is being rolled out with “a slow and steady approach,” says Harder, to allow “culinary teams room to feel out the new recipes and also the consumer to see new items as an additional offering as opposed to something taking over the menu completely if their meat or favorite items are removed and replaced by Universal Meals instantly.” Ideally, Universal Meals options would be “offered in every institution to create a unifying experience so everyone has something to eat.”
A straightforward way to cater for everyone could be a great motivator for more kitchens to start offering Universal Meals to their customers. But the evidence suggests that including more such meals on menus, along with tweaks to how menus are structured, could also have a big impact on increasing the uptake of these healthier, planet-friendly options. Increasing the appeal and availability of plant-forward meals could help realize the many positive impacts of dietary change for the common good of animals, environments, and public health.
Meals containing meat and dairy often take a place of prominence on menus and in cafeterias. Unless a kitchen is entirely plant-based, its animal-free options will be more limited than its other options and marked out as different by being given their own sections, usually lower down on menus. Simply changing the presentation and ratio of plant-based and meat offerings can make a big difference to customer choices.
Often, the most impactful changes can go unnoticed. Unlike overt appeals to consumers to change their habits, a behavior intervention known as nudging involves “subtle changes to the choice environment that don’t remove options or offer a financial incentive.” Nudging has been found to be effective in increasing the uptake of plant-based options. According to one meta-study, nudging is particularly successful when plant-based options are provided as the default, normalizing plant-based eating. Increasing the number of vegetarian options and increasing the proportion of menus that are vegetarian in university and workplace cafeterias and conference venues are effective ways to increase sales of plant-based food while reducing the sale of meat-based meals.
The Universal Meals Program offers an example of a food environment nudge that could not only deliver gains for environmental and public health outcomes but also simplify the task of providing tasty, nutritious, easily adaptable recipes that are accessible to a wide range of dietary needs and preferences.
With workplace cafeterias already in flux after the COVID-19 pandemic, companies and organizations may face a particularly good time for making plant-forward changes to menus and purchasing. Additionally, some workplaces are already thinking more about how to integrate sustainability into their everyday operations. Increasing the proportion, desirability, and accessibility of plant-based options available in cafeterias once workers return to the office is one important way for businesses to reduce their environmental impacts while improving the health of their workforce.
Change Must Be Inclusive
Despite all the evidence for the positive impacts of plant-based diets, the ubiquity of and cultural value attached to animal-based foods in many countries has generated some backlash against attempts to encourage plant-based eating.
There are also worries among farmers that their perspectives are being sidelined and that supporting local farmers should be more important than taking meat off the menu. But providing plant-based catering and supporting local farmers are by no means mutually exclusive goals. Indeed, farmers working in plant agriculture also require support, and changes in demand allow for the expansion of corresponding opportunities for farmers. To facilitate a transition toward the largely plant-based food system of the future, the public sector, in particular, must also think about how to support farmers during the transition, such as direct assistance to those interested in shifting from animal agriculture to crop agriculture.
The Universal Meals Program offers one potential way forward for institutions looking to increase their plant-based offerings while putting inclusivity at the forefront of the change. Food-service providers and local institutions could also use Universal Meals as a way to build new sourcing relationships with local crop suppliers, ensuring that farmers’ economic wellbeing is a central part of food system transition.
The Momentum of Change
The Universal Meals Program is currently working with various institutions and food-service providers across the US, placing plant-based and inclusive meals on an increasing number of menus. Factors easing the adoption of plant-based dishes include the cost savings of increasing plant-based options and the logistical simplicity of selecting broadly inclusive menu items. Businesses may also have a lot to gain by being inclusive of a wider range of dietary requirements.
Around the world, plant-based eating is making inroads at the city and institutional levels. The city of Berkeley, California, has committed to making half of the city’s food procurement plant-based by 2024, with a long-term goal of going 100% plant-based. As of this year, Finland’s capital city Helsinki is no longer serving meat or cow’s milk at public events, seminars, meetings, or workshops. Public schools in New York City are now serving vegan meals on Fridays. In the UK, a small number of town and county councils have committed to some degree of plant-based catering for council events and/or public services such as schools.
Restaurants are making changes too. UK chain Wagamama has made half its menu plant-based, and global fast-food chains including McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King have introduced plant-based versions of some of their usual menu items.
Transforming the food system will require changes to production, consumption, and social norms around food. The rising popularity of plant-based food is encouraging, but there is still a long way to go before plant-based eating becomes the most common and most accessible dietary choice. Food service and catering in the public sector are key areas for promoting healthful, compassionate, inclusive dietary change with huge potential gains for animals, environments, and human wellbeing. Behavioral nudges like the Universal Meals Program could have an enormous positive impact by making plant-based food as appealing and accessible as possible, normalizing plant-based eating for the benefit of all.
Image of Universal Meal Tortilla Soup courtesy of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
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