Sustainable food practices in universities
Anna Arenillas, October 4. 2021
Sustainability – Applied Sciences
It is widely known that planetary boundaries (Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2021) are being transgressed by human activity and that the food value chain is a significant contributor to such transgressions. Climate change – fostered by greenhouse gas emissions, which increase the global average temperature – is one of them. As a matter of fact, food production accounts for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. On top of that, not all types of food contribute to the carbon footprint equally. In fact, beef emits 49.89 kgCO2eq per 100 grams of protein throughout all of its value chain, particularly at the farming stage. This amount is far beyond the second most greenhouse emitting intensive nutriment, this being lamb and mutton meat, which emits 19.85 kgCO2eq per 100 grams of protein altogether (Ritchie & Roser, 2020).
Climate change is not the only planetary boundary that is currently found in a grey area. Certainly, land system change is also found at this stage due to the alteration of land for human use. In order to address this boundary, land clearing should be prevented. Recent studies have shown that 50% of the habitable land is used for agriculture. More specifically, out of this 50%, 37% is dedicated to the production of meat and dairy alone. In fact, lamb and mutton production uses 184.8 m2 per 100 grams of protein. Similarly, beef uses up to 163.6 m2 per 100 grams of protein. This surface usage is well beyond the next intensive food production in land use (Ritchie & Roser, 2020).
Universities across the world are embracing unprecedented initiatives in all levels of their activity in order to respect the planetary boundaries. Their choice of food supply at canteens, restaurants, catering, and vending machines are a tangible example. Indeed, a diet that strives to be environmentally sustainable should consider the aforementioned matters. In fact, universities and especially their food services can be fertile ground to apply such practices on, since they are frequented by a large and diverse community that enlarges their impact. The most widely adopted initiatives are discussed below.
The main measure that arises directly from the previously mentioned facts is the reduction of beef, lamb, and mutton products in a university’s food offer. These protein-rich nourishments could be replaced by plant-based equivalents that are relatively more environmentally sustainable. For example, tofu emits 1.98 kgCO2eq per 100 grams of protein and uses 2.2 m2 per 100 grams of protein (Ritchie & Roser 2020). Its implementation could vary depending on the specificities of the customers at each site. On the one hand, a community that is not fully acquainted with vegetarian and vegan diets may require the use of formats such as ‘meat-free 1 day a week’, ‘meat-free 1 week a month’, or even ‘meat-free 1 month a year’, at least at its introductory stage. Another possibility would be to offer a balanced vegetarian and vegan option next to all other options daily. On the other hand, customers highly familiarised with these diets might be more likely to welcome a complete elimination of such products.
Even though reducing beef, lamb, and mutton meat has been claimed as the most effective action for caterers, this practice is only one of many other potential policies targeted at pursuing the same objective. Favouring products that are cultivated relatively closer and that are seasonal is one of them. Reducing the amount of plastic used is another example. Furthermore, offering products with sustainable certification, such as Fairtrade coffee, would further contribute to incorporating social sustainability in the food offer. Finally, involving different members of the university community in the elaboration of a more sustainable menu could enhance the customer’s buy-in of such practices, and even create a momentum that could be used to introduce more practices on the matter.
While the aforementioned practices would surely contribute to the conservation of the environment, special attention should be put on some aspects. Firstly, prices of the new alternatives should be set painstakingly so that they are not considerably higher than those of the current options. Secondly, resistance to dietary changes, as well as claims to limitations to their freedom, might be raised by some customers who could potentially opt for alternative food suppliers, thus causing a decrease of the food demand on campus. In order to address these two potential challenges, follow-up activities should be put in place.
Universities taking part in the EUTOPIA network are gradually incorporating these practices in their food offer. The solid ties of this alliance set the perfect conditions to evaluate one’s university experience in terms of success and failure factors. Indeed, provided they are effectively shared, these insights can be valuable to other universities in the alliance for the implementation of new practices or the enhancement of current ones. The panel’s discussion on ‘Sustainable food at university campuses’ held in June by UPF (UPF, 2021) is an example of the potential that EUTOPIA has in this matter. Therefore, accelerating the exchanges of adopted sustainable practices in any domain is paramount to embrace sustainability, not only in the food offer domain but also in all activities undergone by all the universities in the alliance.ities in the alliance.
Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Eutopia Student Think Tank (EUSTT) nor the EUTOPIA Alliance.
 Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2020). CO₂ and greenhouse gas emissions. Our world in data. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food'
 Stockholm Resilience Centre. (2021). Planetary Boundaries. Retrieved from: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html
 UPF. (2021). 2021 Setmana del Medi Ambient. Retrieved from: https://www.upf.edu/web/ces/setmana-del-medi-ambien
Anna Arenillas i Cases
Bachelor’s student of International Business Economics at Universitat Pompeu Fabra.