Vegetarian as the norm – our one-year Anniversary
A year ago, KIB decided to introduce vegetarian as the norm, which means that food paid for by our employer is lacto-ovo-vegetarian* unless an employee actively indicates another diet choice (such as meat or plant-based). This is a step toward making a vegetarian** diet the new "normal" and viewing an animal diet the "deviant". It's about changing how we view food and re-examining its status in our society.
The idea of the norm shift is to reduce the actual carbon dioxide emissions animal food often entails, but also to inspire employees to eat more vegetarian food.
I am one of two environmental and sustainability representatives at the library. I strongly believe that authorities, governmental activities and the public sector should adopt this concept that a vegetarian diet is the norm. It is a healthy way to spend tax money, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, people are allowed to eat whatever they want in their spare time, but meals funded by the state should have as little impact on the climate as possible. Plant-based diets in general have the lowest impact – by far. Lacto-ovo-vegetarian is a step in the right direction, and as an environmental and sustainability representative I will work to introduce plant-based as the norm in the future.
So how did things turn out, one year after vegetarian as norm was introduced?
During the year, 436 meals were reported. 230 of these were vegetarian or vegan. 114 were reported animal meals (meals with animal protein). 92 cannot be determined (buffet etc.) but in my calculations I will assume that they are animal-based meals.
There is no data to compare from before we made the switch, but for the sake of simplicity I have calculated that all meals were animal-based before we changed the norm. If all 100 employees had eaten their 4.36 meals with beef, the total carbon dioxide emissions would have been just under 2 tonnes (1962 kg). If we count on an average of beef, pork, fish and chicken, the diet would have released 915.6 kg. Now that more than half have chosen or eaten vegetarian meals, the figure has instead landed on 727.3 kg of carbon dioxide emissions (which is a 63% reduction compared to if all ate beef, and a 20% reduction if all ate mixed animal compositions).
If all 100 employees had eaten their 4.36 meals plant-based with legumes, the corresponding figure would have landed on 87.2 kg of carbon dioxide emissions, which would be a reduction of about 95% and 90% in carbon dioxide emissions, respectively.
In summary, we can see that vegetarian as the norm gives effect, but the absolute greatest effect with reduced carbon dioxide emissions would be achieved by eating entirely plant-based, preferably also without meat substitute products which generally have higher emissions than legumes. However, meat substitutes produce less emissions than dairy products and fish. Thus, it is possible to reduce emissions by about 90% if you change the diet to plant-based.
What would happen if all of KI employees switched to plant-based diet?
As a thought experiment, I made a calculation about what would happen if all of KI (5221 employees) switched to plant-based diet. In the calculation, I have assumed that you get 4.36 meals per year paid by your employer (calculated at 436/100 (ie 436 reported meals divided by 100 KIB employees)). The thought experiment is also calculated with the extremes, ie a standard meal consisting of beef (4.5 kg carbon dioxide) and a standard meal consisting of legumes (0.2 kg carbon dioxide).
The calculation shows that with beef as a protein source, 102 tonnes would be emitted, corresponding to 167 transatlantic flights. If all KI employees instead ate plant-based, the diet would emit 4.5 tonnes, which corresponds to 7 transatlantic flights.
I have used the World Wildlife Fund Food Calculator (Matkalkylatorn) to calculate approximate standard values for different meal combinations. Their data is based on CarbonCloud's measurement tool, which in turn is based on a number of research reports.
With that said, all calculation tools have their limitations and in some cases the makers of the tool have a specific agenda. But at the moment, this is the tool I found most useful.
The default values I used are:
- Standard beef: 4.5 kg
- Standard chicken: 1.5 kg
- Standard pork: 1.5 kg
- Standard fish: 0.9 kg
- Standard lacto-ovo-vegetarian with cheese & cream: 1.1 kg
- Standard vegetarian meat replacement: 0.6 kg
- Standard plant-based (vegan) with legumes: 0.2 kg
I have used the ICAO Carbon Emissions Calculator to calculate air travel's carbon dioxide emissions (for comparison data).
Of course, these calculations are not scientific in such a way that one can see the "actual" emissions as this has not been possible in practical terms. I can only show by default values, estimates and guesses. However, there is no doubt about the big-picture trends presented here.
Make a difference
What we eat makes a difference. As authorities, we should present good examples on how to manage resources and that we make assessments of what different activities mean in terms of resources and emissions. This of course also includes other use of resources and energy, but diet (and dietary standards) is an important puzzle piece.
Reducing meat consumption is also recommended by United Nations (see for example page 150 in the IPCC report Climate Change and Land), and the Swedish authorities Livsmedelsverket and Naturvårdsverket.
KI's environmental and sustainability activities
All departments and institutions at KI must have one or two designated environmental and sustainability representatives who drive the issues of environment and sustainability in their own workplace. Talk to the prefect or equivalent if this is missing at your institution. You can read more about KI's environmental and sustainability work, and here is also more information about the role and tasks of the environmental and sustainability representatives.
* Lacto-ovo vegetarian means vegetarian diet with elements of dairy products and eggs.
** Vegetarian diet is used here as a description of lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, for simplicity's sake. But in general, recommended by Livsmedelsverket, non-vegan diets must be stated at the package, for example "lacto-ovo-vegetarian".