A Sustainable Food Journey: Eating for Life

Tue, 09/05/17

Ever wondered how you could eat sustainably while spoiling the palates of delegates during official workshops? Well, we have a little insight into a possible recipe for success…  

UN Environment Asia and the Pacific, SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency), WOCAN (Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management) and Novotel teamed up to serve the first sustainable conference menu at a workshop in Bangkok.  

By adopting a tactic of “experiential learning”, a networking dinner became an activity of sustainability in practice and demonstrated how we can all make a difference when organizing official meetings.  

Five sustainable food menus were developed to tell a story and share a wide range of good practices. The menus focussed on:

  • Responsible seafood
  • Vegetarian and vegan protein
  • Community based livestock production
  • Food waste prevention
  • Local and certified  

When developing the menus, sustainability considerations were taken into account including natural resources conservation, greenhouse gas emission reductions, and waste prevention/ minimization.  

One of the main issues addressed was the need for more sustainable seafood consumption to avoid overfishing and eco-intensive aquaculture. The solution? Simply selecting seafood varieties that are sustainably sourced from local, certified, responsible, and small-scale suppliers. The seafood used at the maki and sashimi station were sourced from suppliers who operate under the Federation of Thai Fisherfolk Association, which is a network in all fishing communities in the South. They only fish for sustainable varieties using environmentally friendly fishing methods, ensuring that no illegal fishing tools or destructive fishing practices (e.g. trawling the sea floor or the use of explosives) were used. All fish were organic and formaldehyde free (and tested) and fishermen and women were paid a fair and reliable income for what they produced.    

Regarding the vegetarian and vegan menu, the focus was on attracting participants’ attention to the high carbon and water footprint of red meat, especially in a view of an ever-increasing world population. No drastic measures were suggested for this menu, it just entailed a reduction in red meat by replacing it with dairy, eggs, plant based proteins and more sustainable meat options (e.g. chicken and pork), which offer similar nutrition without the high environmental footprint. For example, beef has a carbon footprint of about 15 kgCO2/kg, whereas chicken has a carbon footprint of 3kgCO2/kg.  
A two-pronged approach was used in order to reduce the consumption of red meat; first step being a shift to a 75% vegetarian or vegan menu. The vegetarian and vegan dishes were still heavy on protein, like paneer, tofu and quail eggs, to ensure that the meal was filling as well as flavourful. By adjusting the proportion of meat available in the menu, participants were ‘nudged’ towards choosing more sustainable options, thus reducing the quantity of meat consumed.
Secondly, the remaining 25% of the catering comprised of more sustainable meat options, such as chicken and pork which were purchased from local, small-scale farms. The pork was sourced from a family run producer with small satellite ‘smart farms’ that partners with the King’s Swine Project, which brings income to Thai family farms. The producer doesn’t use chemicals or hormones, and the pigs have 150% of the space required under organic standards. The only reason why their pork is not organic is due to the fact that the organic feed is not available in the quantity they need, which they are working hard to rectify. In addition to these efforts, the producer also recycles their livestock’s manure and uses environmentally friendly housing and cleaning products.  
The chicken was sourced from a family run farm, which raises heritage livestock with ethical and environmental standards in mind. They also follows natural farming techniques to avoid the use of chemical inputs. Through the use of efficient microorganisms, all animal waste converts to organic fertilizer and no antibiotics, growth hormones or chemical fertilizers are used.

The promoters of this initiative made it clear that sourcing locally not only reduces carbon emissions associated with transporting goods, but also provides support to local producers and communities. Eating less meat also contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding large-scale livestock production, which is notoriously more eco-intensive. Additionally, using organic and certified products supports healthier, more sustainable and transparent food options and raises awareness of products and their impacts.  

In adopting a full life-cycle approach, waste prevention must play a large role, especially considering that a third of the world’s food is wasted. Besides being an unethical misuse of natural resources, it also has a significant carbon footprint once disposed of. By using perfect ingredients that are normally wasted because they do not meet the “aesthetic standards” of the market (although their taste is great!) and giving participants any leftovers to take back home, the amount of food wasted at this event was minimised.

The sustainability of the event went beyond just the catering. By implementing Sustainable Public Procurement (SDG12.7) procedures and banning the use of single use plastics to become a plastic-free event (SDG12.5), the event and its organizers demonstrated the UN’s dedication to the implementation of the SDGs.  

As a last remarkable effort, the team documented all ingredients and reported on the carbon footprint of the event to promote transparency in their environmental management.  

What did the organizers learn from the event? “You don’t need to change radically to radically change things.”  

You can read more on this story here

Categories: Meetings, Waste