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Environment and Energy

On the 28 November a unique event took place on the University of Cambridge’s Downing Site. Just before lunchtime, staff from the University Catering Service, Darwin College and Murray Edwards College appeared with three tasty dishes to be handed out for free to students and staff. Crowds began to gather, eagerly anticipating the recipes crafted by the University’s chefs. What was unusual about these recipes? As cards handed out with the meal showed, the chefs had created meals with a carbon footprint which was a quarter the size of a comparable meal. How was this done? Not by carbon offsetting, green energy tariffs nor any scientific wizardry from the University’s chemical or material scientists, but by one simple change…

Just twenty minutes later, every morsel of food was gone. In the short whirlwind of activity, chefs doled out over a hundred taster portions to the orderly queue that formed. There was a great buzz among attendees at the event as all the meals were eaten, and attendees were vocal in their enjoyment of the food!

So what was the great secret to these tasty but low-carbon meals? The answer is simple - the chefs had made them using entirely plant-based ingredients. To put it another way, they were free of animal products, including meat. While the one thing this ensured was that there was a hefty presence from vegan and vegetarian staff around the University keen to try out a new recipe at the event, the other thing it ensured was a big cut in the carbon emission associated with producing the meal. In the lead-up to the event, the University’s Environment & Energy section received copies of the recipes and carried out a simple calculation using a greenhouse gas calculator from The University Caterers’ Organisation. This revealed that, by replacing just one key ingredient (beef) with alternatives like jackfruit and tofu, the emissions of the three meals was reduced by as much as four times (Figure 1 and 2).

GHG emissions of ingredients                

Figure 1: Greenhouse gas emissions per ingredient.                           Figure 2: Emissions comparison for different ingredients

Days after the event, in a quirk of coincidence, College and University catering managers met to discuss a new ‘Sustainable Food Policy’. The policy was agreed, and assuming it is ratified means that all across the University, Colleges will sign up to a series of principles which aim to reduce the impact of food provision, including a shift to more plant-based food and reduction and removal of ruminant meat from menus. The policy is based on one adopted two years ago by the University Catering Service, which has since been recognised with awards from the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges, as well as The University Catering Organisations. Most recently the University as a whole has been recognised by a global ‘climate change solution search’. Exciting times, and we’re sure to hear much more!

If you are interested in supporting the University Catering Service in its sustainable food journey, you can apply for the new role of Sustainable Food Assistant.

Recipe for Mee Rebus        Spicy Jackfruit recipe      Baked sweet potato

Figure 3: Mee Rebus recipe                                   Figure 4: Spicy Jackfruit recipe                           Figure 5: Baked sweet potato