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How bad for the planet are imported fruit and veg?

Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of Cambridge plant-based food restaurant business Stem & Glory, explores the carbon footprint of its dishes.

Louise Palmer-Masterton, of Stem & Glory. Picture: Keith Heppell
Louise Palmer-Masterton, of Stem & Glory. Picture: Keith Heppell

As a vegan business, we are often asked about the sustainable credentials of the vegetables we use, so over the past year we took a deep dive into this.

It’s a little bit complicated, so we turned to Cambridge start-up food labelling experts Foodsteps for its expertise in analysing our menu and calculating the footprint of all our dishes.

You can see our carbon-labelled menus in all our restaurants currently, and we have had great feedback from our customers on the subject – everyone it seems is keen to learn more. Once Foodsteps had done its analysis of all our recipes, it turns out all our dishes are created using either low or very low emissions.

This does, I suppose, make sense since we are 100 per cent plant-based, and it does appear to confirm that whatever vegetables and fruit we use, whether local or imported, we still have way, way lower emissions than a restaurant using meat and dairy products.

[Read more: Louise Palmer-Masterton of Stem & Glory wins national award at 2022 Food and Drink Heroes]

Take avocados for example, which have in particular been vilified lately as unsustainable.

First of all, avocados grow on trees which are themselves good for carbon capture, and as long as they are well managed, avocado plantations are sustainable.

The boom in the popularity of avocados has also helped many growers to raise their living standards in their communities (sustainability is about people too).

Contrary to popular belief, avocados are transported by land and sea, not air, which helps to give them a very low carbon footprint.

The actual carbon footprint of a single avocado is around 0.19 kilograms of CO2. The equivalent weight of beef produces 4kg, lamb 3.4kg, cheese 3.15kg and pork 1kg. In addition, growing a single avocado requires 140-272 litres of water.

The same amount of beef requires 2,315 litres of water, pork 900 litres, chicken 650 litres, butter 833 litres (according to Viva). So from every angle, avocados use less resources and create less emissions than animal products, by a very long way.

Stem & Glory’s Asian Watermelon Salad. Picture: Keith Heppell
Stem & Glory’s Asian Watermelon Salad. Picture: Keith Heppell

One of our most popular dishes on our summer menu is our Asian Watermelon Salad (recipe below), which is also obviously an imported fruit.

When we calculated the footprint of this dish, this also came in very low. I asked Foodsteps for some more information on why this is.

“The main reason the watermelons are a very low impact item is due to the extremely low impacts at the farm stage, which is in some cases actually less than the transport impact. This reflects what we generally see with food, in that the impact of a given item is, in most cases, determined by what happens on the farm,” Foodsteps said.

So it’s not the food itself that dictates the emissions of a food type, but rather what happens to it at the farm stage. So it makes even more sense to work with known partners, farming sustainably, so you can be sure your fruit and vegetables are low emissions at the growing stage.

In his book How Bad are Bananas – the Carbon Footprint of Everything, Mike Berners-Lee similarly argues the case for bananas, which despite being grown thousands of miles away, are a very climate-friendly food, not to mention very healthy.

Bananas are grown in natural sunlight, with no energy consuming hot-housing.

They keep well, and are, like avocados and watermelons, transported by land and sea. And also like avocados and watermelons, there is hardly any packaging involved because they come with their natural skins. But if you want to be absolutely sure you are buying sustainable bananas, make sure you buy Fairtrade or organic.

[British Restaurant Awards 2022: 10 restaurants in the Cambridge region shortlisted]

The work we have done with Foodsteps also highlighted where we are using less sustainable items. The only item on our menu that is on the naughty list, believe it or not, is the smallest item on our menu – our ‘Affogato’.

This is one scoop of vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it. I asked Foodsteps why this was, and they said it follows the same logic as the watermelon example: “The vast bulk of coffee bean impacts happen on the farm, primarily in fact due to land use change emissions, ie deforestation, as well as other on-farm processes relating to growing and harvesting the beans,” said Foodsteps.

So coffee it seems is very unsustainable compared to the rest of our menu. Given the vast quantity of coffee drunk all over the world, it’s a very important realisation. Getting coffee growing sustainably would, it seems, have a huge impact on global emissions.

This really stood out to us. Given the low nature of the rest of our menu, on a meat and dairy menu, it probably wouldn’t have stood out at all.

Here lies the main benefit to us of our labelling exercise – it has brought great learning in terms of understanding where the wins can be made, and given us the pathways to pursue next.

We are of course going to continue with our focus on British-grown produce, and our menu experimentation currently is very much about British-grown plant protein sources (such as peas, seeds and lentils), but it is nevertheless reassuring that as long as attention is paid to equitable relationships, and sustainable partners, there is a balance to be struck with also using imported produce while still remaining as carbon neutral as possible.

[Read more: Stealth healthy food for the family]

Asian Watermelon Salad (guilt free!)

Stem & Glory’s Asian Watermelon Salad. Picture: Keith Heppell
Stem & Glory’s Asian Watermelon Salad. Picture: Keith Heppell

Ingredients

  • 30ml (2 tbsp) Tamari soy sauce (you can use normal soy too)
  • 15ml (1 tbsp) vegan ‘fish sauce’ (this is reasonably available now, or you can sub extra soy sauce)
  • 30ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
  • 15ml (1 tbsp) lime juice
  • 15ml (1 tbsp) white wine vinegar (or more lime juice)
  • 30ml (2 tbsp) agave syrup or other sweetener
  • Fresh watermelon cut into bite size chunks
  • Fresh cucumber and herbs to garnish

Method

  • Mix all the dressing ingredients in a blender, or whisk well into smooth.
  • Arrange watermelon chunks on to a plate, and drizzle generously with the dressing.
  • Serve with cucumber on the side and if you have some fresh herbs, sprinkle a little on top (coriander, basil or mint work well here).
  • The amount of dressing is down to personal preference – personally I like loads!

Stem & Glory can be found at 50/60 Station Road, Cambridge. Call 01223 757150 or visit stemandglory.uk/cambridge.



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