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Cool foods for a warming planet

Genentech buildng and sign

A WRI initiative, Cool Foods, uses behavioral science to help food services operators cut emissions by a quarter by 2030.

Sundry Photography

Back before the pandemic, around 10,000 employees arrived every day at Genentech, a biotechnology company headquartered in South San Francisco. "It’s really a little city," said Allen Napetian, the company’s vice president for site services, when he described the campus to me this week.

More than half of those workers would head to the company’s cafeterias at some point during the day. In 2019, they might have noticed small changes. More plant-based meals appeared in the list of chef’s specials, for instance. Dishes such as charred Yucatan vegetables — carrots, yellow squash, zucchini, stewed black beans, habanero-pickled red onions and flour tortillas — proved popular. Over time, hungry employees increasingly choose those options ahead of meat.

After the year came to a close, Napetian and his team shared data about Genentech’s food service operations with the World Resources Institute (WRI), which crunched the numbers and released the results last week. Those small changes had a big impact: Between 2018 and 2019, the emissions associated with each plate of food served in Genentech’s canteens fell by a third.

Genentech’s story demonstrates how simple, evidence-based nudges can significantly shift consumer behavior. The company made the changes in partnership with Bon Appétit Management, which runs its canteens, and with help from Cool Food, a WRI initiative that draws on behavioral science to help restaurants and food services operators deliver on a pledge to cut emissions by a quarter by 2030.

The techniques are more carrot — literally and figuratively — than stick. Rather than highlighting the carbon-intensive nature of meat, Bon Appétit focused on promoting delicious vegan and vegetarian alternatives. "We gave employees a sense of how good these offerings can be," Napetian said.

Over time, hungry employees increasingly choose plant-based options ahead of meat.

It’s tempting to see Genentech as an outlier. After all, San Francisco Bay Area workers famously expect restaurant-quality catering at workplace eateries. But Cool Food members are a diverse bunch. Food emissions at medical facilities run by the University of California, San Francisco, fell 13 percent between 2017 and 2020. One innovation on the UCSF menu involved switching a 100 percent beef burger for one that contains a blend of beef and mushroom.

If diners are willing, operators can take more radical steps. In 2015, the 14 cafes operated by the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom removed beef and lamb from menus altogether; the dishes were replaced by Swedish-style veggie balls, smoky Moroccan chickpea stew and sweet potato burgers. By 2018, emissions had fallen by almost a third, even as the quantity of food served increased by 30 percent.

Members still have much to do. Across the 24 organizations that shared data with the WRI, emissions per plate fell by 12 percent from 2018 to 2019, just ahead of the 10 percent annual reduction required to meet the initiative’s 2030 target. But because members served more food during that period, total food emissions dropped by only 4.6 percent, short of the 6.7 percent annual target. "The Cool Food Pledge cohort is a microcosm of this global challenge as the group’s sales are growing even though we have a goal to reduce total emissions by 25 percent," said Gerard Pozzi, a research and engagement specialist on the WRI’s Food Program.

One thing I love about this project is that it’s about more than hospital and workplace canteens. A diner who eats a delicious vegetarian meal in one of those settings may make the same menu choice elsewhere or cook something similar at home. The work done by caterers ripples outward and changes food culture. "Cool Food will create more demand for plant-based foods and shape the habits and preferences of millions of consumers globally," Pozzi predicted. 

Do you know of a restaurant or canteen doing amazing work to reduce emissions? Give me a heads-up via [email protected]

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