Menu

Meaty issue: would your delegates go vegan to save the planet?

With sustainability a pressing concern for event planners, James Lancaster assesses the likelihood of seeing more meat-free options.

Would you consider making your next conference a meat-free one?

Once upon a time, it would have been unthinkable (unless your delegates were members of the International Vegetarian Society), but attitudes around food and diet are changing.

Vegetarian and vegan diets have entered the mainstream as the detrimental effects of animal farming on the environment are better understood. And a sprinkling of celebrity stardust is helping to push the cause, too.

Organised by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the 2020 Golden Globes awards ceremony served its guests an all-vegan menu to raise awareness of the climate crisis.

As HFPA president Lorenzo Soria explained: “The climate crisis is impossible to ignore and after speaking with our peers, and friends in the community, we felt challenged to do better.”

That’s fine.  But what do the experts say?

According to a paper in Science magazine, abstaining from meat is the single most effective thing an individual can do to help save the planet from the depredations of climate change.

Researchers at the University of Oxford, in the UK, found that animal farming takes up roughly 83 per cent of the world’s agricultural land, but delivers only 18 per cent of our calories. A plant-based diet, by contrast, cuts the use of land by more than three-quarters and halves the greenhouse gases and other pollution that are caused by food production.

So that’s the environmental case for a meat-free diet, but would your delegates stand for it? Buying habits suggest they might, just.

Growth in sales of plant-based food jumped 20 per cent in the USA between June 2017 and June 2018, according to research by Nielsen on behalf of the Plant-Based Foods Association. That equates to roughly $3.3 billion – a small amount when compared with the level of overall food sales in the US, which run in excess of $50 billion per month for in-store sales alone.

However, Google searches related to veganism quadrupled between 2012 and 2017.

In Europe, sales of meat substitutes grew by 451 per cent between February 2014 and February 2018. All of which seems to indicate significant changes in people’s dietary habits.

Event organisers and suppliers to the meetings industry have started to take note.

Convention bureau Visit Espoo only serves locally produced vegetarian food and sustainably-sourced fish for delegates attending Espoo city receptions.

As part of Finland’s commitment to sustainable development, the pioneering convention bureau has taken all its fish from the Baltic Sea and surrounding lakes since 2018.

Elsewhere, the International Congress and Convention Association served up a vegetarian meal at its annual congress in Houston, Texas, last year (brave move!).

The meal, sponsored by IMEX Group, allegedly saved the daily water requirement for 512,000 people and 1,890 kg of CO2, which is the carbon captured by 31 trees over ten years.

But does any of this mean a radical overhaul of conference menus is on the cards?

To get a taste for how things are likely to develop, ami carried out a reader survey, and the results suggest we might be reaching a tipping point in our attitudes towards meat consumption.

Almost half (48 per cent) of respondents said they would definitely consider hosting a meat-free conference, with another 30 per cent answering ‘maybe’. Remarkably, only one in five respondents (22 per cent) said they would not consider hosting a meat-free conference.

The problem, however, might be convincing delegates.

Half of the respondents felt delegates would ‘have some reservations’ to a ‘meat-free’ conference, while almost 20 per cent

thought delegates would ‘strongly oppose’ (11 per cent) or ‘oppose’ (8 per cent) the idea. However, over 30 per cent of respondents said they felt attendees would either ‘strongly welcome’ a meat-free conference (17 per cent) or ‘welcome it as a one-off’ (13 per cent).

Or it might just be a question of breaking them in gently.

An overwhelming 83 per cent said they would consider making at least one meal meat-free, with only 3 per cent insisting even this was out of the question and 14 per cent opting for ‘maybe’.

It seems, however, that meeting planners see clear water between a meat-free menu and a vegan menu, which would preclude any animal food products, including eggs and dairy.

Only 17 per cent of ami readers said they would consider only serving vegan food at a conference, while more than a half (55 per cent) ruled this out. The balance (28 per cent) said they ‘might’ consider it. Again, the idea of hosting at least one vegan meal had more traction, with three-quarters of associations saying they would consider this and only 20 per cent ruling it out altogether.

Overall it seems that meeting planners might be ahead of delegate sentiment on this issue.  While 77 per cent of respondents said they had already increased meat-free options at their congress, only a third (33 per cent) said their organisation had faced external pressure to change their menus.

So, what now?

Almost all the respondents to our survey agreed that this was not a passing trend or a ‘fad’ and that traditional meat-laden menus would continue to evolve in response to climate change.

One respondent likened it to how alcohol was generally no longer served at lunchtimes, whereas not long ago it was considered perfectly normal to serve wine in the middle of the day.

Gabrielle Mouterde (left), events manager, The International Society of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (ISUOG), said: “The events industry is always at the forefront of reflecting changes in society. Take for example the increased awareness in gluten and lactose intolerance. For years we’ve seen the rise in attendees identifying the need to avoid these products and have worked with catering departments to accommodate this. Similarly, more and more people are changing their eating habits to be more ecologically friendly. Therefore, as long as this is a concern for society, it will be something event planners and venues will need to reflect in their catering options.”

Case study 

One Young World championed sustainability with meat-free menus

When the One Young World Global Summit came to London it brought together the world’s brightest young leaders determined to make positive changes to the world around them.

And with sustainability one of the core objectives of the event, organisers decided to champion meat reduction by asking venue partners to provide entirely meat-free menus for all delegates.

With more than 3,600 people attending the four-day summit, going meat-free was no mean feat.

The event took place across several of London’s leading venues, encompassing opening and closing ceremonies and dinners as well as keynotes, workshops and networking throughout the days.

The QEII Centre, in the heart of Westminster, hosted three main stages and provided 30 event spaces in total for the event, and had the responsibility of catering for lunch service every day.

As One Young World outlined in its sustainability policy: “Meat is an inefficient food source, requiring more land and energy than a typical plant-based diet. Deforestation and methane gas emitted by animals both result in high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing meat consumption is, therefore, an important tool for minimising individual carbon footprints.”

The QEII Centre’s in-house caterer, QEII Taste, took on the challenge and used the One Young World summit as an opportunity to showcase two of its own new initiatives – hot boxes and allergen champions – as well as showing that vegetarian and vegan catering doesn’t mean missing out.

Lunch dishes on offer throughout the week included Thai green curry, chickpea and potato curry, Singapore noodles, Japanese Katsu curry, spinach and ricotta tortellini and onion bhaji with saffron rice, all served in QEII’s new recycled and recyclable hot boxes.

QEII Taste’s general manager Jason Dignam said: “We’re proud of our hot boxes as they have been designed and made using recycled materials and are then recyclable themselves – during lunch service we collect all the boxes back, rinse them and send them away to be repurposed. Doing this for more than 2,000 delegates per day saves an enormous amount of potential waste from going to landfill and was very much in keeping with One Young World’s sustainable objectives.”

Over the course of the event, QEII’s team of 18 chefs produced 12,300 individually boxed meals, catering for a total of 8,375 delegates, staff, volunteers and press. The centre also served 7,200 pastries and 6,690 pieces of fruit during afternoon breaks.

QEII’s 12 newly appointed ‘allergen champions’ were on hand for the entire event, to provide detailed advice to all delegates on the ingredients used in every dish, to ensure dietary requirements were met. The sustainable catering even extended to the centre’s staff canteen, where the same vegetarian and vegan dishes were served each day.

The organisers of One Young World were pleased with the outcome of the catering.

“The catering was very good, QEII met all of our requests and helped make everything as sustainable as possible. All the food was substantial and nourishing while being plant-based, and the hot boxes worked really well for our delegates to roam freely around the exhibition spaces and network while being completely plastic-free and aiding our sustainability ethos.”