Words such as seasonal, local, organic, fair-trade, provenance, sustainability and foodmiles have been talked about by restaurateurs, chefs and caterers for years. Have we grown cynical about these phrases without fully understanding their implications and the real issues involved?
A prominent American green campaigner once argued that saving the environment should make money rather than cost money. This is debateable, but it is an argument that allows us to highlight that green issues in hospitality can be seen by some as a marketing ploy rather than a serious business strategy.
For foodservice, environmental issues are a brightly coloured cocktail made up of economics, biology, physics, chemistry, sociology, geography, agriculture and logistics. Is it therefore any wonder that few of us have even the most basic grasp of its implications? What is it really all about? Is it about understanding all of these components to the highest level? Or is it merely about applying common sense to the basics of how food arrives on our plate and what effect every stage of the food chain, 'from farm to fork', has on the environment?
There is not much doubt that foodservice operators have become more environmentally aware, even if this has largely been driven by the demands of their customers. Nevertheless, the reality is that more often than not this awareness is outweighed by the concerns of the financial director. The need to make money can stop operators being as green as they otherwise might be.
Even those who do make efforts to go green can sometimes miss the finer points. Is there enough interest to fully grasp green issues in hospitality? Operators need to be educated, and indeed want to educate themselves and develop an acute sensitivity and analytical approach as to why things are the way they are and how they can be changed. I write this with some personal passion, because in the last year my thoughts on green issues in hospitality have been completely changed, from taking things at face value and believing the mainstream, to making up my own mind about what is actually right and wrong.
By way of example, I would like to take three mainstream generic green themes and show you how by means of a degree of common sense and analysis my opinion has been altered from what it was.
The first is organic food. Is organic food healthier? The Soil Association says yes, the Food Standards Agency says no. Whilst there is little doubt that organic chicken has less fat and is richer in Omega 3 than its mass reared counter part, it is also more expensive. The price of organic food generally will inevitably be prohibitive to many foodservice operators, not to mention their customers. So should organic accreditations charge less for their seals of approval, so that these savings could ultimately be reflected in the price of product?
Organic also poses problems in local sourcing. Not all crops will be available organically locally. Therefore in order to serve organic, food miles immediately becomes an issue. Going organic may be good, but buying food that has to travel hundreds of miles to reach you is not. There are other contradictions. Talking to one of the most knowledgeable suppliers recently, I was told that the most popular product in his organic portfolio was frozen organic bread. The problem here is simple: the collective long term impact of carbon emissions from freezing counteracts the virtues of being organic.
A second dilemma is Fairtrade. In itself a noble concept, it was conceived to create a social equilibrium. When launched it went from strength to strength very quickly. Many African and South American farmers changed their crops from wheat and maize to coffee, cocoa and other tropical fruits to be part of the movement that ultimately was promising a better life. The short term result was that although growers were benefiting, wheat and maize was no longer grown in many regions. The long term implications of this were catastrophic; the price of basic cereals shot up and they became unavailable in many areas. Although some growers are now better off, basic foodstuffs have become unaffordable for local people.
A third example is Bio Fuel, another much vaunted weapon in the green armoury. Unfortunately it could have a disastrous economic impact on agriculture and therefore on all of us. With our own farmers switching crops in droves for short term financial gain supported by government grants, the scales of economics dictate that Bio Fuel crops will raise the price of food. The world cannot produce enough food for its population as it is. By switching from traditional crops to growing the raw material for bio fuel, a worldwide food shortage of basic foodstuffs is a real risk. It could be a calamity.
All these examples show how the implications of well-meaning green measures need a great amount of thought. Taken at face value, Organic, Bio Fuels and Fairtrade seem like visionary and sound concepts, yet they bring their own significant problems of which all of us should be conscious.
It would be premature to suggest that all restaurants should have hydroelectric power systems that consume carbon, that drinking water should be filtered locally or indeed that all floors, tables, chairs and cutlery should be recycled or recyclable. But take a realistic approach to what is in the realms of possibility within your own business. Don't hesitate to stand issues on their head and ask the relevant questions. Try to look at themes from different angles and see what conclusions you can draw. It is only when more of us think about what we are doing that the right answers will emerge.