Healthy Eating: Food Ethics and Sustainability
From health to environmental issues, restaurant guests are increasingly concerned with the types of foods they eat and purchase. This approach to consumption is called “food ethics,” which examines the moral consequences of our foods. Obvious examples of guests who practice food ethics include vegetarian or vegan customers, who constitute around 8% of the global population and have restricted their diet on moral grounds. Food ethics also look at organic foods, genetically modified foods, and the impact of feeding the world on things like climate change or the effect of bio-hacking in foods. Let’s take a closer look at what might be on your menu going forward.
Since the discovery of agriculture, the core principles behind farming have remained relatively unchanged over the millennia. The scale of farming has changed, especially throughout the industrial revolution. Still, the scope of the task has remained relatively static until the early-70s and the introduction of genetic engineering into the food supply chain. Let’s look at what genetic modification means, how that has evolved, and how that intersects with food ethics.
What is a GMO?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the subject of much consumer consternation. A GMO is any organism that has been modified at the genetic level rather than through conventional methods. For example, many plants can be cross-bred to create something different. In the case of a GMO, these plants are combined in a lab rather than through selective breeding, an agricultural practice dating back nearly as far as farming has existed. Some consumers fear the concept of genetic manipulation and what unintended consequences that could pose to human and environmental health.
From a food ethics perspective, scientists have remained adamant that the practice is safe. However, consumers remain concerned that the possible side effects could take time to fully manifest. Some sociologists attribute this public uncertainty to neophobia, which is the fear of new technologies or changes. Many cultures exhibit apprehension regarding new and often misunderstood technologies, from radios to elevators and beyond. Whether these concerns are founded is still to be determined. Still, evidence supports that consumer anxiety over genetically modified foods is real.
What is Organic Food?
Trends in organic foods have risen over the last decade, with products marketed as organic available through 3/4 of all U.S. grocers. Organic foods exist in contrast to GMOs. In the U.S., the term “organic” can only apply to produce if grown on pollutant-free land. Meat is only organic if livestock was fed from that same antibiotic and hormone free-land. Instead, organic farmers rely on natural remedies to mitigate pestilence and to better feed the soil. In meat, the idea is that animals are fed organic foods (grass, etc.) only, which becomes part of their internal biome.
One hurdle to the organic food movement is the cost, primarily because of the challenges of organic food production. The overall cost begs the question as to whether or not organic food is financially viable. Currently, the science doesn’t support that organic food is necessarily better or that GMOs are a long-term health hazard. When polled, more than half of all surveyed respondents indicated that they’d avoid GMOs if given the opportunity. So how can you turn those food ethics to your advantage?
Bio-Hacking in Foods
Let’s start with the element in the room: GMOs are bio-hacked food. Where GMOs use modern genetics to enhance farming practices, bio-hacking looks to fundamentally alter the properties of some foods at a basic level. For example, scientists have recently tackled obesity by bio-hacking sugar to render it healthier to consume, rather than finding a substitute like aspartame or stevia. In the case of alternatives, studies have indicated that overconsumption can lead to various mental and physical health complications.
Technology like CRISPR aims to make bio-hacking even easier. CRISPR allows scientists to edit or add the types of genes that they want into foods. With CRISPR, scientists can design food to be more robust and hearty, necessary components to offset climate change. Debates have already sprung up about properly evaluating bio-hacked foods, specifically through a post-CRISPR society, with ethicists uncertain how to best respond. Climate change will threaten the food supply chain, an inevitability compounded by the worldwide population growth projections; there will be more people and fewer opportunities for food. Bio-hacking technologies like CRISPR may become a necessity for survival.
The Future of Alternative Proteins
Eating meat is a food ethic dilemma for many and on a variety of levels. There are many reasons why eating meat can harm the environment. Raising livestock can lead to deforestation and forest fires, with which the U.S. already has a massive problem. Keep in mind that trees are integral to the sanctity of our environment, as they strip harmful carbon emissions from the air. Eating meat has a tangible effect on climate change, nearly equivalent to the emissions of every vehicle on Earth.
Fortunately, there are many healthy alternatives. While you can enhance your vegetarian or vegan menu options, there are plenty of alternative proteins available for any guest that might like a juicy burger. The market for alternative protein is that brands like Beyond Meat or Impossible Burger have become a viable competition to the meat industry. Meanwhile, there is a race to develop lab-grown meat and proteins that doesn’t pose challenges to the same food ethics.
So What Can You Do?
Both as a consumer/potential guest or restaurateur, there’s much to process here. How can you develop a healthy, sustainable, and affordable menu that will serve your guests and fit into your existing paradigm? That’s a tricky question, but one that several restaurants have tackled in recent years. Here are a few opportunities to become a healthier and more responsible establishment.
An Efficient Kitchen
An effective way to minimize your carbon footprint is to automate your operation wherever possible. Part of a robust restaurant technology platform, tools like kitchen display systems (KDS) prevents bottlenecks to your operation while minimizing mispacks. While a KDS is designed to enhance your operational efficiencies and logistics, it serves as an internal gatekeeper through tools like meal coursing or delayed routing or through tag-on-touch functionality. These measures enhance customer satisfaction, which prevents items from being sent back and wasted food.
Above, we mentioned the projection that the volume of food production will decline while the overall population will fall. One obvious solution to this is to combat food waste immediately. The U.S. alone generates nearly 108 billion pounds of food waste each year, which is around $161 billion in lost revenue. Bin management helps minimize food waste by helping you plan for your exact needs. A simple tool, bin management is a programmable feature that uses historical data to ensure that you have the right ingredients at the right time, no more or less.
Engineering Your Menu and Media
As you can see, there’s a public interest in organic, healthy food options. Whether that’s a matter of food ethics or optics, guests crave what they perceive as safer, better options. No matter what reasons your guests have for wanting alternatives, be that food ethics or just as part of their diet, the demand for those foods is clear. With that in mind, you can utilize menu engineering to make an informed decision on how to reshape your existing menu to include more health and environmentally conscious options once you’ve updated your menu accordingly, that you can make your healthier fare part of your cause marketing efforts.
Food Ethics and Sustainability – Conclusion
There are many paths to crafting a sustainable restaurant that speak to food ethics and the rapidly changing world. It’s worth reminding yourself that there’s rarely one singular solution to food ethics problems. Mileage will certainly vary from guest to guest in terms of what they might want or expect. In recognizing food ethics issues, you can better plan for your restaurant’s future. Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments section below.
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About the Author
Syd is a content marketing specialist, which are fancy words for writing pretty to tell a good story. He likes writing things about food, drinks, and music. He’s a musician himself, a father of two, and loves his wife a whole lot.