A more sustainable campus food system

25 March 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Costly nutrition: Students tuck into lunch in the food court on UCT's upper campus. A study by the African Climate and Development Initiative suggests that there is a lot of scope for the carbon footprint of UCT's food system to be reduced.
Costly nutrition: Students tuck into lunch in the food court on UCT's upper campus. A study by the African Climate and Development Initiative suggests that there is a lot of scope for the carbon footprint of UCT's food system to be reduced.

UCT's residence food system is estimated to emit 3 600 tonnes of CO₂e each year - equivalent to the carbon that could be absorbed by 92 000 tree seedlings grown for 10 years.

This was a finding of a 2013 study of UCT's food system (in the context of environmental sustainability) undertaken by the Climate Change and Development programme, which operates under the banner of the university's African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI).

The carbon footprint data was gathered using the menus, dining hall statistics and carbon footprint numbers for the ingredients that the residence kitchens use, says Muriel Argent of the ACDI. The system caters for more than 4 000 students annually.

"The overwhelming response to a survey conducted in the dining halls was that most students were dissatisfied with the food on offer, and desired healthier options," says Argent. "Many of the students wanted better vegetarian options, which - given that meat and dairy products have much higher carbon footprints than plant-based foods do - is preferable for a more sustainable menu."

Part of the bigger picture

The study, says Argent, was a necessary step in the drive for a more sustainable global food system: "We have become increasingly disconnected from our food supply chain. Our current food system is far from the pretty picture that advertisers would have us believe, and involves wide-ranging impacts that are largely hidden from us. We do not know the farmers that produce our maize or the factories that produce our cheese."

Giant agricultural monopolies are not helping an already grim picture, she adds.

"Small-scale landowners are succumbing to powerful agribusiness; natural systems are being destroyed to produce beef burgers and sushi; one in seven humans go hungry while the same number are overfed (but malnourished); food waste is at an all-time high; billions of land animals suffer and die every year in hellish factory farms and slaughterhouses; and the climate is changing, partly as a result of emissions from the global food system. While these are all global phenomena, they apply at a local level, too."

The campus food system (used largely by the 3 000-strong day-student and staff contingent) was also analysed, and was found to emit between 1 800 and 3 600 tonnes of CO₂ per year.

"Feedback from the survey respondents reflected general dissatisfaction with campus food, with respect to the variety, price and health of available options," reports Argent. "Many of the respondents felt strongly about the need for change."

In total, food contributes about 7% of the university's total carbon footprint, says Argent. "It is worth noting that this does not include emissions from the energy used in cooking (in the interest of avoiding double counting) or those generated by food waste and its disposal," Argent adds. "If these were to be included, the estimate would be significantly higher, as the global food system is believed to contribute 19-29% of total greenhouse gas emissions."

Changing our behaviour

Argent recommends a number of changes to UCT's food system.

"Educating the UCT community about the collective impacts of individual food choices, and making the data visible at the point of sale or service, could certainly change the way students (and staff) choose to eat," she says. "By providing an accessible platform with information about the environmental impacts of different food types, as well as their nutritional value, students will be able to make more informed decisions.

"For example, a carbon footprint 'traffic light' system would give a heavy CO₂ item like lamb or cheese a red marker, while foods with lighter CO₂ footprints - such as legumes, or fruit - would be given a green marker.

"Additionally, nutritional information for standard meal ingredients could be provided on a web-based platform."

A structural change to the food system is worth considering, says Argent, as is a rethink of the food-packaging system.

"Although food waste was not measured as part of this study, it is likely that a large proportion of UCT's overall waste output comes from the food system," she said. "Instead of sending it all to landfill, a composting system that takes organic food waste would dramatically reduce the volume going to landfill each day."

Implementing 'trayless dining', where students take only as much food as they can carry without a tray, has been shown to reduce plate scrapings significantly, adds Argent.

"Much of the waste that is produced by the campus food system consists of packaging: polystyrene and cardboard cups and bowls, aluminium cans (which often end up in the wrong bin), and plastic and paper packets that are not recyclable," she says.

"If a tax was levied to food providers based on the amount of non-recyclable or non-compostable waste that they bring onto campus, this would incentivise alternative options, and the revenues could be used to subsidise compostable packaging. Although regular audits are performed by the company that collects waste, the results of these audits are not easily available to the UCT community, which would benefit from the knowledge of how much waste is produced and where it goes."

What steps have been taken?

Sandra Rippon, former senior researcher at UCT's Environmental Evaluation Unit, confirmed the carbon footprint statistics, as reported in the 2013 UCT Carbon Footprint Report.

"Regarding composting of food waste, this has been under discussion during 2013 and Duke Metcalf (the manager of estates and custodial services at UCT's Properties and Services Department) intends to include composting in the service of the future UCT waste contract," she says. Last year Rippon prepared a short report, with input from Muriel Argent, on options for composting.

"Regarding packaging on food, the waste task team and environmental management working group has been working on this. I did a price comparison between conventional and compostable packaging, with favourable results," she adds.

"Duke and I discussed viability with a major food vendor last year, and he was keen to adopt the compostable packaging. However, until we have the biodegradable waste bins in place - and a disposal method and service provider - it does not make sense to make this shift."

The 2013 UCT Carbon Footprint Report will be available for download in June 2014. In the meantime, read up on the 2012 edition and stay tuned to www.greening.uct.ac.za for updates.

Story by staff reporter. Image by Raymond Botha.

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