Meat-Free Menus Take Off

You and your fellow Americans can help prevent catastrophic sea-level rise, devastating droughts and other predicted consequences of climate change, says Kaj Török, chief reputation officer and chief sustainability officer at Sweden-based restaurant chain Max Burgers. Begin by reducing your annual beef consumption approximately 95%, he says. That equates to per-person beef consumption of 2.8 lb. annually, compared to 55.7 lb. today.

“If the world is going to be sustainable, we will eat much less meat and meat with a much lower climate impact,” says Török, who introduced the restaurant’s new climate-positive menu onstage at the Sustainable Brands 2018 conference in June 2018 in Vancouver. The company, founded 50 years ago, has achieved climate-positive status by offsetting 110% of its total emissions through planting hundreds of thousands of trees in Africa.

Max’s goal is that in 2022, every second meal served will be made without beef. Sales of green burgers consisting of vegan ingredients or lacto-ovo vegetarian burgers (milk and egg) have increased 900% in the past two years, rising from 2% to 18%.

You might discount the Max Burgers push for veggie-based menu items as a knee-jerk reaction to changing consumer demands. But Török is quick to point out that economics are working. Max Burgers is the most profitable burger chain in Sweden, he says, yet McDonald’s has twice as many restaurants in the country, more than 200 compared to more than 100 that Max Burgers operates. Fifty-three percent of Swedes also prefer the taste of the food Max Burgers serves compared to 13% who favor Burger King and 10% who favor McDonald’s, Török says.

Mainstream Appeal. If you raise animals for meat and beef in particular—Török unabashedly calls beef a “climate villain”—you should be aware Max Burgers is but one of many foodservice companies responding to increasingly younger consumers seeking food they perceive as healthier, better for the environment and kinder to livestock. They have the support of celebrities and brands with a major platform for influencing buying behavior.

A new documentary called “The Game Changers” from acclaimed filmmaker James Cameron seeks to show young men—who eat a disproportionately large amount of red meat compared to other demographics—how to be strong and athletic by going vegan.

“I’ve been eating plant-based for six years, I haven’t been sick one day, I haven’t been sick at all in six years,” Cameron told Hollywood publication Deadline. “I haven’t had a sniffle, I haven’t had a flu, a sore throat or anything in six years and that was certainly not the case before that.”

Meanwhile, IKEA is expanding its menu starting in Europe with a suite of vegetable-based items such as meatballs, hot dogs and soft-serve ice cream, according to Brendan Seale, head of sustainability, IKEA Canada. The veggie balls are in all North American locations. The company perhaps best known for affordable furniture hosts 660 million guests annually at its restaurants worldwide.

Increased spending on foods such as kale, avocados and dairy alternatives among millennials and Generation Z (people born from 1995 to 2005) is a welcome sign to animal rights groups such as Mercy For Animals. In a September 2017 online post, writer Joe Loria surveyed recent media reports documenting those behaviors.

“This shift away from animal products is great news for the countless animals who suffer horribly at factory farms,” Loria writes. “Cows, pigs, and chickens raised and killed for food are just as smart and sensitive as the dogs and cats we adore at home.”

Retraining Ranchers. Max Burgers isn’t abandoning beef altogether, Török says. But as a company founded north of the Arctic Circle, where scientists attribute rapid ice depletion to manmade climate change, its leaders knew they had to make bold changes. The steps Max Burgers is taking reflect a small part of what is needed to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, a critical threshold identified in the Paris climate agreement, he says.

“We are helping people find hope to restore the climate,” Török explains. “We must believe we can do it.”

He points to research showing meat production globally requires 83% of farmland yet produces just 18% of calories. In his view, land used for meat production can be converted to produce vegetables or trees to offset emissions.

“It means the food of the future is already available, it’s just not evenly distributed,” Török says. Meat production will continue, but to achieve climate objectives and match consumer demand, it will need to be higher quality. That includes beef raised using organic methods, on abundant pasture and with the highest standards of animal welfare, Török says.

Innovation will be important, too. Török notes companies such as Patagonia Provisions have partnered with South Dakota farmers to produce grass-fed buffalo jerky. Researchers are seeking to develop burpless cattle, which could reduce methane emissions. Still, he cautions, some research suggests methane could be even more harmful to the environment than existing data suggests, meaning those changes might not be enough to offset the climate footprint of beef.

In the end, Török is hopeful consumer desire to make the world a better place, shifts in cultural thinking around the globe and the taste of veggie-based products will permanently shift buying behavior.

“You can still have the same expectations,” says Török, noting Max Burgers retains words such as barbecue in its plant-based offerings to align with customer expectations for a delicious sandwich. “You don’t have to become a vegan to appreciate a vegan burger.”