Do You Vote for Cows or Cars?

By Bonnie Knutson Professor, The School of Hospitality Business/MSU | June 18, 2017

Here is a crazy question for you: Which do you think is the biggest culprit when it comes to generating greenhouse gasses – transportation or livestock? If you are like most people, your answer is going to be transportation. After all, if you turn on any news channel, thumb through any newspaper, or look at any online environmental website, you'll find each is awash with information about government mandates to increase fuel efficiencies, about electric cars, or about the need to increase public transportation. But let's face it, Americans love their cars, especially their big cars. To understand that, all you have to do is look at auto sales statistics. Led by SUVs, 2016 US auto sales set a new record high of 17.55 million units and accounted for 63% of total sales. And Ford's F-Series pickup remained the bestselling vehicle in America, with 820,799 trucks sold. That's the equivalent of 93 trucks sold every hour. Then there are 18-wheelers, motorcycles, mopeds, aircraft, ad infinitum. With numbers like this, it is no wonder that most people would vote for transportation.

While there is no doubt that our love affair with cars, SUVs and pick-up trucks impacts the sustainability of the world's climate, water, and natural resources, it is our love of meat that has an even larger impact. According to a baseline UN study, the livestock sector generates about 18% more CO2 than transportation, and it also is a major factor in land and water consumption. WOW! And we thought our old gas-guzzler was the big culprit.

Now this article is not call for vegetarianism although there is a lot that can be said for eating more fruits, vegetables, and grains. Ask any nutritionist or personal trainer. This article is certainly not an environmentalist decree either, although a lot can be said about saving our planet's natural resources. Nor is it another call for recycling, low energy light bulbs, and conserving water, although those are likewise noble goals. What it is, however, is a piece of the puzzle that can explain the consumers' changing eating behaviors. And it presents both challenges and opportunities for every food operation from the Golden Arches to a luxury hotel. Yours included. You might think of it as feeding the future.

I read somewhere that 2016 was the year of plant-based proteins and that they will continue to be a major food trend in 2017 and beyond. To better appreciate this shift, it will help to understand what is driving it. First, is the explosion technology that allows new plant-based protein to "bleed." The two most notable examples are the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger. These burgers look, taste and smell like beef, but they are made entirely from plants. They sizzle on the grill and even brown and ooze fat when they cook. More importantly, they actually taste like "the real thing." In taste tests, people don't detect the difference between them and burgers made from beef. Already, these burgers have debuted in high end restaurants across the country, where they were enthusiastically received by guests. The owner/chef of Jardiniere in San Francisco, Traci De Jardins, said that demand for the new burger was so great and the line out the door was so long that she had to start issuing tickets to try it. Wouldn't your restaurant manager love to have that problem? Could an Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger have the same effect on your hotel's menu?

Second, major meat producers – such as Tyson Foods – see the writing on the wall when it comes to the future of plant-based protein. They are taking advantage of this opportunity and investing heavily in the development, production, and distribution of new meat alternatives that will stretch beyond "where's the beef." So as the supply increases, consumer availability and acceptance will also increase. Remember the old Diffusion of Innovation Theory that we all learned in school? Well, the adoption of plant based "meat" products is a perfect illustration of the theory that explains how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread from a few early adopters to the general population.

Third, restaurants are jumping on the plant-based protein bandwagon too. Chef Brad Farmerie put the Impossible Burger on the menu at his Michelin-starred Public in New York City as well as his Saxon + Parole, named "Best Bar Family" in the Big Apple. Plant based "meats" were increasingly visible at the 2017 National Restaurant Show is Chicago. Looking at this year's industry hot trends, restaurant consultants, Baum and Whiteman, predicted that vegetables will "extend their domination of the dinner plate, shoving animal protein to the edges…or off the plate."

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The hotel industry has undertaken a long-term effort to build more responsible and socially conscious businesses. What began with small efforts to reduce waste - such as paperless checkouts and refillable soap dispensers - has evolved into an international movement toward implementing sustainable development practices. In addition to establishing themselves as good corporate citizens, adopting eco-friendly practices is sound business for hotels. According to a recent report from Deloitte, 95% of business travelers believe the hotel industry should be undertaking “green” initiatives, and Millennials are twice as likely to support brands with strong management of environmental and social issues. Given these conclusions, hotels are continuing to innovate in the areas of environmental sustainability. For example, one leading hotel chain has designed special elevators that collect kinetic energy from the moving lift and in the process, they have reduced their energy consumption by 50%  over conventional elevators. Also, they installed an advanced air conditioning system which employs a magnetic mechanical system that makes them more energy efficient. Other hotels are installing Intelligent Building Systems which monitor and control temperatures in rooms, common areas and swimming pools, as well as ventilation and cold water systems. Some hotels are installing Electric Vehicle charging stations, planting rooftop gardens, implementing stringent recycling programs, and insisting on the use of biodegradable materials. Another trend is the creation of Green Teams within a hotel's operation that are tasked to implement earth-friendly practices and manage budgets for green projects. Some hotels have even gone so far as to curtail or eliminate room service, believing that keeping the kitchen open 24/7 isn't terribly sustainable. The May issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some hotels are doing to integrate sustainable practices into their operations and how they are benefiting from them.