A grave reality is becoming clearer: modern animal agriculture is fanning the flames of our climate crisis. Nearly 99 percent of our meat and dairy products come from intensive animal farming, which externalizes harms like deforestation, pollution, biodiversity loss, and unrestricted emissions into the world.

Plant-based foods, on the other hand, are much more sustainable. So the question becomes: how can we successfully nudge America’s notoriously slow-moving institutions responsible for millions of meals each year toward serving these greener foods? 

Institutions use many tools to address the environmental cost of our food system—composting, sourcing local ingredients, eliminating single-use plastics, and committing to specific emissions reductions, to name a few—but one simple menu tweak stands out for packing an environmental punch: adopting plant-based defaults.

By offering plant-based meals as the default option, dining halls, businesses, universities, and conferences can nudge people to choose more sustainable, plant-based foods while still leaving freedom of choice intact. Since this inclusive strategy, also known as DefaultVeg, doesn’t take away anyone’s meat, it’s easy for decision-makers to get behind it.

But just how great are the environmental benefits of this approach?

Calculating the Benefits 

Grant Faber, MS, of the Global CO2 Initiative, and Trevor McCarty, MS, of the Better Food Foundation created and published a framework in the International Journal of Environmental Studies to estimate the real-world impacts of plant-based defaults. Sustainability decision-makers can estimate the environmental benefits of various plant-based interventions by entering:

  • The number of meals served
  • The ingredients 
  • The expected or actual proportion of plant-based to animal-based food served before and after the implementation of a meat-reduction strategy

Once the user inputs these data points into the model (an Excel spreadsheet), the calculator outputs the estimated emissions reduction (CO2-equivalent), land use (square-meter years, or the amount of land that is occupied by crops for a given period), and water use (cubic meters).* The model extracts the environmental impact of the meal from a small life cycle assessment (LCA) data database within the spreadsheet, but users are free to add more food types and measures of impact (e.g., toxicity). 

Intervention efficacy, i.e., the amount that an intervention successfully shifts meals from animals to plants, can be estimated by the user or based on previous empirical work if no matter-of-fact data from a meat reduction change is available. 

For DefaultVeg, we assume a ~60 percentage point increase in the proportion of plant-based options chosen, an average calculated from previous research on plant-based defaults, including a case study by Harvard researchers, a Society for the Study of Theology case study, and a study in the Journal of Public Health

Tofu mushroom soup
Source: Ella Olsson/Pexels

Environmental Savings

Using this model, we can easily estimate the environmental savings of a plant-based default anywhere food is served, like a dining hall or a large corporate office.  

Burger Night at a Large College Dining Hall

In this scenario, burgers take over the menu one night a week at a large university dining hall. Before a plant-based default, when a student goes up to the counter and asks for the burger, they get a beef burger on a bun. With the implementation of a plant-based default, asking for the burger will get them a plant-based burger (unless they specifically request otherwise).

Here are our assumptions:

  • ~2,000 students attend the burger night (based on the average number of students attending dinner every day at a very large university).
  • As a result of the intervention, there is a 60 percentage point increase in the number of students opting for the Beyond Burger. 
  • The only difference between the two options is the type of patty; all of the other ingredients remain constant. 

And the estimated results from the model:

  • Emissions are reduced by 3,521 kg of CO2-eq (63 percent reduction).
  • Land use is cut by 6,206 square-meter years (72 percent reduction).
  • Water savings are 1,582 cubic meters (60 percent reduction).

Lunchtime at a Large Office

In this scenario, several hundred employees at a large office choose from a prepared lunch menu. Before the intervention, some employees chose the vegan option, but the vast majority chose one with meat at the center of the plate. After implementing the plant-based default, employees will receive a tasty veggie lunch unless they opt into the meat-centric meal.

We assume:

  • 500 employees eat the prepared lunch.
  • As a result of the intervention, the number of employees choosing the plant-based option increases by 60 percentage points. 
  • Both options are “protein power bowls,” just with different proteins.

The model reveals the following estimated savings:

  • Emissions are reduced by 288 kg of CO2-eq (50 percent reduction).
  • Land use is cut by 398 square-meter years (55 percent reduction).
  • Water savings are 324 cubic meters (38 percent reduction).

Both of the above hypothetical scenarios are just for a single instance of the intervention. For a year, the raw numbers would be much larger. For example, a year of DefaultVeg lunches at the office would save an estimated 75,000 kg of CO2-eq or the equivalent of 200,000 miles driven in a standard passenger car. It would save about 1.2 million showers’ worth of water, and its estimated land savings would equate to leaving over 100,000 square meters untouched for a year. 

So whether it’s a smoky tempeh bacon wrap at a conference, a burger in a dining hall, or a sizzling seitan protein bowl at the office, defaults have massive potential to reduce the harms of our industrial food system. By working to ensure that plants are at the center of the menu where we work, study, and socialize, we can leverage the synergy between individual and institutional change to amplify our collective impact.

Bring plant-based defaults to your institution: sign up here for resources and tools to get started.

*The methods used to calculate impact were the IPCC 100-year Global Warming Potential, ReCiPe 2016 Midpoint, and AWARE V1.02 for emissions, land use, and water use, respectively. 

Related Content:

Learn How to Cook Plant-Based Meals at Home

Reducing your meat intake and eating more plant-based foods is known to help with chronic inflammationheart healthmental wellbeingfitness goalsnutritional needsallergiesgut health, and more! Unfortunately, dairy consumption also has been linked to many health problems, including acnehormonal imbalancecancerprostate cancer, and has many side effects.

For those interested in eating more plant-based, we highly recommend purchasing one of our many plant-based cookbooks or downloading the Food Monster App which has thousands of delicious recipes making it the largest vegan recipe resource to help reduce your environmental footprint, save animals and get healthy! And, while you are at it, we encourage you to also learn about the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.

Here are some resources to get you started:

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