Humane Society Asks UK House of Commons to Eat More Plant-Based Foods

The group analyzed greenhouse gas emissions for food in the Commons, calls for fewer animal products.

House of Commons UK
House of Commons and Big Ben clocktower seen across the Thames River, London, UK.

Getty Images / Julian Elliott Photography

The United Kingdom's House of Commons has been the site of innumerable debates over the years, but it now faces a new and unusual one – what to serve on its own menu. A challenge has been issued by the Humane Society International (HSI) to the House of Commons' in-house catering company to "lead by example" and reduce significantly the consumption of animal products for environmental reasons.

The challenge has come in the form of a formal report, based on ingredient procurement data from February 2020. This data showed that a disproportionate amount (72%) of the House of Commons' greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions came from the purchase of meat and dairy products by its catering company. Twenty food items were labeled as "hotspots," contributing 40% of the House's total food-related GHG emissions. These include coffee, meats, milk, eggs, butter, and oil.

Considering that the U.K. announced new targets this past December to cut its national GHG emissions by 68% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) in an effort to reach zero emissions by 2050, and the fact that the U.K. is hosting the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in October, a.k.a. COP26, HSI felt it was timely to point out that the government could make some small yet impressive changes of its own.

Claire Bass, executive director of HSI/UK, told Treehugger:

"By replacing 50% of the meat, eggs and dairy they serve, House of Commons could decrease their GHG food emissions by 31%. Even simple substitutes like replacing dairy milk with nut, soy, or oat milk is a step towards a greener House. HSI is asking the House of Commons Catering to take on the challenge and offer more climate-friendly food. Our Forward Food vegan culinary trainers are standing by to help its kitchens and caterers ensure that the food on offer is good for the health of the planet and animals, as well as politicians."

The report makes suggestions for food swaps, pointing out that fruits, vegetables, nuts, and pulses could replace meat and dairy in many cases. Furthermore, it could support a burgeoning industry: "Several British food suppliers specialize in British grown vegetables, pulses and even nuts, and several British companies are also considered leaders in plant-based alternatives."

The report goes on to recommend a focus on more domestically-grown and seasonal produce. Rather than serving avocados sourced from Mexico or Zimbabwe, the caterer could use mushrooms. Instead of fresh Moroccan berries, use frozen berries. Switch Brazilian or Honduran melons for locally sourced apples, such as Gala, Braeburn, or Cox. The apple swap alone would reduce the GHG emissions of this purchase by 68%, or 143 kg CO2-e. "More specifically, emissions from transport would fall by 82%, or 47 kg CO2-e, where apples are British-sourced."

The University of Cambridge underwent a similar analysis in recent years and has been working to reduce its own catering footprint. Following a new Sustainable Food Policy, it removed beef, lamb, and unsustainable fish from its menus and managed to decrease emissions from 4.78 kg CO2-e/kg of product purchased in 2016 to 3.22 kg CO2-e/kg.

While the House of Commons' emissions are in line with national averages, it doesn't make them acceptable. If anything, the House of Commons is in a unique position to make a powerful statement about the importance of reducing consumption of animal products and has a responsibility to do so.

As Bass explained, "With the UK hosting COP26 in November, where global leaders will gather to agree on ambitious plans to tackle the climate crisis, it is essential that we lead by example and implement the most effective strategies to reduce our country’s GHG emissions – this has to include significant reductions in our consumption of meat and dairy."

Thanks to the rising popularity of Veganuary, the month-long vegan challenge that started in the U.K. in 2014, more people are aware of and willing to adjust their diets for environmental reasons. HSI's report comes at a time when many brands are offering new products in an effort to promote plant-based eating. Bass sees a connection between Veganuary and HSI's report:

"Through various Veganuary promotions, people are also learning more about the health, environmental and ethical benefits of plant-centric eating, which encourages them to want to make conscious choices when they sit down to eat. Veganuary has definitely helped make it more appealing and less daunting for people to consider plant-based eating."

Let's hope the House of Commons feels the same way.