There’s Only One Vegan Food Truck at Save-the-Planet Talks

There’s Only One Vegan Food Truck at Save-the-Planet Talks

(Bloomberg) -- In spite of Madrid’s December chill, hundreds of climate experts have queued up every day for the past two weeks in front of a bright pink food truck. That’s because it’s the lone vegan-only option available at the United Nations climate conference.

The talks, known as COP25, have gathered over 26,000 envoys from almost 200 countries with the goal of negotiating the last remaining aspects of the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which nations vowed to cut greenhouse emissions. The scarcity of climate-friendly food at the world’s largest concentration of climate experts has raised some eyebrows among attendees.

“It’s hard to find vegetarian or vegan food around this venue,” said Anil Datta, an observer from Australia in the midst of an hour-long wait in front of the food truck. “It’s an irony because this is COP, we’re talking about raising ambition to fight climate change and reducing emissions.”

There’s Only One Vegan Food Truck at Save-the-Planet Talks

Livestock accounts for approximately 14.5% of the world’s man-made greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the UN, with beef and milk from cattle contributing the most. That estimate may even be too low, according to Tim Searchinger, a climate expert at the World Resources Institute. That’s because it doesn’t take into account the lost opportunity for carbon storage from land that was once forest -- which includes about 40% of the Earth’s grazing pasture.

Growing Concern

The impact of food production on the environment is a growing concern among global consumers who are increasingly aware of climate change and keen to do more to fight it.

This isn’t the first time that climate-friendly food has been hard to get at UN climate talks. At the COP24 talks last year in Katowice, Poland, eight out of 10 meals contained meat or dairy, according to the Food and Climate Alliance, or FCA, a group of organizations that advocate for plant-based diets to help alleviate climate change.

If all of the conference’s delegates had eaten meat-based products every day of the event, the emissions would have been equivalent to 3,000 flights between New York and Katowice, according to the FCA’s estimate.

Symbolic Menu

This year, the food was under more scrutiny. The Roca brothers, Jordi, Joan and Josep, owners of the acclaimed Celler de Can Roca restaurant, prepared a special menu for heads of state -- dubbed “The Earth Is Being Exhausted.” They created plates named “Urgent” or “Meaty Vegetables” that highlighted issues such as drought and food scarcity.

Searchinger acknowledged that the menu at COP is mostly symbolic, but said its importance shouldn’t be discounted.

“If you want people to take seriously the idea of eating less meat, it’s a good idea not to go around eating a lot of meat,” he said.

That had been the original plan for this year’s meeting, which was supposed to take place in Chile. The Chilean nonprofit Vegetarianos Hoy, with the FCA, had been working with the UN to offer a menu that was at least 65% to 70% plant-based.

The event was abruptly relocated after a massive wave of protests broke out in Chile that have disrupted daily life in Santiago. President Sebastian Pinera canceled the COP25 a month before its start. A few days later, Spain offered to serve as host while keeping the Chilean delegation in charge of the proceedings. The event, which typically takes a full year for host countries to plan and organize, was put together in Madrid in just three weeks.

‘Logistical Problems’

“Of course there are some logistical problems from moving COP to Spain,” said Javiera Mayorga Osorio, project director at Vegetarianos Hoy. “We are not 100% satisfied with what’s being served at COP today, but we have seen many, many more plant-based options.”

As the event has progressed and more information about the food options have become available, Farm Forward, a U.S. animal welfare nonprofit and member of the FCA, sees symbolic progress, even if it’s not the measurable improvements they wanted.

“Food is at least starting to be considered in the planning of these global food conferences/events, even if the implementation is imperfect,” Erin Eberle, director of engagement at Farm Forward, said in an email.

Both Vegetarianos Hoy and Farm Forward are optimistic that there will be a wider range of Earth-friendly options on the menu at next year’s event.

The event also highlights the business opportunities. Burger King, which rolled out a plant-based Rebel Whopper across Europe last month, didn’t have the item in its restaurant at Madrid fairgrounds where COP25 is being held when it started. But it arrived during the second week of the event. Restaurant Brands International Inc., which owns Burger King, didn’t comment on why the menu item was initially missing from the location.

Impossible Foods Inc.’s plans to host tastings and offer its Impossible Burger at events in Chile were canceled with the venue change. The company, which won a UN award for its plant-based beef alternative this year, hopes to offer its products to climate envoys next year at COP26 in Glasgow.

“Even the people who attend this meeting and who care about climate change will want to eat a steak for dinner,” said Impossible Foods founder and Chief Executive Officer Patrick Brown. “It is possible to make products directly from plants with a tiny fraction of greenhouse gas and pollution footprint from animal agriculture that’s also appealing to meat lovers.”

There’s Only One Vegan Food Truck at Save-the-Planet Talks

The almost two-dozen country delegates and envoys attending a high-level lunch at this year’s COP chose to have steak over the vegetarian option, although they may not have been aware the choice was available. At cocktail events, vegetarian options are abundant, but caterers still serve jamón ibérico -- Spain’s famous ham.

“Spain’s food culture is very tied to meat and it’s complicated to think you won’t serve ‘jamón’ in a big event like this one,” said Cristina Rodrigo, director of ProVeg Spain and also a member of the FCA. “But it’s a bit of a shame -- this was the chance to do it.”

--With assistance from Reed Landberg.

To contact the reporters on this story: Laura Millan Lombrana in Santiago at;Deena Shanker in New York at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Aaron Rutkoff at, Jonathan Roeder

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.