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Why cities fighting climate change should take a look at food policy

Altering eating habits can make a big difference when it comes to carbon emissions.

Farmer’s market in South Carolina. City policy that encourages a less meat-heavy diet can help cut carbon emissions, says advocates.

As cities devise and deploy new strategies to fight climate changerenewable power, electric vehicles, resilient design—a new approach gaining credence in environmental circles may seem a bit low-tech and low reward: changing food policy. How can city governments not only change eating habits, but do so in a way that makes a dent in emissions, compared to energy usage or efficiency?

While it’s not as sexy or sensational, food choice plays a bigger role in global emissions than many imagine. According to the Center for a Livable Future, the food supply chain contributes roughly a third of global greenhouse gases (of which livestock contributes 70 percent). Along with many of the other actions available to help push back the pernicious impact of climate change, it looks like small, local efforts to change eating habits can make a big difference.

“It’s the unsexy part of climate mitigation, but the absolutely essential part,” says Becca Bartholomew, a Senior Consultant to Friends of the Earth, an environmental nonprofit. “It’s where the rubber hits the road.”

Cities that have made an effort to focus on food policy often zero-in on buying locally, promoting farmers markets and urban agriculture, not necessarily thinking of policies in terms of the climate. Food and diet are also personal choices; how can cities not only avoid being labeled nanny states and drive resistance to such measures, but also proactively alter food choice and promote alternatives?

Composting and cutting food waste can also play a role in reducing emissions.

According to many researchers and advocates, however, cities actually have more levers to push that one might realize. Judicious use of regulations and purchasing power can help municipalities make a difference on plates, and on the planet, all while promoting more choice and local farmers. Lifestyle changes can make a massive impact: If current meat eating trends continue to 2050, says Bartholomew, the threshold of emission reduction needed to achieve any kind of reduction in emissions will be taken up by raising livestock.

“We’re not talking about changing everything,” she says. “It’s about small changes. Getting a vegetarian to become a vegan isn’t as important and impactful as getting a meat-eater to eat 30 percent less meat.”

How can U.S. cities make an impact? According to Raychel Santo, Senior Research Program Coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, they should start thinking about how they spend money. Municipalities have control over purchasing decisions on many levels: schools, stadiums, prisons, city agencies, hospitals, airports, and city parks. Altering policy to promote more vegetarian options (like this organization is trying to do in Chicago), or offering occasional meatless Mondays, can begin to add up while cutting emissions. While existing city policy on the subject often promotes local food to cut down on delivery miles and transportation costs, shifting habits towards consuming less meat can actually cut more emissions.

The results of the cafeteria experiment at Oakland Unified School District, which tested a less meat-heavy diet.
Friends of the Earth

These types of moves also save money. A recent experiment by the Oakland Unified School district, which cut purchases of animal products by 30 percent, and focused on sourcing local meat, saved $42,000 annually, cut greenhouse gases by 14 percent, and saved 42 million gallons of water (if every U.S. school district followed this model for a year, it would cut emissions equivalent to those of 150,000 cars). Instituting these types of policies on an institutional level drives bulk purchasing, which “drives the demand for sustainably produced food, and drives access, so it’s not just a foodie trend,” says Bartholomew. Portland, Oregon, which has been very progressive about its sourcing policies, has instituted strong guidelines for food service.

Other cities have pushed hard to be more efficient and reduce waste. Seattle and San Francisco have pushed for and promoted composting, while New York City’s residential organics collection initiative, the largest in the country, to cut into its $400 million a year budget for hauling away such waste. A law recently passed in West Virginia that incentivizes farmers to donate surplus food; similar law on a city level can encourage supermarkets to donate food that would otherwise be wasted and therefore lead to additional disposal costs.

Advocates caution, however, that widespread adoption of such policies can come with consequences, especially for the agricultural industry, which should be factored into any policy shifts. Santo said that the shift towards less animal products and more vegetables could leave certain farmers in a lurch, unless policies and incentives were in place to support farmworkers looking to shift towards different or speciality crops (such as legumes). In addition, state and local agricultural departments should look into promoting farming practices that lower or sequester carbon, helping cut even more emissions. A pilot program by the The San Diego Food System Alliance is testing carbon farming practices, hoping to figure out their effectiveness and feasibility, and then incorporating those findings and practices into the region’s climate action plan.

For many good reasons, mayors and city leaders often focus on other parts of the carbon puzzle when thinking about environmental action plans. But food can play a role climate action plans, as mayors in cities such as London have already discovered. Local government should consider the power dietary choice, and creating systems for encouraging those choices, can have on climate policy.

“There’s only so much education does,” she says, “if our environment isn’t set up to support and encourage behavior change.”