But in the meantime here’s what we can do.
Curbed reports that as cities devise and deploy new strategies to fight climate change—renewable 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.
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 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?
It looks like cities actually can do more than you think. 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.”
The results of a cafeteria experiment at Oakland Unified School District, which tested a less meat-heavy diet, 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.
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; a similar law on a city level can encourage supermarkets to donate food that would otherwise be wasted and therefore lead to additional disposal costs.
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.
Food can play a role in climate action plans, and make a difference.