Five Ways City Food Policy Is Combating Climate Change

Worldwide, food and agriculture, broadly defined, is responsible for as much as 25% or more of greenhouse gas emissions.
Source: IPCC, 2014

It’s climate week in New York City. 

And for very good reason, much of the dialogue is focused on phasing out fossil fuels for energy, expanding energy efficiency initiatives, and radically scaling-up solar, wind and other clean energy sources.

But what is often overlooked in climate change conversations and conferences is food and agriculture.

Indeed, to fully address both the sources of climate change—as well as climate change adaptation—we must also zero in on this important sector.

Worldwide, food and agriculture, broadly defined, is responsible for as much as 25% or more of greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news is that cities throughout the US and around the world are beginning to take the lead on adopting new food policies to reduce climate pollution—and at the same time, to make their cities healthier and more sustainable.  

Cities can have a huge impact on reducing climate change emissions, since more than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities—and that share will likely reach 70% by 2050.

Cities also account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions.

Further, especially where there is national political gridlock, cities can be a catalyst for larger climate action—regionally as well as internationally. 

So, here are five key food policy strategies that cities are beginning to advance more and more:

#1 Purchasing Climate-Friendly Food

The first strategy is to leverage the huge purchasing power of cities to buy and promote more climate-friendly food.

The simplest way to increase climate-friendly purchasing is to buy more fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods. (You can also make foods more climate friendly by growing them in a less carbon intensive manner…more on this in a moment…)

Plant-based foods are far less carbon intensive than meat and dairy products. In fact, beans and lentils are roughly 34 times less carbon intensive than beef.

We all know that cities spend a tremendous amount of their budgets on food for schools, hospitals, government offices and other institutions.

So, they can use this purchasing power to not only increase the amount of climate-friendly food they buy, but also to stimulate the market for this food—thereby reducing the price for themselves and others.

One example of this is the Urban School Food Alliance—an amazing coalition of some of the largest school districts in the country that have banded together to buy healthier and more sustainable food for some of the most vulnerable kids in the United States—for example, buying more fruits and vegetables at a lower cost.

Another example is the Good Food Purchasing Policy, which is an initiative of currently a half dozen US cities and other partners to harness the power of procurement to create a more sustainable and equitable food system, including buying less food with high carbon footprints.

#2 Consuming Less and Better Meat

Surprising to many, global livestock emissions of greenhouse gases are roughly equal to global transportation-related emissions—approximately 14% each.

Spring Lake Farm, Meredith, NY
Credit: Mark Izeman

But what some cities and governments are now doing is seeking modest reductions in meat consumption. And this of course pairs nicely with increased plant-based purchasing.

One example is the “Meatless Monday” global movement—now embraced in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, and active in over 40 countries and whose goal is to reduce worldwide meat consumption by 15%.

Another example is increasing the use of ‘blended hamburgers’ that mix mushrooms or other plants into hamburgers to decrease the volume of beef served. In fact, the “Blended Burger Project,” an annual culinary competition, encourages chefs from around the country to create delicious, nutritious, and sustainable blended meat and mushroom burgers.

In addition, four cities in Brazil recently announced a new initiative with the Humane Society International to reduce meat consumption in public schools. The project, called “Escola Sustentável (Sustainable School),” aims to transition all public school meals in the four cities to be 100% plant-based by the end of 2019. The project’s goal is to improve student health, reduce water use and environmental impact, and support local farmers.

#3 Reduce Food Waste

A third strategy is to reduce and manage food waste in cities.

Every year, around the globe, 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption is wasted—and is responsible for roughly 8% of worldwide GHG emissions.

So, what can cities do here?

First, they can work with large institutions and supermarkets to prevent food waste in the first instance.

Second, cities can help make it easier to rescue food that would otherwise be wasted—and divert or donate it to so-called food banks that help low-income individuals. 

Third, cities can launch mandated, or voluntary, programs to separate food waste from other trash so that it can be more easily recycled or recovered through composting and anaerobic digestion—which creates biogas and materials for fertilizing.

Second Harvest Food Bank, Orlando, Florida
Credit: Mark Izeman

Just recently in London, 23 global cities and regions made a commitment—called “Advancing Towards Zero Waste Declaration” and organized by the global cities alliance, c40—to cut the amount of overall waste generated by each citizen 15% by 2030 and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills and incineration by 50%. And food waste was singled out as a high priority as part of this new global city initiative.

The Rockefeller Foundation has also begun to fund food waste work in US cities and other regions around the world—and to help facilitate a sharing of knowledge throughout the globe. 

One example is NRDC’s Food Matters project, which aims to reduce food waste and expand the amount of food rescued, and has just launched in Denver and Baltimore.

#4 Creating New Urban Agriculture

A fourth food and climate strategy for cities is increasing urban agriculture.

Not that long ago, urban agriculture was not taken seriously in food policy circles.

And there was virtually no discussion around its potential climate change benefits.

But in recent years there has been renewed policy focus on urban farms—from small community gardens to very large rooftop hydroponic greenhouses (that is grown with water and no soil).

Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn Navy Yard
Credit: Jhena Vigrass

Rooftop vegetation has a very direct impact on energy consumption by providing insulation for buildings, for both heating and cooling.

Increasing the number of urban farms could provide a very important source of food, especially during extreme weather events and where more traditional food transportation networks are blocked.

And they provide other urban sustainability benefits—such as reducing pollution runoff into rivers and lakes, providing a home for neighborhood composting and beekeeping, and combatting the “urban heat island” effect—that is, the occurrence of higher temperatures in urban areas in comparison to nearby rural areas, as a result of higher building and automobile density, less shrub and tree shade, and local industry.

#5 Protecting Regional Farms and Soil

The last strategy relates to soil management, or a series of practices intended to improve crop yields.

Indeed, in the US, the largest source of agricultural emissions—50% of total agricultural emissions—is soil management.

This is because agricultural activities can actually change the amount of carbon stored in soils—either releasing carbon and therefore exacerbating climate change, or absorbing carbon dioxide and therefore mitigating climate change.

Climate-friendly practices that help to absorb CO2 include reducing synthetic fertilizers and increasing organic fertilizers; reducing or eliminating tillage of the land; and increasing use of so-called “cover crops”—such as legumes and grasses—during the fall and winter seasons to protect and return important nutrients to the soil.

Lucky Dog Organic Farm, Hamden, New York
Credit: Mark Izeman

So what can cities do?

First, as a starting point, cities are increasingly acting to protect agricultural areas around them to enhance local food production.

Indeed, there is an international pact signed by 177 cities around the world—called the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact—that recognizes the importance of strengthening both core urban and nearby rural food production, as well as promoting sustainable approaches. 

This effort to protect the city’s “foodshed” is similar to protecting a city’s “watershed,” which is often outside city limits.

And this approach dovetails nicely with the increasing municipal efforts to buy more climate-friendly food—both more plant-based food as well as all food that is grown or raised in a way that traps more carbon in the soil.  

One final thought: in addition to reducing climate pollution, implementing all of these strategies could also help to improve urban public health, enhance resilience to extreme weather events and likely benefit cities economically over the long term.

*A version of this blog was recently presented at the 2nd International Climate Forum of Cities in Moscow, Russia on September 6-7, 2018.  And thanks to Jhena Vigrass at NRDC for her help with this blog.