Cities Should Shift Diets to Meet Climate Goals

This is a guest post by Steve Cohen, Food Policy and Program Manager in the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and Chloë Waterman, Senior Food Campaigner for Friends of the Earth U.S.

Today, with the federal government denying the contribution of humans to climate change and dismantling climate action policies, Americans are increasingly reliant on city leaders for environmental leadership. Cities, which are often the most vulnerable to the physical and financial impacts of global warming, have become incubators for bold, inventive solutions aimed at protecting our planet.

Yet one key sector responsible for an astounding one fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions has largely been ignored: food.

Livestock production alone is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the combined tailpipe discharges from every plane, train, car, bus, and boat in the world. For high meat-consuming nations like the United States, substantially reducing emissions associated with meat and dairy-intensive diets should be a major target.

With climate-friendly, plant-based meal options at public institutions such as hospitals, schools, and correctional facilities, or on public property such as airports or parks, city leaders can influence markets and set an invaluable example.

While many cities are actively replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy — and gas-powered cars with mass transit — local governments cannot meet their greenhouse gas reduction targets without also reducing the carbon footprint of meat and dairy.

Even beyond helping the environment, reducing meat and dairy consumption benefits public health. Americans today eat significantly more meat than is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and overconsumption contributes to costly and preventable illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.

Because diets rich in plant-based foods are the most health-promoting and sustainable, in 2015 the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution urging “the creation of dietary guidelines that encourage Americans to adopt dietary patterns that are higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods … as such patterns have been found in systematic reviews to be the most health-promoting and sustainable.”

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Yet a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that fewer than five percent of municipalities have established healthy food service guidelines or food and nutrition standards. There is immense opportunity for cities to remedy this gap.

Municipal food purchasing policies that prioritize plant-based options go beyond environmental and public health by delivering the triple benefit of saving money. Plant-based proteins are typically less expensive than animal-based proteins, and cost savings can be reinvested into purchases of other types of food consistent with a city’s values, such as local and organic food or humanely-raised animal products.

This case for city leaders pursuing progressive food strategies is made in Meat of the Matter: A Municipal Guide to Climate-Friendly Food Purchasing, a new resource published by Friends of the Earth and the Responsible Purchasing Network. This guide highlights policies and practices ranging from comprehensive food purchasing policies like the Good Food Purchasing Program — adopted by the cities of Chicago and Los Angeles — to nutrition standards that emphasize plant-based foods in San Diego and even to Climate Action Plans that include policies for reducing meat and dairy.

One of the municipalities featured in the guide is the city of Portland, Oregon. Portland authored the first municipal global warming plan in 1993 and fully acknowledged the climate impact of food in its 2009 and 2015 Climate Action Plans.

Recognizing that producing and processing food is more carbon-intensive than the emissions from transporting food, the plan affirms that from a carbon perspective, not all food is created equal. What we eat is more important than the miles it traveled to reach our plate. To encourage sustainable consumption, Portland’s Climate Action Plan includes specific action items for policies and practices that encourage plant-based diets.

Progress can be made with an ambitious Climate Action Plan like in Portland or a comprehensive sustainable purchasing policy applied across all city agencies, but beneficial shifts can also come from changing a single concessions contract at a city park or adding one new menu item in a cafeteria. Whether actions are monumental or incremental, cities have a local and global responsibility to leverage their purchasing power and policymaking ability toward buying food that preserves our planet and protects our health.

The stakes could not be higher, and the benefits are clear: it’s time for cities to add meat and dairy reduction to the menu of climate change solutions.

Cohen headshot.jpgAbout the Authors: Steve Cohen is the Food Policy and Program Manager in the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. His work includes all aspects of a sustainable food system including land use planning, climate change, food access, economic development, purchasing, education, and waste reduction and prevention.


090913_Waterman_05.JPGChloë Waterman serves as senior food campaigner for Friends of the Earth U.S. where she implements policy and markets campaigns to advance a sustainable and just food system. Her work centers around reducing consumption of industrial animal products and growing the market for regenerative, organic, and more humanely raised meat and dairy.