Driven by the magnitude of the environmental impacts of the food system and the slow pace of change from businesses and national governments, local areas are starting to take matters into their own hands. Sofia Parente, Sustainable Food Places Policy and Campaigns Coordinator, weighs the options for local campaigning to reduce the impact of food on our planet.
Later this year, COP26 will bring together governments to agree to meaningful action to avoid an irreversible rise in global temperature. The global food system contributes around one third of global emissions  but it is unlikely that countries will include reductions in emissions from food in the nationally determined contributions as part of their commitments to the Paris Agreement. The prevalent discourse is to promote high-tech solutions and put the onus on consumers to change their eating habits. Driven by this slow pace of change, local areas are starting to take action. Several local authorities, many of them in the Sustainable Food Places Network, have signed up to the Glasgow Food & Climate Declaration renewing their commitments to develop sustainable food policies and calling on national governments to put food and farming at the heart of the global response to the climate emergency ahead of COP26. Three quarters of councils in the UK (300 in total) have declared a climate and nature emergency, but only one third of those with a climate action plan have included actions to address food-related emissions.
The clock is truly ticking for our planet. Coordinators across the Sustainable Food Places Network recently came together to consider the options for local campaigning to reduce the impact of food on our planet. This is a summary of the discussions which kick-started a process that will culminate with the launch of a food and climate campaign later in the Autumn of 2021. Comments in italic are directly from members of the Network.
Food on our plates
In the UK, emissions from agriculture make up 9% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, and in 2020 the Committee on Climate Change stated clearly that the way land is used must change to achieve the UK's climate and other goals. A big share of emissions in the agriculture sector results from the intensive production of meat and dairy. A reduction in consumption would not only be the fastest way to reduce our emissions from food but would result in important benefits for health. Health advocates like the UK Health Forum have long pointed out that The Eatwell Guide recommends that adults and children should eat no more than 70 grams/day of red and processed meat, but some groups, particularly men, are exceeding that amount. Excessive consumption of red and processed meat such as bacon, sausages or breaded chicken increases the risk of colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer in men and women in the UK. Others like the Eating Better alliance advocate aiming at a 50% reduction in meat and dairy consumption in the UK by 2030. They and others call for a transition to better meat and dairy, to ensure that what we do buy benefits UK farmers operating to higher standards for the environment, our health, land use, animal welfare and social justice.
As we know the food on our plates is so much more than emissions. It’s about the way food is produced, from whether there is high animal welfare and fair wages for everyone in the supply chain to whether it supports wildlife and minimises pollution. It is also about history and heritage, involving strong emotional and cultural connections to food and land that need to be respected and navigated carefully.
We need to get better at putting across the messaging around less but better – for too long the meat debate has been hijacked by the two ends of the spectrum and pitched between vegans and farmers – but that needn't be the case.
The average person has a lack of understanding of what qualifies as better meat - this needs to be clearly defined.
It is therefore important that a reduction in emissions is seen in the wider context of sustainability rather than as a single goal. Balanced diets, featuring plant-based foods and small amounts of animal products sourced from sustainable systems, present a major opportunity to reduce emissions while generating significant co-benefits for human health and nature.
We must not forget that many farmers already struggle to make a decent living, and need the confidence that a transition to regenerative, agro-ecological production will be supported in policy and by the markets.
Linking with key partners e.g. National Farmers Union - we are getting interesting conversations which began with 'oh no, not more vegans' and are now talking about better meat, local suppliers, regenerative agriculture etc.
Public food procurement, which commands an important share of meals outside the home, is a good place to start. The UK spends over £2bn every year providing meals in schools, hospitals, prisons, and many other public bodies. This spend could be aligned to wider objectives around environmental outcomes, encouraging healthy eating and supporting local suppliers, especially SMEs. At the local level, a campaign can encourage caterers and out of home sector to serve less and better meat with the highest environmental and animal-welfare standards, while giving preference to local, seasonal and fairly-traded products.
This is a good message to get across as it can tie in with British farming, and there are some very positive messages that we can use e.g. pasture-fed, organic, celebrating lower impact than rest of world, etc.
Supporting local farmers with high standards, reducing food miles, some sort of national SFP campaign that we could all adapt to fit local needs.
Land use in urban and peri-urban areas
The second area with plenty of potential for campaigning at the local level ties with a strategic investment in agroecological food production not just in traditionally rural and agricultural areas but in urban areas and at the edge of urban areas. This can be an important contributor to a green economic recovery post-Covid, kick-starting a new wave of community enterprises that connect urban and rural economies with multiple benefits.
Really aligns with 'build back better' agenda – green jobs, upskilling, British grown/made.
Furthermore, many food partnerships are already engaged in land use issues, whether through taking part in planning consultations, setting up and running community food growing networks or promoting products from local CSAs or other community enterprises.
STRONG community interest around this - people get excited about land use.
Agroecological farming can help to reduce a place’s greenhouse gas emissions. For example, each hectare converted from grassland (such as a golf course) to agroecological horticulture could reduce a place’s annual GHG emissions (compared to using imported vegetables). It can also provide opportunities for new, entrepreneurial and innovative entrants into the farming sector, and new business opportunities.
Help to change the narrative that horticultural jobs are for rural areas/ long time farmers.
A recent report looking into the potential to convert land to horticulture in Oxfordshire County found that over five times as much County Farm Estate land is used for horse pasture as for fruit and vegetable production and repurposing only eight per cent of the estate to polytunnel or glasshouse horticulture would provide ten per cent of fruit and vegetables for the county.
For a rural area we need to emphasise business opportunities of new food economies for farmers. We have to address how to get smaller bits of land into new farming enterprises, how to find people to farm, how to finance growth. We think local food chains will emerge once more food is produced, but we need to give confidence to farmers they will be able to sell locally if they change.
Scotland is currently much further ahead on this agenda. Local authorities in Scotland must produce a Local Growing Strategy as part of their duties under the Community Empowerment Act of 2015. As a result of this act and the subsequent Land Reform Act 2016, it became easier for communities to access land and buildings through community right to buy powers.
Time for the other UK nations to follow?
From food waste to food use
Food waste is another huge contributor to global emissions from the food system. Globally, 25–30% of total food produced is lost or wasted. In the UK, around 13.6 million tonnes of food are wasted, of which 3.6 million tonnes is on-farm. The consumption stage within households is the most wasteful stage from farm to plate with approximately 14% of all food and drink taken home being discarded. When we throw food away, we are effectively throwing away all the energy, labour, water and natural resources that went into making that food in the first place and this is associated with additional greenhouse gas emissions.
Too few people understand the impact of food/food waste on climate change.
Despite the global and national scandal of food waste, any current action from food businesses is taken on a voluntary basis and it’s not even a legal requirement for businesses to record the amount of food wasted.
Often easier for supermarkets and food businesses to carry on overproducing and send edible food to digesters than to reduce or redistribute.
Govt been VERY shy on regulating in this area - broad support locally can really push their hand, especially if councils become more vocal on it.
Many local food partnerships are working to reduce food waste and raising public awareness, by bringing people together through events, working with other stakeholders such as councils on projects to reduce food waste in businesses and the community, and actively getting involved in redistribution networks linking up retailers and other food businesses with charities and end users. The latter is mired in controversy, as not-for-profits are fundraising to effectively support a wasteful system and feeding surplus food to people in need should be seen as a short-term measure and not part of the solution to food poverty.
There needs to be a discussion about who pays for redistribution of surplus/waste. We have too many (often small) charities and community groups having to find funding to help out a wasteful system and multinational companies!
Some of the food wasted is arguably unavoidable and local authorities are responsible for collecting and managing waste, including food waste. However, provision of food waste service by local authorities in the UK is not universal and many cash-strapped councils simply cannot afford to invest in the service at present.
Local Authority Provision of Food Waste Service is a postcode lottery- scope and coverage of food waste services for people and businesses.
A national approach/strategy for city-wide food waste pickup – local councils are strapped.
A good place to start could be to require mandatory food waste reporting by food companies and for Government to introduce mandatory separation of food waste for collection (and financial support to local areas) so that food that is wasted can be used in other processes. At the local level there is plenty that can be done to support caterers and food businesses to reduce their food waste through better planning and management and capitalizing on existing experience and know-how of food partnerships and local councils.
It is within individual control - people can feel empowered. But can still lobby at wider systemic change.
Thinking outside the box
The Sustainable Food Places Network has always been a place of experimentation and innovation and we are excited to see what other ideas come forward. Some councils, Bristol being the latest example, are looking into or have recently introduced healthier food advertising policies to ban junk food ads from council advertising spaces. Could a ban on the most climate-damaging foods also work?
There is great interest in fiscal measures or green-taxes as tools to change consumer behaviour and raise much needed funds for health initiatives. Before the soft drinks industry levy was introduced, several food businesses adopted a voluntary sugary drinks levy administered by the Children’s Health Fund and re-distributed the revenue to children’s health projects. Could a similar fiscal measure be put in place for food, climate and nature and what it could look like?
Whatever shape a future campaign on food and climate takes, it is important to recognize the diversity of members in the Sustainable Food Places Network. From sparsely populated counties in England to the highlands of Scotland to diverse and densely populated cities and metropolitan boroughs, a campaign should offer options to address the most pressing problems as well as opportunities to engage, not alienate stakeholders involved in food partnerships. As aptly put by one member:
I think differing local campaigns that address local priorities in a sensitive way and use local resources are best – we need SFP to share these stories as hearing about what others are doing can be really encouraging and a "kick up the backside" to do something in your area too.
 IPCC (2019). Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/
 This considers the emissions ‘saved’ by not treating, mowing and managing grass, plus emissions saved by producing food locally rather than importing.
Mixed mown and rough grass such as that on golf courses is actually a GHG emitter, responsible for 1.2 tonnes CO2e per hectare per year, at a low estimate.
The expected emissions for importing produce from Spain (a major source of green vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, other salad crops in the UK) are roughly 200g CO2e per kg produce (200kg CO2e per tonne of produce).
Published 13 May 2021
Sustainable Food Places: The Sustainable Food Places Network helps people and places share challenges, explore practical solutions and develop best practice on key food issues, so if you are working to drive positive food change or are interested in developing a programme, please do get in touch.
Sofia is the Sustainable Food Places Policy and Campaigns Coordinator and leads on driving local and national action on key food issues for the network. This includes coordinating the Veg Cities campaign, developing new campaigns, amplifying the voice of SFP members at a national level and advocating on specific issues where local priorities need national action.
Campaigns and Policy Coordinator Sustainable Food Places
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