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Government urged to support metropolitan councils that are falling short on tackling food emissions

New research from Sustain reveals that most councils don’t have clear targets for food and farming in climate emergency plans, and calls on national governments in the UK to do more.  

Credit: AC Rider from Shutterstock

Credit: AC Rider from Shutterstock

In a comprehensive analysis, Sustain has revealed that the 36 metropolitan councils in the UK are missing key opportunities to address health, climate, and nature emergencies through proactive measures such as serving climate-friendly meals, supporting sustainable farming and making urban spaces welcoming to an alternative, localised food system. In the assessment, which was based on published climate, nature, and food strategies, councils scored a concerning average score of less than one-third (31%) of available points and only 3% exhibit advanced, time-bound, and measurable plans to reduce emissions from food and farming. 

Metropolitan councils are all in England, and the results point to a need for much more support from national governments. In a similar analysis last year, councils in Wales and Scotland scored higher on food waste and supporting sustainable food growing, where national targets and support exist in these nations. Sustain is calling for all national governments to do better, including setting out legally-binding standards for public sector food, more funding to meet food waste collection targets, and support to set up participatory, community-led food partnerships. 

Ruth Westcott, climate and nature emergency coordinator at Sustain said: 

“Last week, Rishi Sunak joined global leaders in committing to ‘urgently adapt and transform’ the food system to address the climate emergency, and the UK government should see local councils as a key route to doing so. Prioritising a sustainable, localised, and fair food system not only reduces climate impacts but generates employment, enhances health outcomes, restores nature, and supports farmers.” 

Startlingly, 61% of councils analysed did not have significant actions to tackle food and farming-related emissions in their climate and nature policies, while 36% possess only 'basic' policies. Merely 3% exhibited advanced, time-bound, and measurable plans. The report commends higher-scoring councils and spotlights the critical role of food partnerships: Councils with active partnerships scored on average 13% more points. 

Despite being predominantly urban, metropolitan councils scored comparatively well on action on land use, farming and planning, largely due to policies supporting allotments and community gardens. However, opportunities were identified for the councils to do more to support nature-friendly farming, collaborating with neighbouring councils, for larger ‘fringe farming’ initiatives in peri-urban areas. In some cases, opportunities were identified on the council’s own agricultural land holdings. 

Leading councils showed confidence in delivering on climate-friendly food procurement and promoting sustainable diets, but this was identified as an area where the bulk of councils could do more.  

Lily O'Mara-Adembesa, Local Action Officer for Sustainable Food Places at Sustain said: 

“Congratulations to those who have done remarkably well but, as our report shows, these councils are a minority. Most metropolitan councils are missing out on actions that would improve the health of their citizens as well as help tackle the climate emergency. We hope that this research prompts councils to begin to engage seriously with these issues and urge them to use our toolkit designed to help them deliver change that is sorely needed on food and the climate.” 

The report urges councils to seize opportunities including: 

  • Serve climate-friendly meals, supporting nature-friendly farmers, across council services and for events on council land. 

  • Public campaigns promoting healthy and climate-friendly diets, including through public health messaging. 

  • Join Planning for the Planet to support a sustainable food system. 

  • Support a localised food system through processing, distribution, and selling infrastructure (including boosting local markets) 

  • Support community food growing and nature-friendly farming, including opportunities for new "fringe farm" enterprises. 

  • Integrate food production and farming into Local Nature Recovery Schemes. 

  • Establish timebound targets for reducing food waste, provide food waste collection services for households, schools, and businesses and engage residents, schools and businesses in food waste and emissions reduction targets. 

  • Adopt a Healthy Food Advertising Policy to encourage healthy choices. 


Recommendations for government include: 

  • Set clear, legally-binding national standards for public sector meals, aligning with a Planetary Health Diet. These should include mandating two portions of vegetables or pulses in every meal, guarantee vegetarian and vegan options, and following health guidelines on red and processed meat. They shoudl also set minimum standards for animal welfare, healthy eating, ethical trading, and sourcing from organic and nature-friendly production methods. 

  • Revise School Food Standards to remove the mandate to serve meat three days per week, and promote healthier and more sustainable protein sources, allowing councils greater flexibility to reduce the climate impact and cost of meals. 

  • Support Food Waste Collection Services with grants to support the rollout of food waste collection services in England. 

  • Reform National Planning Policy, so climate and nature are material planning considerations, to safeguard local wildlife and rivers. Additionally, require environmental permits for all intensive indoor livestock units, enhancing monitoring and enforcement. 

  • Offer guidance for councils to include food and farming in Nature Recovery Strategies

  • Implement Emission Reduction Targets for Food Businesses, with mandatory transparency and reporting, aiming to ensure the affordability and accessibility of healthy, climate-friendly food. 

  • Release an ambitious and net-zero compatible land use framework, to create the overall strategy for nature recovery and sustainable farming.  

  • Require a net-zero strategy, including food-related scope 3 emissions, for businesses securing major public-sector catering contracts (scope 3 emissions can account for 90 to 95% of emissions for caterers). 


Published Wednesday 6 December 2023

Food for the Planet: Food for the Planet is helping local authorities, businesses and organisations take simple actions to tackle the climate and nature emergency through food.

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