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At the Crossroads of Climate and Food

What role do cities have in promoting climate-friendly food?
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mcdonald's truck by allen

Photo by Allen

Seattle hopes to become the world's first climate-neutral city. It's no small task: The City must account for, and reduce, the carbon footprint of everything from transportation to trash for hundreds of thousands of people. City Council President and YES! Magazine board member Richard Conlin is blogging about the city's efforts.

As I noted in an earlier post in this series, the food system and agriculture generate somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of America’s carbon emissions (depending on the study and what it counts). American food travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to plate. Then there is the processing, storage, marketing, packaging, and shopping involved, and the embedded carbon in each element of this system. 

We must continue to expand the social movement that is reshaping our food system towards a healthier and more sustainable model.

Growing food at home can reduce a whole array of emissions; emphasizing local food has similar impacts; no-till and organic practices generate other reductions. But none of these by itself will achieve a dramatic reduction in carbon in the food system—there has to be a complex array of approaches that looks at the system as a whole, takes apart each component, takes into account the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of change, and slowly turns the ship around towards a less carbon-intensive system. The carbon reduction comes, not from a single element, but from all of the changes being done together.

So, how can we move the food system in the right direction? And how can we do this in a realistic way, recognizing that there are many steps required, and that some of them have limitations and can potentially even be counter—productive if not approached with care and mindfulness?

Despite the dramatic appeal of the transport and packaging elements, most of the climate impacts from the food system occur at the production level, and changing those practices requires tapping into the local knowledge and experience of farmers as to how they can best manage their particular soils and products, and providing the right market incentives and resources that will make it possible for them to move In the right direction. The largest share of emissions comes from the use of synthetic fertilizers and methane from livestock production.

To change that, we must find ways to help farmers minimize energy requirements, reduce the use of synthetic chemicals, and emphasize more sustainable methods for raising crops and livestock. The financial models that will make these profitable for farmers require a reshaping of consumer demand and reduced subsidies for the unsustainable production systems that have led to a glut of corn and soy based food products (including livestock fed on corn). Those subsidies are shaped at the federal level by the Farm Bill, and the continued success of local food efforts, ironically, may be dependent on action by our national government. Seattle has adopted the Seattle Farm Bill Principles and I worked successfully to get the National League of Cities to adopt a similar set of principles, because of the stake that cities have in this legislation (which should be called the Food Bill!).

The role of government is to provide the right mix of policies, funding, research, incentives, education, and encouragement—and to open up the opportunity for creativity and innovation.

That ultimately means raising the market demand for farm products that will also be healthier for those consuming them. Our current agricultural production system delivers large quantities of empty calories and has generated an obesity epidemic—which, in turn, leads to higher medical costs (estimated at $3,000 per year per overweight person). Increasing demand for healthy agricultural products so that farmers will engage in healthier and less carbon-intensive production will also benefit consumers. This includes low income people, whose ‘cheap’ food is really costly in the long run, but it is very important that we find ways to ensure that low income households can afford better food. However, hunger and obesity are not opposites. Because of the counter-intuitive nature of our current food system, which provides cheap calories that are nutritionally impoverished, hunger and obesity are directly connected. Only healthy food habits—and the resources to have access to healthy food—can break that cycle.

Simply buying locally will not ensure that you are buying from sustainable farms; that requires knowledge of the farm practices (which, however, may be easier to get from local producers, Cooperative Extension, or other sources of consumer information). Buying locally will reduce the energy consumption in transport, storage, and food preservation, which will reduce climate impacts. Local buying can also involve less food packaging, another contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Public policy can promote local buying habits by encouraging small scale processors, regional distribution systems, and more sustainable transportation modes (fuel efficient trucks or trains where possible).

Food poster
Roots of the Local Food Movement

These wartime posters remind us of another time when the U.S. took food security literally.

Finally, the consumer can take more responsibility by looking for ways to reduce climate impacts —choosing foods that are climate friendly (growing your own food, eating foods in season, and basing your diet around perennial crops, while reducing consumption of factory farmed and processed food), and cutting food waste and managing remainders through backyard compost or food waste collection.

None of these concepts are magic. They all require a social commitment and an array of individual actions. The role of government is to provide the right mix of policies, funding, research, incentives, education, and encouragement—and to open up the opportunity for creativity and innovation. We must continue to expand the social movement that is reshaping our food system towards a healthier and more sustainable model. If we do so, the re-creation of our food system can make a huge contribution to protecting our climate. And we can lead healthier lives as a result.


Richard ConlinRichard Conlin wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Richard is president of the Seattle City Council and a YES! Magazine board member.

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