How Cities Around the World Are Adapting to Better Food Systems
When global leaders won’t save our food system, cities take the lead.
We’re facing an unprecedented “code red for humanity,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in 2021. Yet global action has stagnated.
Amidst the lackluster headlines spanning COP27, the UN’s annual climate change convention, held in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt, in November 2022, and the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal in December 2022, Guterres—whose own agencies have warned of industrial animal agriculture’s climate perils for more than 15 years—issued a more grassroots plea.
Speaking to the leaders of the C40 cities who gathered in October 2022 at a climate summit of their own, he declared, “With more than half of the world’s population, cities are where the climate battle will largely be won or lost.”
Cities—where unwavering football fandoms are born, debates over classroom curricula are waged, and unique lexicons take form—shape the way we live, learn, and, crucially for planetary health, eat.
Food System Impact on Environment and Climate
The food system accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions and would bust the carbon budget even if fossil fuels were ended immediately. The paper cites the 2021 UN Methane Assessment Report, which attributes 32 percent of human-caused methane emissions to animal agriculture, the largest source.
Research from Oxford University’s Joseph Poore published in 2018 found that 83 percent of agricultural land is used for farming animals yet supplies just 18 percent of calories.
Scientific evidence from a 2019 Lancet study shows a plant-based food system will reduce food’s greenhouse gas emissions by around 80 percent and free up more than 3 billion hectares of land for biodiversity and carbon drawdown.
According to the research conducted led by the University of Oxford and published in July 2023 in the journal Nature Food, adopting a vegan diet led to remarkable reductions in climate-heating emissions, water pollution, and land usage, amounting to a significant 75 percent decrease compared to diets that included over 100 grams of meat per day. Moreover, the study revealed that vegan diets also contributed to a substantial 66 percent reduction in the destruction of wildlife and a 54 percent decrease in water consumption.
The Plant Based Treaty has 3Rs and 39 detailed proposals calling for a global transition to a plant-based food system and calls for negotiation of a global treaty as well as local implementation at the municipal level, schools, universities, hospitals, businesses and other local institutions.
The Plant Based Treaty is modeled on the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and inspired by treaties that have addressed the threats of ozone layer depletion and nuclear weapons. Since its launch in August 2021, the initiative has been endorsed by 21 cities, including the Scottish Capital Edinburgh, Los Angeles and Ahmedabad and received support from 100,000 individual endorsers, 5 Nobel laureates, IPCC scientists, Sir Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney, more than 3000 NGOs, community groups and businesses, including Oceanic Preservation Society and chapters of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Extinction Rebellion.
Call to Mayors
Secretary-General Guterres is no stranger to environmental inaction among his peers. In his appeal, he explained that despite decades of tireless work, current national pledges—or a lack thereof—will carry us into the next decade with a 14 percent increase in global emissions.
Facing a near-certain future of mass flooding, heatwaves, biodiversity loss, and displaced populations, Guterres called upon these mayors: “Your citizens look to you to provide leadership, action, and protection that is often lacking at the national level.” These words came just months after a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report announced a dire need to cut methane emissions by a third. And C40 itself hasn’t minced words in advocating for a two-thirds reduction in the world’s most notorious methane emitter: meat.
For these reasons, our organizations and nearly 200 others urged the mayors of C40 to kickstart immediate action to transform our destructive food system on the eve of their annual summit (where, we noted, beef still had a front-row seat on the menu)—but not just at the event’s catered banquets. Instead of waiting years for commitments to trickle down from above, municipal leaders around the world (and particularly those of C40’s nearly 100 major cities, constituting a quarter of the global economy) must seize a rapidly shrinking opportunity to shape food culture from the ground up by prioritizing plant-based foods.
In Towns and Cities, Success Stories
To grasp the oft-overlooked power of the grassroots, consider the case study of Marshall, a small town in Texas cattle country: six-term Mayor Ed Smith, who reaped health benefits after shifting to a plant-based diet in 2008 following a cancer diagnosis, launched a healthy eating campaign, complete with an annual festival, community potlucks, and even visits by a troupe of plant-powered firefighters. Hailing from a ranching family, Smith was already beloved by his citizenry, and his initiative radiated outward, from local churches to the assistant fire chief who kicked his diabetes meds after going plant-based.
Meanwhile, a duo of doctors in Burin, a 2,500-person town in rural Newfoundland, have been credited with getting the population hooked on vegan foods through workshops and veggie potlucks after noticing that about 80 percent of illnesses they treated were brought on by diet and lifestyle. By supporting patients with the struggles that hit closest to home—not drought in North America’s heartland, but staving off heart disease long enough to see their grandchildren grow up—Drs. Arjun and Shobha Rayapudi have planted seeds of dietary change across their whole community.
But, of course, we need to scale up from these small towns—and quickly—to revive both our planet’s and our own health, currently clinging to life on the operating table. As C40 acknowledged in a recent report, “Eating less red meat and more vegetables and fruits could prevent annually 160,000 deaths associated with diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and stroke in C40 cities.”
These concerns were front of mind with officials in New York City—where, like the world at large, heart disease is the number-one killer—as they unveiled at a recent White House conference that their entire public hospital system is now serving plant-based meals by default. Through this subtle “nudge,” the city is actually setting a bold new paradigm, wherein patients must opt out (twice) if they don’t want the vegan chef’s special. Sixty percent are happily chowing down, adding up to nearly 800,000 meals annually. Using a model published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies, we determined that if a city serving a million meals per year implemented a program like New York’s, it could save the equivalent emissions of driving a passenger car over 1 million miles.
New York is not alone in this visionary initiative. Millions are collectively discovering a key ingredient to change on our own dinner tables, and these roots are growing entire forests. Within the last decade, dozens of municipal leaders, including the fifteen C40 cities who have signed the Good Food Cities Declaration, have heard the cries from their citizenry to undo the harms of the 20th century’s brainchild, the factory farm.
Cities like Berkeley, San Diego, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Helsinki, Washington, DC, and Montreal (host to the upcoming COP15) have made historic commitments to reduce their own meat procurement, with DC’s mayor even issuing a proclamation in support of a global transition to a plant-based food system.
In October 2022, Los Angeles joined 19 others, from Didim in Turkey to Buenos Aires in Argentina, in endorsing the Plant Based Treaty, an international treaty putting food systems at the heart of the climate crisis. Councilmember Paul Koretz proclaimed, “This landmark resolution marks a vital cultural shift as Americans prioritize both combating climate change and improving their health.”
On January 17, 2023, the City of Edinburgh Council endorsed the Plant Based Treaty, becoming the first Scottish city and capital in Europe to join the initiative to tackle food-related emissions from animal agriculture, a key driver of the climate emergency. Following the publication of an impact assessment report, which identified the mitigation potential of a plant-based food system, councilors voted 12 to 5 to endorse the treaty and committed to producing an action plan and timescale to implement possible changes to council activities. The Council leader also wrote to the First Minister of Scotland to outline that the Council has endorsed the treaty, and encouraged the Scottish government to follow suit.
On October 19, 2023, in response to the climate crisis, Lambeth became the first London borough to officially support the Plant Based Treaty. The Lambeth Council committed to quantifying and curbing food-related emissions while also launching initiatives aimed at advocating for and enhancing access to plant-based foods. These efforts include providing local fruit and vegetable vouchers to households in need. A joint statement from Councilor Rezina Chowdhury, Deputy Leader (Sustainable Lambeth & Clean Air), and Councilor Jim Dickson, Cabinet Member for Healthier Communities said: “As a sector, food and agriculture is a leading carbon emitter, accounting for a third of global greenhouse gases. Food is also linked to half of human-induced biodiversity loss and is a decisive factor o[i ]the health and wellbeing of citizens. Recognizing this, Lambeth Council is endorsing the principles of the Plant Based Treaty and committing to actions that we can take forward as a London Local Authority.”
The direct footprints of city-procured meals are just the start. By putting more plants on the plates they serve in schools, hospitals, convention centers, and events, these cities are helping citizens rethink their food norms and ushering in a more resilient way of eating.
Cities can follow a number of best practices, like those outlined in the open letter to C40 mayors, to invest in, improve the affordability of, and incentivize plant-based options: from supporting community programs like the Toronto Vegetarian Food Bank (which has provided over 350,000 meals to people struggling with food insecurity) and school gardens like Massacussetts’ CitySprouts to running public information campaigns as Haywards Heath Town Council did for Veganuary.
Beyond their own board rooms, city officials can help plant-forward eating proliferate everywhere.
People Are Ready for Better Diets
In lieu of wringing our hands each night about every step forward that’s been thwarted by governmental gridlock on the world’s stage, each of us can play a profound role in changing the food landscape in our own cities and towns—the communities where we gather to eat, where we forge traditions, and where we eke out our values.
Recent polling by VegTO found that citizens are already eager to cut back on their meat intake in their day-to-day lives, with over half intending to eat more plant-based foods if their leaders make them more accessible.
Putting Pressure on Global Leaders
We cannot, of course, let our global leaders off the hook; after all, a quilt is always stronger with all of its individual squares sewn firmly together. From bagels and poutine in the bustling city of Montreal to backyard barbecues in rural Marshall, every city’s voice is needed in the fight for our planet, and it starts with one citizen writing their council member or showing up at town hall. Piece by piece, each of our communities will become cornerstones of a new global food system centered around plants.
But as more of us call upon our own leaders to flip their food norms, embrace the Plant Based Treaty and the Good Food Cities Declaration, and make plant-based foods accessible to all, we’ll create the unified front that’s needed to move our global leaders toward addressing animal agriculture’s massive deforestation, species extinction, water pollution, and resource depletion.
As leaders at the U.N.’s conference debated the extinction crisis in December 2022, they might have gazed out the convention center’s windows upon the skyline of their host city of Montreal. Perhaps they caught wind of a resolution that had been recently passed by the city to curtail its dependence on meat for the sake of our imperiled planet and serve at least 75 percent vegetarian meals in its public venues, including the one in which they gathered. Perhaps they were moved by Montreal’s bold strides to take another look at a U.N.-supported report implicating the food system as the primary driver of biodiversity loss—and they returned home energized about a new food future.
In June 2023, climate activists parked a food truck at the entrance of the World Conference Center in Bonn, Germany, for the second year running, with plans to distribute 2,000 free vegan hot dogs to show Bonn Climate Conference delegates that a transition to a plant-based food system is essential to addressing rising food-related greenhouse gas emissions.
“We started the vegan Food for Thought truck as a way to engage with the public and decision-makers about sustainable plant-based diets,” said Plant Based Treaty campaigner Lea Goodett from the Netherlands. “Plant-based food not only has the smallest environmental and climate footprint but offers familiar dishes that are very tasty.”
To accompany the vegan hot dogs, Plant Based Treaty, which has achieved UN Observer Status, has handed out more than 100 copies of its newly released position paper, “21 Cities Call for a Global Plant Based Treaty,” to climate conference delegates. The position paper calls for immediate, rapid, and sustained cuts to greenhouse gas emissions from both fossil fuels and animal agriculture in order to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown.
The position paper shows why delegates at the Bonn Conference and COP28 in Dubai in December 2023 must put food emissions on the agenda. While 21 cities, including Los Angeles and Edinburgh, have endorsed the Plant Based Treaty, we must also call on world leaders to advocate for a global agreement on a desperately needed transition to a plant-based food system.
Sign the Plant Based Treaty petition calling on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to show climate action leadership by encouraging the hosts of COP28 to provide 100 percent plant-based catering and creating a policy for future climate conferences to offer 100 percent plant-based catering, ideally showcasing locally sourced vegan organic (veganic) and agroecological produce.