Can Cities Change the World Through What They Eat?

Shifting to healthier and more sustainable diets will benefit people and the planet – and build prosperity.
Oslo city skyline

This is an op-ed by Dr. Gunhild Stordalen, EAT’s Founder & Executive Chair and Dr. Sudhvir Singh, EAT’s Director of Policy . It first appeared on The Telegraph. 

Three years ago, our city of Oslo was the first to introduce a “climate budget”. The city government budgets its emissions like it budgets its money. Long-term political promises become measurable commitments that are tracked across all departments each year. The mayor, Raymond Johansen, has committed to a 95pc emissions reduction by 2030.

We love how the Norwegian capital is exploring innovative models to speed up change. But its budget only covers direct emissions within the city borders, and does not consider the full environmental footprint of its citizens’ consumption.

Despite massive efforts to create greener cities, urban-consumption-based emissions are expected to almost double by 2050

Oslo has made efforts to improve how people commute, but it has so far put less emphasis on how they shop and what they eat. Fortunately, ways of measuring and acting on consumption in cities are now becoming available.

The global C40 cities network, the University of Leeds and the built environment firm Arup recently launched a study showing how urban consumption is a key driver of greenhouse gas emissions through worldwide supply chains.

Despite massive efforts to create greener cities, urban-consumption-based emissions are expected to almost double by 2050. Food is the single biggest contributor. Yet, with unhealthy diets the main cause of disease globally, a shift towards healthier and more sustainable eating can have many benefits for residents and the economy.

The study concluded that each household could save an average of $5,500 each year by avoiding food waste alone for the next 20 years: this adds up to $25bn in the entire global food chain. Eating less red meat and more fruit and vegetables can reduce food-related consumption-based emissions by 60pc in just 10 years and save 170,000 deaths annually in C40 cities.

This January, the EAT-Lancet Commission released a landmark report, the first-ever integrated assessment merging human and planetary boundaries for food, setting global scientific targets.

Halving food waste is critical. It will all require immense changes across the entire food value chain

The conclusions were dramatic yet optimistic. We will never achieve the Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Agreement targets on climate change nor safeguard the global commons, without getting it right on food.

Yet a change to a planetary health diet from sustainable food production could save 11 million lives every year and help restore and safeguard crucial ecosystems. Halving food waste is critical. It will all require immense changes across the entire food value chain, from what we produce to how we eat and what we waste.

Another report, by Ellen MacArthur, founder and chair of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Martin Stuchtey, founder and managing partner of SYSTEMIQ, estimates that through investing in better, circular food production, cities could enjoy $2.7trn (£2.2trn) of benefits a year in 2050.

Cities are already taking action. More than 50 cities across the globe are now working together, through the EAT C40 Food Systems Network, to create healthier and more sustainable urban food systems. Innovative policies and best practice are shared and spread across countries and continents. In just over three years, this has become the largest of C40’s networks. Food has become one of its core priorities.

Copenhagen, the Danish capital, together with EAT and Climate-KIC, is starting a pilot based on the EAT-Lancet findings, setting city food system targets, reshaping menus in its public kitchens, looking at school menus through the lens of the planetary health diet, and helping all citizens to eat healthier and more sustainably.

The Italian city of Milan is cutting food waste by offering tax breaks for stores that donate leftovers to charity instead of throwing them away. In South Africa, Durban is training thousands of farmers to grow sustainably in the city, without pesticides or fertilisers. Last year, London banned junk food advertisements throughout the capital’s transport system as part of a comprehensive child obesity prevention strategy. New York has introduced Meatless Monday in schools, committing to reduce city purchases of meat by 50pc.

There are lots of great initiatives, but they are scattered. Individual actions have most impact as part of a comprehensive systems approach. Integrated food policies can cut emissions, improve environmental resilience, and counter malnutrition and diet-related diseases concentrated in vulnerable populations. Through the Food Systems Network, EAT and C40 help cities map out comprehensive food strategies that address all these concerns. focusing on health, sustainability and equity.

By 2050, more than two-thirds of the global population will live in cities. What they eat, how their food is produced and how their waste is minimised will be crucial to future human and planetary sustainability

Mayors have a unique opportunity to focus on their cities’ food environments as vital areas for improvement. By choosing to make good food easier and cheaper, cities can help improve the health of people and the planet.

Cities’ relationships with business and their market influence are also critical. They have a broad impact within and beyond their borders.

The choices that city authorities make on procurement, managing systems for food loss and waste, and designing and regulating the urban food environment all represent great opportunities for system change and massive investment. Their power can shape markets and influence private sector responses to the growing demand for sustainable and healthy food.

Chief executives of large and small-scale businesses around the globe tell us that they are ready to make change, but are calling for political leaders to create incentives and regulations promoting more sustainable production and healthier food.

While national governments linger, cities excel. They attract innovators, change-makers and trendsetters. Urban neighborhoods are becoming test beds for future solutions. Through the C40 network, ambitious targets, projects and ideas spread across continents, creating opportunities to scale new models and solutions across the globe.

By 2050, more than two-thirds of the global population will live in cities. What they eat, how their food is produced and how their waste is minimized will be crucial to future human and planetary sustainability.

Mayors have a unique and critical opportunity to use local knowledge and environmental and health science to make desperately needed changes. City officials lead on a local level and have a remarkable global impact.

And citizens must call for leadership to seize the opportunity for change, to embrace the health of people and planet as intertwined – and to focus on food in protecting our shared future.

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