Small actions, big results

 By RP Siegel

Researchers are looking closely at the various aspects of climate change in an attempt to identify the best leverage points for action

It is well known that the food system is a major contributor. Because of the system’s complexity, it’s difficult to say exactly how much it contributes. Estimates range anywhere from 14-51 percent of total emissions, with most sources leaning towards the lower end. Even that number, which doesn’t include all the overlaps with other sectors, is comparable with the entire transportation sector. While most of the analysis of the food system has focused on the production side, Eugene Mohareb, at the University of Reading decided to look at the consumer side of the equation.

Investigation and causes

Influenced by the work of Marty Heller at the University of Michigan, who found that the diets of 20 percent of Americans were responsible for nearly half of all food-related greenhouse gas emissions, Mohareb, who is a lecturer in Sustainable Urban Systems, decided to team up with Geller to look at the larger question of how cities, and more specifically, how people living in cities, can influence climate change through choices they make, large and small, on a daily basis.
“We wanted to demonstrate that people living in cities, are indeed integrally involved in that food delivery system as it reaches our plates.”
What surprised him most in his findings was “the scale of impact that cities can have on [food system] greenhouse gas emissions.”Some of the areas examined include: reducing food waste, looking at food delivery services instead of making personal trips to the store, recycling food packaging, and choosing whether or not to eat greenhouse gas intensive foods, such as beef.
One surprising result was that even a major commitment to urban agriculture, shifting half of all vacant land into agricultural use, which would offset as much as 17 percent of all fruits and vegetables, would only lead to a 1 percent reduction in emissions. This, despite the fact that food production is responsible for roughly half of all emissions.
Mohareb explained that this derives from the fact that urban farming would not significantly offset any meat production, which is the primary emission driver in the food system. It also would not substantially impact the other facets of the food system (e.g. retail, storage and preparation in the home, inputs into production, post-distribution waste and waste disposal practices).

Urban factory in Chicago (Linda, Flickr)


In fact, the production of meat, particularly beef, is such a significant driver, it was singled out as a possible target for action in the report.
Can cities influence diet? Mohareb suggested the possibility of instituting a beef tax, along the same lines and for the same reasons as the soda tax that a number of cities have successfully implemented. These soda taxes have been instituted nationally in several countries including Mexico, France, Chile and now the U.K., as well as some U.S. cities such as Philadelphia, Berkeley, Oakland and Boulder.
Studies conducted at the University of California have confirmed that these taxes have been effective in reducing soda consumption. Would a similar approach work for beef?
While acknowledging that acceptance might be slow, Mohareb says, “We could realize the dual benefit of reducing the impact on the planet and reducing the impact on our own health.”
Among the study’s findings — meatless Mondays could reduce emissions by 4 percent, while replacing 25 percent of beef consumption with chicken across the board could yield a 6 percent reduction in food-related emissions. Likewise, substituting 25 percent of terrestrial meat with cultured meat could reduce emissions by 7 percent.

PETA (people for the ethical treatment of animals) protesters ask to tax meat (Jamelle Bouie, Flickr)

Further responsibilities

But meat was not the only area where potential improvements were identified. Other areas with substantial impacts include: diverting 50 percent of waste from landfills to anaerobic digestion, where they could produce useful methane fuels, could eliminate 5 percent of food-related emissions. Also a 50 percent reduction in overall consumer and retail waste, which could reduce emissions by as much as 11 percent.
The study also broke down the food system in terms of allocating the emissions contributions of the various components. While production, as we mentioned earlier contributed 50 percent (72 percent of which was actually consumed, while the other 28 percent was wasted), the other major contributors were solid waste disposal (12 percent), retail (10 percent), and household energy (8 percent).
The largest impact of all, by far, can be achieved by decarbonizing the electric grid, upon which most components of today’s food supply depend, particularly for refrigeration. Complete decarbonization could potentially reduce food-related emissions by as much as 18 percent, and that does not include packaging or farm electricity use, for which data was not available.
It’s important to note that a lot of these actions would have a cascading effect, given how interdependent they are, and Mohareb acknowledges that while they did their best to account for all, they may have missed some.

Innovations in the cities

While cities can do much to encourage the use of solar power, which they often do by installing it on their own municipal buildings , purchasing renewable energy certificates or power purchase agreements, some grocery stores are also taking the initiative and putting solar on their rooftops, which are generally large and flat. Other innovative options, such as thermal storage are also finding their way into stores.
Exemplary cities, says Mohareb, would also inlcude those that have prioritized recycling.
Aluminum is particularly important since it is very energy intensive to produce, yet recycling it requires only 5 percent as much energy. In the US, West coast cities are particularly good at this, notably San Francisco, LA, San Jose and San Diego, who along with Portland average around 70 percent or better. Compare that with a national average recycling rate of around 35 percent (2014 figures).
Finally, in the U.K., Mohareb mentions Todmorden, a Yorkshire community that seems to epitomize the spirit of Mohareb & Heller’s findings. Residents are passionately dedicated to an ethos that centers around resilience, the importance of community, and the sharing of food. Mary Clear, the Chair of Incredible Edible Todmorden calls it “the power of small action.” They have created a Festival of Ideas, now in its 10th year, that focuses on collaboration, and “uses kindness as its currency.”
These results should provide guidance to community leaders, citizens and companies as to how their small actions have the potential, through the leverage of a very large and very inefficient food system, to make a big difference to the future of our planet.

READ MORE: Fighting food waste by RP Siegel

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.