Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

Changing the way we get our food is key to global warming fight

Food makes up a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Image credit: Pixabay/ mccright

Our food accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, yet shorter supply chains, food maps, and sharing leftovers could help cities put cheaper and more climate-friendly produce on citizens’ plates, a conference on food security heard.

If cities had more power, they could implement more efficient food practices at a level, and speed, where they would have more impact than national policy, helping countries to meet the pledges they made in Paris in 2015 to keep global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, the event heard.

At an EU event entitled FOOD2030: Cities for Food Systems Innovation and Green Jobs, which took place on 31 May in Brussels, Belgium, researchers and policymakers explored what is needed to future-proof our food systems to provide healthy and sustainable food for everyone.

Dirk Wascher from Wageningen Environmental Research in the Netherlands said cities want more control of the food they use to feed their citizens. He is also the project coordinator of FOODMETRES, an EU-funded project that developed a city-specific supply and demand map that allows local governments to assess what is grown near their city and if there is environmentally friendly produce they could use. This can also lead to less food waste and shorter supply chains that support local producers and lead to less imports, cutting down on emissions from production, transport and refrigeration.

Wascher added that many ‘so-called regional foods don’t actually come from the region’ but by using their maps, supermarket food could be labelled according to the ‘distance it travelled and the CO2 output connected in bringing it to the shop’.

This approach could help city officials plan a more efficient food system around local produce.

Food prices

And these shorter supply chains could, according to Corinna Hawkes, an expert from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), reduce the price of carbon-friendly sustainable food, which is often more expensive than intensively farmed produce.

‘It’s not about changing the food system overnight ... it will all rely on political commitment.’

Corinna Hawkes, International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food)

‘The main influencers on price for food are not to do with the price of production, it’s the advertising, labour, packaging, pesticide and transport costs that people pay for.’

Sustainable food policy may seem to focus on small-scale initiatives, like urban farms or community gardens, but it could also shape what food is served in schools and even advertising laws, all of which combine to disrupt existing supply chains.

‘Urban food policies can be transformative by supporting diversity of supply chains. That includes local supply chains but that also includes the big supply chains that have tremendous power over the system,’ said Hawkes.

But according to an upcoming report by IPES-Food, European cities sometimes struggle to forge ahead with innovative food systems – like urban agriculture, food sharing and turning waste into a resource – because they don’t have the political clout to do so.

‘Cities are often perceived as setting the rules, but their powers and responsibilities can be limited and sometimes framed by national and international policy,’ said Jess Halliday from IPES-Food and chief writer of the report.

At the event Halliday discussed five case studies that they investigated. The report found that cities can struggle to introduce sustainable food plans because they clash with other public authorities.

But Halliday did add that cities don’t ‘just sit there passively on the receiving end of high-level policy’, they seek to negotiate with relevant governmental bodies to overcome legislative hurdles and introduce innovative food projects, although slower than they would prefer.

The IPES-Food report will contain a range of factors that will help cities overcome different national or international barriers, along with other sustainable actions they could implement. Hawkes said that the ‘overarching key message is the need for political commitment’ which, could take the shape of a dedicated food agency for a city or specific food rules that run across different municipal departments.

‘It’s not about changing the food system overnight, it’s going to involve supermarkets, short supply systems, engaged citizens, consumers who don’t really care, but it will all rely on political commitment.’

Officials from the city of Ghent, in Belgium, for example, explained plans to introduce gardens in the city for private growth, but also put city grounds on the market for professional urban farms. They also have a help desk that offers advice to support more sustainable food production and consumption.

Sharing food could be another promising approach to bring more citizens into the fold, and a way to reduce the 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste produced each year, as well as the unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions that go along with it.

Professor Anna Davies, from Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland, told the meeting that even though cities are huge consumers of resources ‘they are also hotbeds for innovation’ and offer many food waste opportunities that engage with citizens.

She coordinates the SHARECITY project, funded by the EU's European Research Council, which identified over 4 000 enterprises involved in food sharing, including citizens sharing amongst themselves, collecting restaurant waste and turning leftover food into new products.

If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

The Issue

Approximately 33 % of the total food produced for human consumption is wasted each year, contributing to unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, one in nine of the global population suffer from chronic undernourishment, while, in 2014, almost 40 % of adults aged 18 or over were overweight.

To make our food systems more sustainable and healthy, the European Commission organises FOOD 2030 events that investigate how relevant research and innovation systems can be scaled-up. The EU’s panel of science advisers (SAM) has also put together an explanatory note regarding the new techniques in agricultural biotechnology such as crop breeding techniques and genetic modification.

More info