Special Report: The Path to Climate Neutrality is Paved with Food System Solutions

As a mother, ensuring the habitability of our planet has become the single most important issue of the next decade to me. If we don’t fix this problem, all of our societal issues will be exacerbated, further threatening global peace and prosperity. As the executive director of the San Diego Food System Alliance, what empowers me is that our mission statement—cultivating a healthy, sustainable, and just food system in San Diego County—offers a way forward.

Flowering fennel fronds at W. D. Dickinson Farm in National City. Image: Olivia Hayo.

We have ignored the implications of climate change for several decades despite the detailed warnings of scientists and the accumulation of weather-related disasters. Three recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special reports have warned that:

- We have about 12 years to avoid 1.5°C of warming from preindustrial levels.

- The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing.

- Human activities are fundamentally reshaping the oceans.

Six IPCC assessments, four US national assessments, four California assessments, and thousands of articles all point in the same direction: long-term emergency.

Global food system activities—harvesting, land clearing, transporting, processing, and landfilling—are major drivers of climate change and are particularly vulnerable to weather-related events.

Investing in community food systems and the resiliency of our region is more important now than ever.

Confronting Climate Change

Carbon dioxide levels are currently at the highest levels in human history (408.86 parts per million). Total US greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) increased 1.3% from 1990 to 2017 and agriculture is the fourth largest contributor (8% of GHG emissions). California’s GHG emissions actually decreased from 2000 to 2017, largely due to the increasing use of renewable energy to generate electricity, demonstrating some hope for progress. When observing data broadly, various global food systems including deforestation for industrial agricultural use, transportation, processing and packaging, freezing and retail, and waste contribute to anywhere from 21–50% of global GHG emissions.

Globally, agricultural and food system activities generate tonnes of GHG emissions and these systems will be uniquely impacted by climate change. According to the fourth National Climate Assessment by the US Global Change Research Program, “Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the US. Expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality, and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security, and price stability.”

Fortunately, many of the solutions for addressing climate change have been known for years. Project Drawdown is a global research organization partnering with policy-makers, universities, nonprofits, businesses, investors, and philanthropists that recently quantified the impact of 100 solutions for reducing GHG emissions. At least 21 of the 100 solutions are connected to food systems, accounting for 32.5% of GHG drawdown.

Image: Spencer Pugh on Unsplash.
Rainbow chard at W. D. Dickinson Farm doing what it does best: Converting sunlight and soil into nutrients and making it look good. Image: Olivia Hayo.

Local Climate Action Plans

With the federal government abdicating responsibility for addressing climate change, action has come from youth-driven movements (e.g., Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion), states, regions, counties, and cities. In many ways, California has led the way forward: Through the passage of Assembly Bill (AB) 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, California became the first state in the US to mandate statewide reductions in GHG emissions. AB 32 sets a statewide target to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Since local governments have an important role in contributing toward AB 32 goals through their planning and permitting processes, local ordinances, outreach and education efforts, and municipal operations—and since many solutions revolve around food system activities—a key goal for San Diegans lies in cultivating a healthy, sustainable, and just food system in our region.

San Diego County is a unique region to cultivate a model community food system; home to more than 3.3 million people, it is California's second most populous county and the fifth most populous in the United States. There is also a significant amount of food insecurity: Our county has the second highest number of SNAP-eligible residents after Los Angeles County. With more small and organic farms than any other county in the nation, strategies to preserve agriculture in this region facing drought and development pressure can serve as a model for the rest of California. Additionally, San Diego has a unique foodshed relationship with Mexico and also benefits from a diverse population.

As cities and counties draft and update their local Climate Action Plans (CAPs), the following food system strategies are important opportunities that should be considered.

1. Vibrant local and sustainable community food systems

In order to be less dependent on the global sourcing and distribution of food, many local governments are supporting the emergence of local and sustainable community food systems. Some CAP measure examples include:

Develop policies to encourage community-based farms, including demonstration projects (City of Davis)

Support the 10 Percent Local Food campaign to encourage eating fresh, local foods in homes, institutions, and businesses (City of Cincinnati)

2. Food waste reduction, recovery, and recycling

Many local governments are developing “Zero Waste Plans” linked to Climate Action Plans that include reduction, recovery, and recycling concepts. For example, the County of San Diego’s “Strategic Plan to Reduce Waste” includes source reduction, food donation, and composting operations at various levels.

3. Promoting consumption of less carbon-intense foods

Many local governments are now encouraging their residents to consume climate-friendly food products. A few CAP measures:

Encourage community to reduce meat and dairy consumption countywide by promoting Meatless Mondays and the Cool Foods Pledge (City of Santa Monica)

Conduct a community education campaign on the carbon consequences of food choices, with special emphasis on protein sources such as meat, fish, grains, and vegetables (City of Davis)

4. Carbon farming practices

Several counties in California have begun adopting carbon farming measures into Climate Action Plans including Marin, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. A suite of farming and ranching practices collectively called “carbon farming” hold the potential for delivering multiple benefits, including reducing GHG emissions, building soil health, and strengthening climate resilience.

What Else Can Carbon Farming Do?

Carbon farming can also strengthen San Diego County’s urban-rural connections by shifting the role of farmers as ecosystem service providers, turning urban waste into compost, treating urban wastewater for irrigation, and addressing regional sustainability goals.

From 2000 to 2015, an estimated 1 million orchard trees were taken out of production, equating to a storage and sequestration value of 300,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, city CAPs are now prioritizing urban tree-planting goals. Can we envision a future where farmers are paid for the ecosystem services they are providing to the urban population? For more information on carbon farming opportunities, additional reports developed by Batra Ecological Strategies, San Diego Food System Alliance, and San Diego County Farm Bureau are available at sdfsa.org.

As California strives to develop supportive frameworks to advance CAP measures, we can imagine that the strategies above will become much easier to incorporate and measure progress around. There's excitement at the progress local governments in San Diego have made to proactively embrace food system strategies in local CAP efforts.

San Diego Food System Alliance and its network is leading efforts on all of the strategies addressed. Examples include the Save The Food, San Diego! countywide food waste awareness campaign with over 150 partners (savethefoodsd.org), promoting the Good Food Purchasing Program with large public institutions, and facilitating the San Diego Carbon Farming Task Force. Partnerships and active involvement of local governments in all of these strategies will be critical in order to acheive and maintain goals.

San Diego Food System Alliance is also leading the development of San Diego County Food Vision 2030, inviting the public to envision the future of our region. Food Vision 2030 is a 10-year strategic plan that will guide collective action toward a healthy, sustainable, and just food system in our region.

Please consider joining these important conversations.

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About the Contributor
Elly Brown
As the Executive Director of the San Diego Food System Alliance, Elly manages the network, operations, programs, development, and administrative matters. Elly began her role at the San Diego Food System Alliance as a Facilitator in 2015 and transitioned to lead the organization as a staffed Director in 2016. Elly enjoys the ability to contribute her business and consulting skill set to a cause she loves, food and community. Elly is a first generation American, having spent majority of her life in San Diego and Japan. Elly finds joy in witnessing the visible shifts in the food environment in America’s Finest City through the work of San Diego Food System Alliance and the incredible network of organizations.