June 16, 2022

Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog

Plant-Forward Food Policy: An Opportunity for City Governments to Raise Awareness about and Reduce the Impact of Industrial Animal Agriculture on Human Health, Climate Change, Animals, and Rural Communities - Katherine Noble (MSL)


Local governments have an opportunity to engage with the emerging “plant-forward food policy movement” and adopt procurement and other policies that seek to improve human health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve animal welfare, and support alternatives to industrial animal agriculture. A plant-forward food policy agenda seeks to move plants to the top of the menu and to the center of the plate, and animal and processed plant-based proteins to their more appropriate supporting role. This blog post will address one specific policy proposal related to food procurement, which is that of a city reducing by 70 percent the money it spends on animal-based products, simultaneous with a commitment to purchase only meat, dairy, and eggs from local (or regional, depending on the location) family farmers who practice the highest standards of animal welfare and land stewardship.


Defining and Distinguishing Plant-Forward Food Policy

Plant-forward differs from plant-based in its inclusivity and its specificity. Its agenda strives to unite healthcare providers, climate change activists, animal welfare advocates, and family farmers to advocate as a coalition for food policies that seek to improve health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, end farm animal suffering, and support rural communities. It does this by focusing on a realistic reduction in the consumption of animal products coupled with support for non-industrial meat, dairy, and eggs. It is guided by a vision of a world in which everyone has access to nutritious, plant-based food, produced in a way that protects and restores the environment, and in a system that provides animals with a life free from suffering. It lays out explicit targets based on published, peer-reviewed research on environmentally sustainable and ethically defensible (to most of the population) meat production (Garrett, 2018). It differs from and is more realistic in its approach than existing climate and food policies that encourage and support strategies to reduce meat and other animal products at the city level. It grew out of a project for Animal Law, Legislation and Lobbying at Lewis & Clark Law School in Fall 2021.

Several organizations are now working to encourage local governments to address what role animal products should play in food and climate policies, including the Good Food Purchasing Program, Greener by Default, and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. And a few cities – including Eugene and Portland – mention meat reduction as a factor in meeting greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals outlined in their climate action plans. Several other cities, including Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco have set specific targets for reducing meat consumption (Minelli, 2021) but they are far below what is needed to achieve meaningful emissions reduction. The boldest city-level meat reduction policy to date was adopted by the Berkeley City Council in July 2021 and committed the city to reduce by 50 percent its purchases of animal-based foods by 2024. The resolution also includes the ambitious goal of eliminating all city-funded purchases of meat in the future. The resolution includes a requirement that the City Manager report on progress and plans for achieving the 2024 goal by January 31, 2022, and a report on the long-term animal-product elimination goal by June 30, 2022 (Berkeley City Council, 2021). The Berkeley resolution is the most closely aligned with the plant-forward food policy agenda and its goal of a 70 percent reduction in animal-based food products, but it differs in its goal of eliminating all animal-based food purchases. This goal is unrealistic for most cities, and while obviously would benefit animals, is not scientifically supported as necessary for climate change or human health and does not seek to address the impact of meat-reduction policies on rural communities or family farmers. This policy is not likely to attract a diverse coalition that can exert the pressure and influence needed to move city governments across the country to action. I applaud the Berkeley City Council for its bold policy, and the animal-rights organization that made it happen (Direct Action Everywhere, 2022), but a more pragmatic, realistic and ultimately successful approach is needed at this juncture in human history.

We have less than a decade to significantly reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions if we are going to avoid catastrophic climate change, and a rapid reduction in industrial animal agriculture is necessary to achieve global and national greenhouse gas emissions targets (Eisen, 2022). Cities have a crucial role to play in making this happen (Markolf, 2020). With that background and context, this blog seeks to establish the justification for plant-forward local food policy at the local level; present several policy options for cities; and finally, propose a plant-forward food procurement policy for the City of Portland and that can become a model for others to follow.


Justification for Plant-Forward Local Food Policy

It’s better for humans. Americans eat too much meat and not nearly enough fiber, leaving us with less energy, susceptible to various diseases, and shortened life expectancies (US Department of Agriculture, 2021). In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meats (ham, salami, frankfurts and bacon) as a “group 1 carcinogen.” That means these highly processed, industrially produced foods are known to cause cancer. In the same report, the WHO categorized unprocessed red meat – beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat – as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Bouvard, 2015). Eating a plant-forward diet lowers an individual’s risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, pneumonia, severe COVID-19 (Vu, 2021), and even the risk of dementia (National Institute on Aging, 2019). And for most people, replacing animal products with plants and minimally processed, plant-based foods leads to a stable, healthy weight. These and other benefits of reducing animal products and replacing them with plant-based alternatives and wholefoods has been clearly established (Endicott, 2020).

It can help solve the climate crisis. We hear a lot about the carbon dioxide we spew into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation, but most of us know far less about the greenhouse gas that should be getting a lot of our attention: methane. Industrial animal agriculture is a significant contributor to methane emissions, from both enteric fermentation and from the massive amount of manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (Wolf, 2017). Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short term, and since we must make rapid, short-term reductions in emissions to keep atmospheric concentrations of all greenhouse gases below the threshold that will lead to runaway climate change, we need to reduce methane now. In 2021, the United Nations released the Global Methane Assessment, drawing attention to the global imperative to make methane reductions a priority (Ravishankara, 2021), and in February of this year, researchers at Stanford and Berkeley published a scientific model that demonstrated a dramatic reduction in industrial animal agriculture “represents ‘our best and most immediate chance to reverse the trajectory of climate change’” in the near term (Eisen, 2022). Project Drawdown, a nonprofit research organization that reviews and analyzes greenhouse gas reduction strategies, has similarly concluded that a large-scale shift to plant-based diets is one of the most effective, fastest, and least expensive ways to combat climate change (Project Drawdown, 2022).

It reduces animal suffering. Pigs, cows, goats, and sheep are all mammals like us who bond with their mothers and who express and feel love the same way our pets do, and much the same way we do (Bekoff, 2000). But on a factory farm, baby pigs, cows, goats, and sheep are separated from their mothers at birth, cruelly depriving both from the emotional bonding, affection and love all mammals need to thrive. And that’s just the start of the suffering inflicted upon animals raised in large-scale, industrial animal production operations – treatment that most people know little about (Cornish, 2016). Plant-forward diets that include either a small amount of plant-based meat, dairy and eggs, or a small amount of meat, dairy and eggs from animals raised by independent, compassionate farmers, keeps our food dollars, and our souls, out of a system that most Americans do not support (Prunty, 2013). Again, the animal-based food included in the plant-forward food policy agenda is intended to come from small, independent farmers like Bob Bansen who raises about 200 cows on his Emerald Veil Jerseys organic farm in Yamhill, Oregon.

It supports independent family farmers. Industrialized animal agriculture has no place in plant-forward food systems, but small-scale, independent farmers who raise animals with compassion, do. And the real heroes in the plant-forward food movement are the farmers who grow the fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds that make America’s transition to a plant-forward food system possible. The plant-forward agenda supports these farmers, and one of its key allies are the new organizations actively supporting farmers who want to transition out of industrial animal operations and into growing high-value, nutritious crops, both directly for consumption, and as inputs for plant-based meat and dairy. Two examples are Miyoko’s Dairy Farm Transition and Mercy for Animals Transfarmation.


Specific Policy Options

In October 2021, NYU School of Law published Towards Plant-Forward Diets, a Toolkit for Local Policymakers outlining several plant-forward, local food policy options (Minelli, 2021). Among them is the type of food procurement policy discussed in this blog post. Other recommendations include incorporating meat reductions targets into climate or sustainability plans, as the cities mentioned above have done; launching informational campaigns, which considering the public’s ignorance about factory farming hold significant promise; offering subsidies to encourage plant-based food choices; and banning specific types of animal-based products, such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York have done with foie gras. Reviewing these policies – all of which have been adopted by some cities – and the new suggestions included in the Toolkit are beyond the scope of this blog.

I’ll close with a draft of the ordinance a group of Portlanders (and other Oregonians) plan to propose to the Portland City Council in fall 2022. Although several details in this draft ordinance are unique to Portland, it can serve as a model for other cities seeking to reduce the impact of their food procurement choices on climate change. It is increasingly recognized that actions taken at the local level are crucial for combating climate change (Mohareb, 2018), but with the few exceptions noted above, cities have failed to take actions to reduce the impact of their and their residents’ food purchases on climate change. The most common city-level policies related to food focus on the local food movement, which may have economic, social and health benefits, but buying local does very little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Weber, 2008). Reducing meat consumption does.

a food system that supports human

Plant-Forward Food Procurement Policy for Portland

WHEREAS, the City of Portland has a goal of being a global leader in addressing climate change, advancing environmental justice, and protecting the environment; and

WHEREAS, City of Portland’s 2015 Climate Action Plan includes the goal of reducing the impact of food choices on climate change and acknowledges that to meet greenhouse gas emission targets, the City, and its residents must shift their diets from high to “low-carbon” foods; and

WHEREAS, the September 2021 Portland Sustainable Consumption and Production Report reveals that 53 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from food purchases by individuals and institutions in City of Portland come from the purchases of animal products; and

WHEREAS, scientific analysis demonstrates that one of the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to transition to plant-forward or plant-based diets that reduce or eliminate the consumption of animal-based foods; and

WHEREAS, City of Portland has previously adopted recommendations and policies in support of reducing the City’s carbon footprint by reducing the purchase of animal-based foods; and

WHEREAS, the 2020 Climate Emergency Declaration issued by City of Portland commits the region to center its climate actions on justice and equity; and

WHEREAS, the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced the horrific conditions workers in industrialized animal agricultural sector suffer under and that the disproportionate percentage of these workers are low-income people of color; and

WHEREAS, large-scale, confined animal feed operations exploit workers and purchasing meat, dairy and eggs produced by this industry is not aligned with the 2020 Climate Emergency Declaration; 

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Portland establishes an official goal to accelerate the City’s transition to climate-friendly diets by reducing by 70 percent animal-based food purchases and by eliminating entirely all purchases of meat, dairy, and eggs from industrial animal agriculture operations by the City by xx.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Portland City Council refers this binding city ordinance to the Planning and Sustainability Commission to report to the Council on progress towards reaching this goal by xx.

If you are interested in joining this movement, reach out to katherine.m.noble@gmail.com or visit our website at https://www.plantforwardfoodpolicyalliance.com/ We’re looking for physicians and dietitians, environmental and climate change activists, animal rights and welfare advocates, and family farmers who believe that together, we can create a food system that supports human health, sequesters carbon, supports rural communities, and ends farm animal suffering.


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