Amy Bird, one of Wellington City Council's Community Resilience Advisors, delves into the challenge of Wellington Cities development of a sustainable food network. Taking a look at the emissions, the shocks and the opportunities.
Climate and emissions impact
The food system has a huge climate impact – it is estimated that it contributes to 30% of global carbon emissions.
We all eat, and a lot of energy goes into getting food onto our plates – creating emissions along the way in the highly mechanised processes and complex global supply chains associated with the conventional food system.
The climate impact of food, however, is not only related to production and distribution – but to how much and what we consume, and how we dispose of food. It is estimated that we waste a third of all the food we produce.
We face huge challenges in New Zealand and the world around reducing the emissions associated with the food system. In New Zealand agriculture is estimated to contribute to nearly half of all emissions due to factors including the methane produced by ruminants such as dairy cows. We do not see this reflected in Wellington’s carbon footprint as by and large, food is not produced within the city’s boundaries. However we are a city of over 200 000 people who eat, and as consumers we drive demand for certain kinds of food over other kinds.
Local food movements (Local Food Week is an example here in Wellington) have sought to promote local, seasonal food and shorten supply chains. A note of caution, however, is that the local food option is not always the lowest emission option (for example wheat doesn’t grow particularly well in the greater Wellington area) - nor is it always the healthiest.
Food insecurity is only predicted to increase with climate change and the increased frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.
Modelling indicates the likelihood of events which lead to a loss of 10% of global food production are now quite foreseeable – or three times more likely.
A loss in production (particularly when it coincides with depleted food stocks) can lead to price spikes and civil unrest in the most food insecure parts of the world (where people spend a very high proportion of their income on food).
However given the extensive globalisation of the food system, disruption (e.g. in prices and availability) can be felt even in (relatively) food secure places such as New Zealand. While New Zealand is a high income country overall, and is a producer of so much food, local prices are high – with the recent Otago University food survey showing that the weekly cost of healthy food comes to 42% of the minimum wage in Auckland (anything over 30% is a concern).
Lastly, Wellington City is currently vulnerable due to lack of food suppliers and distributors within the city’s boundaries. We are reliant on the wider region to supply our food, but with the increasingly likelihood of adverse weather events due to climate change, are more likely to be cut off from such supplies.
Investment in food system change offers the opportunity to link “economic strength, environmental protection, equity, social connection, and health along the supply chain” with the potential to not only reduce emissions but increase the capture of carbon.
Efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the food system can be divided into supply side changes and demand side changes. Supply side changes includes doing things such as increasing the use of renewable energy (e.g. in the production and transportation of food) or pursuing what is called “sustainable intensification” – increasing yields to reduce both pressure on agricultural land and deforestation. Another strategy being advocated for in New Zealand, is to protect land which is most suitable for growing from further urbanisation. A regional example is Lower Hutt, which has some of the most fertile soils in New Zealand, yet houses now sit in areas where market gardens used to supply fresh food for Wellington.
As Wellington City is a mostly urbanised population, it could be argued we can have the most impact as consumers by making demand side changes such as reducing food waste. We are also a compact city with a high and growing proportion of citizens using more sustainable transport options – which presents the opportunity to buy and sell food with lower emissions.
However growing food in the city – or urban agriculture – also offers the potential for us to contribute to supply side change - taking the pressure off rural land by bringing production closer to where the population is, and reducing the carbon emissions associated with transportation. For Wellington, however, the cost and availability of land are critical issues, especially as the city’s population continues to intensify.
While there are vibrant networks of people and organisations in Wellington taking action to transform the food system (doing things like creating community gardens, food waste initiatives, farmers markets) and increasing interest in local and seasonal food - much work remains to be done.
We’d like to leave you with some key challenges and opportunities for Wellington to not only address the climate impact of the food system, but to make the most of climate change mitigation efforts.
Do you have ideas or skills that could contribute to developing a sustainable food network in Wellington?
Climathon Wellington is a 24 hour challenge happening on the 26th and 27th of October. In it's 4th year it brings together people from different industries to create and test ideas to solve Wellingtons greatest challenges in a highly supportive environment.
If you are someone who enjoys complex challenges, has ideas or wants to contribute your skills, come to Climathon Wellington.
Co-hosted by Wellington City Council and Victoria University of Wellington, there is a limited number of free passes now available.
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