LBJ explores how cities are using the UN climate conference as a chance to fight climate change through food policy

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November 8, 2021

LBJ Professor Raj Patel's latest Policy Research Project (PRP) investigates how some cities' innovation and commitment are leading the way on food systems and climate change — and putting pressure on national governments.

This fall, a PRP by Research Professor Raj Patel — an award-winning author, filmmaker, activist, academic and expert on the world food system — and his students is examining how cities are using the COP26 climate summit as a catalyst to weave together their food and climate policies for the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration.

In the declaration, governments at the town, city, district, state, territory and province level commit to develop sustainable food policies, find ways to work together, and call for national governments to put food and farming at the top of their agenda to address the climate emergency. Working with the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), Patel's group is exploring the different ways cities are taking the lead on both food and climate, and how those methods could lead to a sustainable food policy in the United States.

Patel talked to us about his work, this project and the intersection of sustainable food policy, climate change, infrastructure, energy and development.

LBJ: Your PRP this fall started out as the next phase of a long-term project to develop a policy document exploring the parameters, contradictions and opportunities for a replacement to the Farm Bill for 2023. But your project has changed — tell us how.

RP: We were all set for a fabulous trust-building meeting between different parts of the food movement: unions and the private sector, farmers and farm workers, anti-hunger advocates and anti-corporate advocates, animal welfare folk and child nutrition advocates. Conversations across some of these structural divisions needed an in-person meeting to build trust and cement a shared working relationship. PRP students had done it all, and we were all set. The meeting was scheduled for March 2020. We pulled the plug two weeks before it was due to start.

Absent that trust, we've leaned into other ways that sustainable food policy might be incubated in the United States, and that means working with cities. That's what we're doing with the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration.

LBJ: What cities are you surveying for this project?

"...[W]e've leaned into other ways that sustainable food policy might be incubated in the United States, and that means working with cities."
—Professor Raj Patel

RP: We've completed Austin, and students are now investigating everywhere from Asheville to New York City to San Antonio to Abu Dhabi.

LBJ: The terms "food policies" and "climate policies" tend to make us think of national or federal policies rather than programs created by cities. What kind of impact do cities have on food and climate policy? Are they able to lead on these issues or are they hampered by state and national approaches?

RP: You're right, of course, that the absence — or in the case of Texas, active hindrance — of state and governments makes it hard for cities to enact big structural changes. But through procurement, land-use, disaster-management, transport and social service policies, there are ways that cities can, and have, integrated concerns around climate and food systems together.

LBJ: What kind of food policies are you examining — production, distribution, food deserts, etc.?

RP: In the short term, the most powerful levers are to be found in procurement policies. One way of thinking about climate change is "the result of the greatest market failure the world has ever seen," as Nicholas Stern once put it. By not recognizing the damage that carbon emissions have caused, markets have remained oblivious to it. City and school district food purchasing policy doesn't have to. The Los Angeles Unified School District has developed a way for cities to source food that recognizes not only the market failure of climate change, but also those around animal welfare, worker rights and local economic benefits. Those policies currently support the food purchases feeding 2.5 million students across the U.S., and they offer a template for policy innovation in other areas, particularly health care.

LBJ: What will the finished product of this PRP look like? How will it be used?

RP: Our client has already produced some short templates, showcasing the work that cities around the world are doing. We'll be contributing to that series, and writing a longer report synthesizing those results for the Glasgow Declaration and the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), on which I serve, so that city managers, mayors and policy leaders in the U.S. and beyond might find inspiration — and connection — in bending their municipalities toward climate and food justice.

LBJ: Food systems and climate policy are massive subjects. For students or others who are interested in learning more, what are some foundational pieces of research or texts should they read to get up to speed?

RP: Have a look at IPES' work, particularly their report on the food system.

A good summary is also to be found in Nature Food ("Climate change responses benefit from a global food system approach," Feb. 18, 2020)


Research and work by Raj Patel:



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