Why Food Deserves More Attention in Reversing Climate Change

By Trevor McCoy

Our global food system carries a substantial carbon footprint, but you might not know that if you aren’t a climate scientist. While calculating exactly how much carbon is emitted by the entire food system would be impossibly complicated, experts have created emissions estimates for different sections of our food system, especially food’s greatest source of carbon emissions, agriculture.

In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international group of scientists and experts that produces reports on climate change for the United Nations, listed Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use (AFOLU) as contributing 24% of our global carbon emissions.1 By comparison, the IPCC calculated that all of land, sea, and air transportation combined represent 14% of global emissions.

It is already difficult to fully understand the process that takes place when exhaust from a car’s tailpipe makes its way into the atmosphere and affects our climate, but it is even more complex to understand how something like agriculture or forestry could contribute to global warming. Figure 1 breaks down AFOLU into its components, illustrating their contributions to climate change.

Figure 1

The IPCC has broken up AFOLU’s carbon footprint into 11 major sections. Although this graph can seem complicated, with a little guidance it is easy to understand. Let’s start by looking at the big yellow section, “Enteric Fermentation.” Although enteric fermentation might be a foreign concept, it’s just the way certain animals like cows or sheep (known as ruminants) digest their food, which is a process that is very different from the way humans digest food. These animals produce significant amounts of methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that has substantial warming properties and is much more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).

Although an individual cow has an inconsequentially small carbon footprint, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) there are more than 1.4 billion cows in the world.2 In fact, the FAO estimates that the livestock industry is responsible for nearly 15% of humanity’s yearly carbon footprint, and cows produce approximately 65% of livestock emissions.3

I won’t go into detail on every aspect of AFOLU, but most components can simply be summarized as soil and nutrient management. However, the biggest section, “Land Use Change and Forestry,” is worth fully dissecting. This block is calculated from a wide number of different land use changes, but you can basically think of it as deforestation. Forests are incredible carbon banks, able to store several tons of carbon in every tree. So, when people remove a section of forest with the slash and burn technique, we are releasing this carbon into the atmosphere.

Most people have already heard that deforestation is bad for the planet, but what does this have to do with food? You might find it disheartening to learn that scientists from REDD, an organization established through the United Nations to protect the Earth’s forests from deforestation and degradation, have named agriculture as the most important driver of global deforestation.4

In the 10,000 years since we first began digging in the dirt, we have driven the cultivation of food to an unprecedented scale. Earth’s land surface is approximately 15 billion hectares, of which 4.5 billion are either glaciers or deserts, leaving about 10.5 billion hectares of “habitable land.”5 Since 8000 BCE, humans have converted roughly 5 billion hectares of this natural land to agricultural use, and 4 billion hectares of that land was transformed in just the last 300 years. To put it simply, in a very short amount of time we have converted about half of the world’s habitable land from natural ecosystems to agriculture. Changes to the Earth’s surface at this scale have consequences, especially when it comes to climate change. Figures 2 and 3 illustrate just how significantly we have changed the Earth in such a short amount of time.

Figure 2

Figure 3


Unfortunately, food’s role in climate change doesn’t stop at agriculture. AFOLU’s carbon footprint considers the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and land use change, but this is only the very first step of the food system. After we have grown our food, it will need to be transported, processed, refrigerated, cooked, and we will need to dispose of any food waste created along the way. The FAO estimates that food waste alone produces 8% of our yearly global carbon emissions.6 Every step of our current food system, from agriculture to waste disposal, releases billions of tons of carbon into our atmosphere, making food’s role in global warming one that we cannot afford to ignore.

While there are numerous climate activism campaigns encouraging citizens to turn off the lights, drive less, or install solar panels, food does not receive enough attention in the United States. While some cities and organizations are calling specific attention to the importance of food’s carbon footprint, many Americans have never been introduced to this information. However, projects like Drawdown – “The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming” – have been working to spread information about food systems as one the most important sectors in the fight against climate change. In fact, 8 of Drawdown’s top 20 solutions to reverse global warming are specifically in the food sector, and most of the other 12 indirectly involve food systems.7 Even Drawdown’s number one solution to reverse global warming, Refrigerant Management, is primarily a materials problem, but also an integral piece of our modern food system.

For humans to win the fight against climate change, we will need to rethink and rebuild every sector of our society. If we are going to continue to thrive as a species despite the changes that our planet is undergoing, we must give food more attention.



  1. Smith P., M. Bustamante, H. Ahammad, H. Clark, H. Dong, E.A. Elsiddig, H. Haberl, R. Harper, J. House, M. Jafari, O. Masera, C. Mbow, N.H. Ravindranath, C.W. Rice, C. Robledo Abad, A. Romanovskaya, F. Sperling, and F. Tubiello, 2014: Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). In: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Retrieved from: https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter11.pdf
  2. Tayyibb, S. (2010). Stastistical Yearbook of the Food And Agricultural Organization for the United Nations. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/docrep/017/i3138e/i3138e07.pdf
  3. Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3437e.pdf
  4. Kissinger, G., M. Herold, V. De Sy. Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting, Vancouver Canada, August 2012.Retrieved from: https://www.forestcarbonpartnership.org/sites/fcp/files/DriversOfDeforestation.pdf_N_S.pdf
  5. Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie (2018) – “Yields and Land Use in Agriculture”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/yields-and-land-use-in-agriculture
  6. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (2011). Food Wastage Footprint & Climate Change. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/3/a-bb144e.pdf
  7. (2017). Food Sector Summary. Retrieved from: https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food






Signatures needed for a petition to become an APA Division


In October and November, 173 APA-FIG members completed our online survey to gauge interest in pursuing Division status. About 94% of respondents think APA-FIG should become an official Division of the APA.

Based on this feedback, the APA-FIG Leadership Committee is pursuing status as an APA Division. The next step to making this happen is completing APA’s official petition: https://planning.org/divisions/groups/food/petition/.

To support this effort, please indicate your commitment to joining the proposed Division by signing this petition (note: you must be an APA member to sign the petition). We will need 300 signatures.

Please spread the word and help us make this happen.


APA-FIG Leadership Committee


Growing Local: Strengthening Food Systems Through Planning and Policy


Local governments are becoming increasingly involved in planning and policy making for community food systems, both as leaders and as partners with the private sector. Often responding to community pressure, in some cases they are the driving force, motivated by a desire to strengthen local economies, improve food security and nutritional outcomes, and to support agriculture and preserve farmland…

For the entire blog post, check out the American Planning Association’s website here.

APA FIG Reception in NYC

On behalf of the APA-FIG Leadership Committee, we would like to invite you to the annual networking reception in New York City on Monday, May 8, 2017. This year, we will be hosting a joint reception with the APA Healthy Communities Collaborative. We hope to see you in NYC!


National Planning Conference NYC 2017


Don’t forget to register for one of the biggest National Planning Conferences! Registration rates increase starting March 3!

The APA-FIG Leadership Committee hopes to see you in New York City this May. Check out all the exciting food systems planning related events and sessions (16 in total!), including the APA-FIG Business Meeting and Annual Networking Reception. We look forward to seeing many of you at the conference!


Hudson Valley Local Agriculture and Foodshed | Friday, May 5, 2017 | 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9107838/

Gotham West Market, Housing & Community Development Division Lunch Reception | Saturday, May 6, 2017 | noon – 1 p.m. |  https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9116698/

Modern Food Hall: Redevelopment Aid or Trend | Saturday, May 6, 2017 | 1 p.m. – 2:15 p.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9107948/

Incentivizing the Sale of Healthy and Local Food | Saturday, May 6, 2017 | 2:30 p.m. – 3:45 p.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9109374/

City Food Policy Advisors Kick Plans into Action | Saturday, May 6, 2017 | 4 p.m. – 5:15 p.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9109407/

Food Systems Planning: Growing Connections and Planning for Health Across the Country | Sunday, May 7, 2017 | 9:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m |  https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9109370/

The Resiliency of NYC Supply Chains | Sunday, May 7, 2017 | 9:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9107863/

Developing Vermont’s Food System through Planning | Sunday, May 7, 2017 | 2:30 p.m. – 3:45 p.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9110279/

Safe, Active Routes to Healthy Food | Monday, May 8, 2017 | 9 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9109887/

Food as Community Development | Monday, May 8, 2017 | 1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9110192/

Big City Planning Directors on Equitable Redevelopment and Food Access | Monday, May 8, 2017 | 2:45 p.m. – 4 p.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9109372/

Faces of Food Systems Planning | Monday, May 8, 2017 | 4:15 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9108203/

Food Systems Planning Interest Group Business Meeting | Monday, May 8, 2017 | 6 p.m. – 7 p.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9116909/

Joint Food Systems Planning Interest Group and Healthy Communities Collaborative Reception | Monday, May 8, 2017 | 7:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. | Porchlight 271 11th Avenue, NY, NY | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9116911/

Planning for Healthy Rural-Urban Communities | Tuesday, May 9, 2017 | 8 a.m. – 10:45 a.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9109618/

Serving Up Health Equity Southern Style | Tuesday, May 9, 2017 | 11 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. | https://www.planning.org/events/nationalconferenceactivity/9109531/


Sessions Due: APA National Planning Conference – New York City 2017


Community garden in Long Island City, NY. Photo by Kimberley Hodgson.

The next APA National Planning Conference will take place May 6-9, 2017 in New York City. APA-FIG is busy planning some unique sessions and networking events!

If you haven’t already, consider submitting a food systems planning related session proposal. Because of its location, this conference should draw a big crowd, and we would love to see a robust number of food systems planning sessions in the program. The deadline for proposal submissions is August 25, 2016.

If you need some inspiration, consider some of these session ideas:

  • Role of technology in food systems planning
  • Role of local food businesses in the local creative economy
  • Planning for food waste and its impact on sustainability goals
  • Role of the planner in food policy councils
  • Using Collective Impact for food systems planning and implementation
  • Role of state and regional planning efforts for local food systems

Also, if you are looking to join forces with other APA-FIG members or have a neat idea for a session, post a message on the APA-FIG Facebook page, LinkedIn page, or Twitter feed.

And last, but not least, APA-FIG is looking for sponsors for the annual network event. If you work for an organization that may be interested, please let me know.

We look forward to seeing you in New York City.

University of Kansas Planning Students Partner with Wyandotte County on Food Policy Assistance

In Spring 2016, the University of Kansas Urban Planning Department and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas partnered together to develop three options for integrating food access and food production into the current City Wide Master Plan. The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas is a prime example of a community poised for practical, fresh food production and access policies. Healthy Communities Wyandotte (HCW), a health-focused countywide initiative, is an example of this sort of innovation. Through the work of numerous action teams, HCW works to mobilize community members to improve health, as Wyandotte County once again received the lowest health rating in the State of Kansas in 2016. Wyandotte County was recently selected to receive food systems policy and program training and assistance from Growing Food Connections to further their health initiatives. Healthy Food Happy County serves as a supplemental policy document, as directed by Growing Food Connections, that explores the viability of food systems policies within Wyandotte County.