In January 2023, Edinburgh became the first European capital to endorse the global Plant Based Treaty. The Scottish capital followed closely in the footsteps of UK town Haywards Heath – the first European town to sign the treaty last summer.
A global grassroots initiative launched in 2022, the treaty “puts food systems at the forefront of combating the climate crisis,” encouraging cities, organizations and individuals to work toward “healthier, sustainable plant-based diets”.
By signing the treaty, both local councils have pledged to support three core principles: stopping expansion of land used for animal agriculture; promoting benefits of plant-based foods; and restoring ecosystems. Strategies include transitioning to plant-based meal plans in public services like schools and hospitals and redirecting subsidies to plant-based foods.
Other endorsements for plant-based food systems can be seen within a growing list of local councils and communities across Europe. In the Netherlands, Amsterdam City Council has introduced a target for residents to eat a 50% plant-based diet by 2030 as part of its aim to build a “healthy and sustainable food environment”. Just to the west, Dutch city Haarlem has announced its intention to ban most meat adverts in public spaces by 2024 due to the industry’s environmental impact.
But what is driving councils and organizations to push for more plant-based food systems in their towns and cities, and what does it mean for those who take it on?
The push for plant-based
As global authorities tackle climate change, with many working toward net zero by 2050, food systems have come under increased scrutiny. It’s estimated food systems currently account for over a third of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) – the majority are linked to animal agriculture. A 2021 study published in Nature Food identified animal-based foods as responsible for twice the GHG emissions of plant-based foods.
On a local level, “most authorities managing towns and cities now have net zero goals in place. In order to achieve these, they need to address diets and find ways of encouraging the public to reduce meat and dairy consumption,” says Marisa Heath, CEO of the Plant-Based Food Alliance (PBFA). Promoting plant-based diets across the UK, PBFA works with everyone from “farmers and businesses through to retailers and consumers” to influence policymakers and support the growth of Britain’s plant-based food and drink sector.
“By [councils encouraging] their towns and cities to embrace more plant-based food, it will help people make the change by trying plant-based food and realizing it can taste great as well as being better for the environment.”
As well as environmental factors, Heath explains that towns and cities aligning themselves with the plant-based movement recognize opportunities in other areas – including tourism and economic growth.
While vegans and vegetarians are still in the minority, interest in vegan-friendly and sustainable travel have been on the up. “Plant-based consumers tend to research where they can find restaurants that provide for their needs and will travel to them,” says Heath. “With more people shifting to plant-based or flexitarian diets, and food being a fundamental part of the holiday experience, people will want city breaks in places that offer choice. Areas able to promote themselves as a plant-based location with lots of restaurants and shops will win when it comes to attracting tourism.”
Pledges and positives aside, local authorities aspiring toward plant-based futures face various challenges. Last year, UK councils in farming communities including Oxfordshire and Pembrokeshire faced criticism from rural campaign groups after encouraging staff to reduce meat and dairy intake. Former Pembrokeshire county councillor Samuel Kurtz told the BBC: “Pembrokeshire is renowned for its fantastic agricultural produce, of high quality and sustainability, so the industry would expect support from the local authority.”
Also, upon signing the Plant-Based Treaty, Edinburgh City Council sparked backlash from the Scottish Countryside Alliance who accused the authority of being “anti-farming”.
However, resistance toward the plant-based movement isn’t limited to those residing in the countryside. While Heath believes people are increasingly interested in the environment she explains, “there is still resistance to changing diets and cutting down on meat and dairy, and a lack of information and support to help them do this.”
Celebrating the 30th anniversary of National Vegetarian Week in 2022, The Vegetarian Society UK partnered with over 40 local authorities to educate populations around the role of plant-based eating in tackling climate change.
Sharing learnings from the campaign, the group’s chief executive Richard McIlwain agrees that a core challenge is to “overcome people’s cultural resistance and nervousness” about swapping to more plant-based diets. “Meat is so ‘normal’ for many people,” he says.
With access to a range of communities, McIlwain believes working with local authorities will play a key role in changing public opinion through access and education. To overcome an “inbuilt natural resistance”, he explains: “[We need to help people] see that plant-based eating is the start of an adventure! It’s not about giving up meat – it’s more about experiencing new healthy and tasty foods that help you feel great, look great and are good for the planet. Our message needs to be overtly positive.”
Importantly, despite hesitations, the numbers of people switching to plant-based diets or reducing meat intake are rising. According to research from Mintel, almost half of the British population now limit their meat intake or have stopped eating it altogether.
PBFA’s Heath also notes that while there is progress, there’s still more to be done: “The reality is that a 30% reduction in meatover the next 10 years is required to meet net zero goals, and also the need to free up land for nature, so it is key that we see a move toward more plant-based diets.”
Advocating for more support for local plant-based businesses and easy access to plant-based food in cities and towns, she concludes: “The UK is currently one of the leading countries in plant-based owing to the companies here creating products and the strong consumer base. It would be really powerful if our government – and indeed something like the Greater London or Manchester Authority – supported our plant-based companies and sought to set out our cities as being key plant-based destinations. I think that would be huge in terms of more tourism, economic growth, and also showing we are totally committed to a greener future.”