The leafy southern British town of Haywards Heath is far from short of green credentials, with its pretty floral gardens, tranquil wooded trails and tree-lined Conservation Area of Muster Green.

But the town of some 40,000 people recently took its plant-based merits to a new level: it became the first place in Europe to become a signatory of a novel food-focused climate pledge known as the Plant Based Treaty.

“The South East of England has endured the highest ever summer temperatures in history and people’s properties have been destroyed by fire and flood,” said Richard Nicholson, the local councilor announcing the move. “We can’t wait for governments. We must all act immediately. And moving to a plant-based diet is the most impactful thing any individual can do to help address the grave situation we face.”

Haywards Heath. Credit: Matt Davis / Flickr

The Plant Based Treaty is, according to its founders, a grassroots campaign designed “to put food systems at the forefront of combating the climate crisis.” It forms part of a branch of climate action that has been largely overlooked by government policy, but one now gaining political backing: cutting down on meat eating. In other words, meat, a massive contributor to the climate emergency, is next on the chopping block.

“The challenge is conveying the magnitude of food’s role in the climate crisis because many people don’t really understand that,” says Anita Krajnc, co-founder of the initiative. “Carbon emissions due to meat production are absolutely enormous.”

The treaty has taken inspiration from past global treaties on ozone layer depletion and nuclear weapons — which were first catalyzed by grassroots efforts before impacting global policy — and, seen as a companion to the Paris Agreement, is closely modeled on the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its three overriding objectives are to Relinquish (stop the problem from increasing, such as preventing further related deforestation or slaughterhouses), Redirect (channel resources away from the meat industry through taxes, subsidies and public information) and Restore (through rewilding, introducing protection, and creating more resilient food systems).

The Plant Based Treaty requires pledgers to make their diets more environmentally sustainable, though it lets them decide how they’ll achieve this. Since its launch in August 2021, it has received endorsements from 60,000 individuals, including five Nobel laureates and IPCC scientists, as well as 800 NGOs and community groups and 700 businesses. But crucially, more than 20 cities and states have also signed up: from Buenos Aires in Argentina to Didem in Turkey and Gandhinagar in India and, mostly recently, Los Angeles, the first city in the US.

“No single city or country can solve the issue of food emissions, but we believe that this ‘bottom up’ approach works,” adds Krajnc, noting that cities that sign up must write letters to their national governments demanding change. “It worked for the ozone layer. The State of Oregon banned CFCs first, then the treaty came later. And cities have a lot of jurisdiction by and large on greenhouse gas emissions.”

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A wealth of research points to the need to cut meat consumption. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, global food systems accounted for over a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, around half attributed to livestock alone. At the same time, a 2021 study published in the scientific journal Nature Sustainability found that a global shift toward plant-based diets could sequester 332 to 547 gigatons of carbon by 2050 -- compared to total global emissions of around 35 gigatons a year -- and would likely keep warming to 1.5 Celsius, the threshold seen as crucial to avoiding the worst of climate change. 

“Agriculture in general has not been as much of the focus when talking about carbon emissions,” says Kate Sievert, an associate research fellow at Australia’s Deakin University. “But agriculture has a large impact. Ruminant meat from cows, pigs, sheep and goats produce a lot of methane and have links to deforestation.”

Beyond the Plant Based Treaty, a plethora of policies have been tried and tested across the globe. European program Greener By Default, which makes plant-based foods the default option on menus, has more than doubled consumption of vegan meals, reducing the carbon footprint of caterers in the program by 40 percent and water footprint by 24 percent. California’s Oakland Unified School District, meanwhile, has reduced its carbon footprint from food purchases by 14 percent while saving over 42 million gallons of water and $42,000 by reducing animal products on its menu.

Some are taking a more radical approach: in September, the Dutch city of Haarlem announced it would become the first place in the world to ban meat advertisements from public spaces. But many others are implementing straightforward policies: several county councils in the UK have passed motions to serve only vegan food at events; Helsinki no longer serves meat or dairy at council events; Montreal serves at least 75 percent vegetarian food at city events; Berkeley will switch to 50 percent plant based by 2024 and Vancouver passed a motion to swap 20 percent animal-based foods for plant-based, which it expects to save up to $99,000 and cut emissions by more than 500 metric tons.

As part of its objectives, Haywards Heath is launching food waste reduction efforts and an Education and Business Environmental Awards Scheme to engage the town’s residents. While the council concedes it is unable to build large solar farms or wind turbines, it aims to “educate and encourage” the local community to move to plant-based diets in order to reduce CO2 emissions. Surveys by Haywards Heath Town Council found that 41 percent of respondents said the Meatless Mondays campaign influenced their decision to reduce or consider reducing their meat consumption.

But campaigners say that moving away from the consumption of animal products, which make up three-quarters of food-related emissions, is largely the responsibility of wealthy countries, which have produced the vast majority of emissions and have consumed the highest amounts of meat and dairy.

Researchers at the University of Bonn found that rich countries must cut meat consumption by at least 75 percent. They found Americans, the world’s top meat eaters, consume around 124 kilograms of meat per person per year and Europeans around 80 kilograms. By comparison, in some African countries, people consume less than 20 kilograms a year.

Even so, a large number of Indian cities have already signed up to the Plant Based Treaty, which organizers expect to have over a million pledgers by next year. Aprajita Ashish, who is leading the treaty’s work in India, says that success has come through customizing its approach towards every region -- some suffered flooding; others heat waves. The team is carrying out educational sessions with local governments around the country. “We explained how animal agriculture is at the root of this,” she says.

But Sievert warns that vegan diets aren’t necessarily sustainable if the systems behind the production are not. “That doesn’t mean it’s a kind of silver bullet on climate,” she says. “A plant-based diet could still be unsustainable. There are also ways that meat can be produced in a sustainable way like regenerative agriculture.”

Sievert, who has carried out research into the political challenges of making more sustainable food systems, including reducing red meat consumption, believes policy should also focus on corporate regulation and food production regulations.

“That might be an effective way to go,” she says. “But at the end of the day, all of these efforts could be valuable. The main issue is that action must be taken quickly.”