L.A., Belfast… Rainbow Lake? Why a remote Alberta town joined cities in Plant-Based Treaty

A photo of a sign for the town of Rainbow Lake in northern Alberta. CREDIT:

In a remote part of northern Alberta, a town of about 500 people has become an early adopter of a new initiative looking to reimagine the global food system in response to climate change and concerns about food sustainability.

Rainbow Lake might seem an unlikely candidate to endorse the Plant-Based Treaty. Its economy is centred around the oil and gas sector.

But the town also faces challenges threatening its sustainability. Its remote location can make groceries expensive and difficult to transport into town.

“I think they’re showing incredible leadership,” Anita Krajnc, the global co-ordinator for the Plant-Based Treaty, recently told Global News. “I was very impressed and we’re very excited.

“(Rainbow Lake) is a town that’s trying to do things differently, so they’re also trying to limit their use of fossil fuels and go zero emissions.”

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Rainbow Lake is the first town in Canada to officially endorse the Plant-Based Treaty, which aims to put food systems front and centre in the fight against climate change.

The Alberta town is the 27th municipality worldwide to endorse the treaty. The latest city to do so was Belfast in Northern Ireland on April 8. Among other cities across the planet that have endorsed the initiative are Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Los Angeles.

An undated image of an aerial view of Rainbow Lake, Alta. COURTESY: Town of Rainbow Lake

Mark Kastiro, the interim chief administrative officer for Rainbow Lake, said the town council formally passed the resolution endorsing the treaty, and rolling it into its overall climate action plan, on Feb. 1. The town also has an ambitious plan in the works in the hope of having the community be powered by geothermal energy by the end of the decade.

“Things are changing,” Kastiro said. “We want to be part of that change … relevant and sustainable.”

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‘Trying to promote a safe and just food system’

The idea to create a Plant-Based Treaty was inspired by the work done by the organizers responsible for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.

Krancj, who has been an environmentalist for years, said the idea came together in 2021.

“Fossil fuels have been the main focus of environmental groups, but at the last COP (United Nations Climate Change Conference) in the United Arab Emirates, food, finally … (is) on the global agenda,” she said.

“(That’s) very significant. Food is 30 years behind fossil fuel. Just now people are becoming more aware.”

Click to play video: 'Farming and eating need to change to curb global warming: U.N. report'
Farming and eating need to change to curb global warming: U.N. report

At COP28, which took place in December 2023, those involved with the Plant-Based Treaty released the organization’s “Safe and Just” report, which it says “tells the story of the interconnected relationship we share with the biosphere while urgently advocating for an integrated, systems-thinking approach,” and which looks at plant-based practices being implemented by “leaders in the fight against climate change.”

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The Plant-Based Treaty’s aims are explicitly laid out on its website.

“The treaty would put food systems at the heart of combating the climate crisis, aiming to halt the widespread degradation of critical ecosystems caused by animal agriculture, to promote a shift to more healthy, sustainable plant-based diets and to actively reverse damage done to planetary functions, ecosystem services and biodiversity,” a post on the treaty’s website reads.

“The Plant-Based Treaty aims to shift the food system to plant-based so that we can live within our planetary boundaries and rewild the Earth,” Krajnc said. “The planetary boundaries include climate, but also freshwater use, biodiversity, land use.

While people adopt plant-based diets for a myriad of reasons, there has been growing evidence about the environmental benefits of more people shifting to a plant-based diet.

For example, in 2019, a report prepared by dozens of scientists for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that if land is used more effectively, it can store more of the carbon emitted by humans.

The document states that agriculture and forestry account for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, noting the methane gas produced by livestock and also highlighting the deforestation required to expand pasture land.

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In 2018, a report published in the scientific journal Nature called on western countries to dramatically reduce their consumption of red meat in an effort to combat climate change.

“The food system is a major driver of climate change, changes in land use, depletion of freshwater resources, and pollution of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems through excessive nitrogen and phosphorus inputs,” the study reads.

The study recommended that countries rely more heavily on plant-based food and protein sources such as beans.

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Peterborough Public Health says plant-based diet is crucial to combat climate change

A study published in 2018 in the journal Science found that producing feed for livestock, along with transporting, processing and packaging, has a sizable impact on the environment. It said even the “lowest-impact animal products” exceed the impacts of vegetable substitutes.

Krajnc noted that any time a municipality decides to officially endorse the Plant-Based Treaty, the organization works with those cities or towns to explore which of the initiative’s 40 recommendations it believes it could look at implementing. She said how that develops into tangible actions will differ in each case.

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‘We have to think a little outside the box and try and have continuity’

It’s only been two months since the Town of Rainbow Lake officially endorsed the Plant-Based Treaty but ideas about how to turn that endorsement into tangible action are already being discussed.

Kastiro said while decisions on how to implement tenets of the treaty in Rainbow Lake still need to be finalized, he believes an education campaign will be a part of that.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to individuals making up their own minds,” he said. “(We’ll want to) give our residents as much information (as we can) about what we’re trying to do.”

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Kastiro suggested he believes the town’s endorsement of the treaty goes beyond just trying to play its part in the fight against climate change, but also looks at where the town needs to address other issues that threaten its sustainability.

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“We’re trying to come up with other ways so that we can at least deliver groceries that are cheap and affordable to our residents,” he said.

“We’re looking at ways of trying to bring in greenhouses so that we can actually start growing our own food.”

Kastiro said issues regarding food availability became clear to him soon after he first moved to the community when someone advised he buy himself a freezer.

He said the town no longer has a proper grocery store, saying the business struggled to survive for a number of reasons.

“They couldn’t continue,” he said, explaining that people can buy pre-packaged food at local convenience stores but that most residents rely on shopping trips to the town of High Level (located about 140 kilometres east of Rainbow Lake) for groceries, or stock up on supplies when travelling to larger centres.

“It’s just the isolation of where we are.”

Kastiro acknowledged that fossil fuels have played and continue to play an important role in the town’s economy, but also explained that taking steps to address food sustainability has become an important goal for the community. He indicates that’s not just because of the environment, but also because of its need to make life more sustainable and attractive in the town.

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“Since we’re a resource town, most of our population is a shadow population that comes in and uses our infrastructure — and we appreciate that they do come out here and help us to keep going,” he said. “But, with the federal government and provincial government, they consider only the population that stays in town for us to be funded. So we have to come up with ideas … do our part and try and attract people to these parts.

“We understand that we are a small resource community and those resources are … important. They are what made the town. But going forward, when these resources are gone and have been depleted, we would also still like to have the town. So we have to think a little outside the box and try and have continuity.”

He said the town believes the benefits of embracing geothermal energy and measures to support food sustainability will be attractive to prospective residents, especially those who are environmentally conscious. He added that those two goals are intertwined with other initiatives — like receiving funding for high-speed internet — to help ensure the town remains a viable community for many generations to come.

“If you want to move into a rural community that can offer you an alternative to urban living … move out here. We have cheap land … and you can work at home,” Kastiro said.

Climate scientists have warned about the potential for global warming to increase both the length and intensity of wildfire seasons. Last year saw Canada grapple with a record wildfire season that resulted in roughly 18.5 million hectares of Canadian land be burned. Rainbow Lake was one of many communities to be impacted by the fires, with residents being forced to leave the town for nearly a month last spring because of the threat posed by wildfire.

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When asked if the town’s wildfire evacuation last year played any role in council’s endorsement of the Plant-Based Treaty, Kastiro said he believes the decision was spurred on by the broader goal of looking at ways to bolster the town’s climate action plan.

“The fire is something we’ve been planning (for),” he said, before explaining a number of fire mitigation efforts the town has taken on in recent years. “It was going to happen. … (It was) more of when.”

Krajnc said while she obviously could not speak to how or if Rainbow Lake’s wildfire evacuation will or will not impact policy, she believes such experiences could play a factor in some communities.

“When it hits home like that, I think people become more aware and realize that it is a climate emergency and want policy change.”

Krajnc said she does not want climate change to be “an issue of division, or ideology or identity.”

“We all want to save home.”

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