Battling Climate Change With Each Bite: 4 Things To Do If You’re Going Bananas About the Story Behind Your Food

, agroecologist | November 23, 2016, 1:01 pm EDT
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I have a challenge for you. Take a moment, and consider what you ate for breakfast. As routine as it may have felt, dig beneath the surface and I’ll bet you’ll find a story that’s anything but mundane. It might even be magical.

  • Eat a banana? There’s a decent chance it was born and raised in Ecuador, a clone of the banana you ate yesterday and the one on your officemate’s desk, and a survivor of a lurking devastating fungus that threatens bananas everywhere.
  • Sip some coffee? The beans in your brew could have traveled from anywhere from Brazil to Vietnam, where they were plucked off a plant (in the shade or sun, near a beach or mountain), roasted and ground (somewhere), only to arrive at your mug. Have a blend? Now we’re talking.
  • Crack any eggs? Finally, something from a little closer to home, possibly from an Iowan hen (there are 50,782,000). Or, given the growing popularity, perhaps they even came from your own backyard.
  • Bite into a granola bar? From almond orchards to honey combs to cocoa plants to coconut palms, we don’t have enough space to discuss the countless possible stories stirred into your favorite bar, but I hope I got you thinking.

What does my breakfast (or lunch or dinner) have to do with climate change? Ask science.

Well, the numbers are in, and — for better and worse — the food system that we select meals from each day has a big role in climate change. While each choice might feel inconsequential, the forkfuls add up:

  • Overall, the food system contributes up to 30% of all global warming emissions. This includes 11% from agriculture, consequences of the climate-unfriendly shifts from forests and grasslands to croplands, and more.
  • Diets make a difference. For example, research has found that the average American man consumes about twice as much protein as he needs, and often from sources that had heavy climate impacts. The result is unnecessary consequences for climate, water resources, and health.
  • Food insecurity already devastates nearly 800 million people, and climate change is likely to stress both crop yields and nutrition, putting millions of meals on the line even despite global efforts to reduce poverty and hunger.

So what can I do?

While many of the food system challenges we face can seem overwhelming, there are a few simple ways each of us can begin to shift the paradigm:

  1. Ask where your food comes from: The foods that we eat and the companies we support can be linked to egregious climate actions, which are all too often out of sight and out of mind. Fortunately, efforts like Years of Living Dangerously are working hard to spread the word about these issues, and help viewers figure out how to make a difference. The most recent episode tackled the devastating rates of tropical deforestation which, as my colleagues have shown, have a significant climate impact and are connected to several major food products, including beef. In the case of beef, since most of what is consumed in the US is from cattle raised in North America, it’s important to recognize that the most effective approach to protecting tropical forests is to directly pressure large multinational companies with a presence in the tropics to demand “deforestation-free” beef throughout their global operations.
  2. When something smells like trouble, investigate your options: With any food product, there are always many stories to choose from. And while we’re talking about beef, it’s important to recognize that well-managed and appropriately located grazing lands can actually offer a lot of benefits for the environment and biodiversity. So, if you choose to eat beef, it’s possible to lend your support the ranchers who are actually working hard to protect valuable grasslands. For example, places like White Oak Pasture have actually been the driver behind an uplifted community and a boost in biodiversity. These systems can only be expanded so much, but they do exist. Also, while finding the best sources for beef and other food products can take a lot of detective work, thankfully there is a lot of effort going into making these details easier to find, and digest.
  3. Save money while halting preposterous cycles of waste: Regardless of what you eat each day, one way to reduce the impacts of your food choices is quite simply to waste less food. It should go without saying, but wasting food costs you money and wastes just about everything, including all the labor, water, chemicals and fuel used to grow, ship, and prepare every bite that made it to your fridge or table (only to land in the landfill).
  4. Last but not least, support the farmers and ranchers that protect your favorite food, and soil: Believe it or not, some of your favorite foods might be at risk due to climate change. But by supporting producers who are farming wisely and cultivating resilience you can help give these coveted crops a chance in a warmer world. Farmers can also protect the soil — a secret ingredient in the climate change food fight.

A conundrum and an opportunity

In today’s world of phenomenal convenience, many of us have the good fortune not to have to think too much about how we get our next meal. On the flip side, it’s also a deep privilege to live in a data-rich and well-connected world that offers so much knowledge and potential choice. So, what to do?

That’s up to you, but remember this: with every bite, you have a chance to vote for the world you want to live in. Use it wisely.

This post was originally published on the Years of Living Dangerously blog.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Global Warming Tags: , , , ,

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  • Bart_R

    Interesting article, and some great information in it.

    Three items I found the article may be overlooking that are very pertinent:

    1. As CO2 level rises in air, plant metabolism changes under the influence of ethylene/gibberellin plant hormones antagonized by CO2 chemistry. Vigor is diverted from acquiring, building and storing mineral and amino acid nutrient reserves (the food value of crops) to pressure toward larger growth traits. Dwarf traits purposely bred to concentrate vigor into crop yields are suppressed, and so yields fall compared to effort, fertilizer and acreage invested. How much? The over 43% rise in CO2 level has caused some crop nutrient densities to fall by as much as 44%.

    2. Soil fertility drops too, as nitrates are digested by soil bacteria stimulated by higher CO2 levels. The bacteria emit nitrate wastes as NOx pollutants, and farmers must add more fertilizer to their land to make up for the deficit growing at over 17% faster rates.

    3. Carbon already in the carbon cycle plays next to no role in causing CO2 levels in air to spike; virtually all of the CO2 rise is from fossil carbon. While it’s great to be more efficient, to eat better, to eat more local, the important piece of this equation is ending the fossil waste dumping into air.

    Using pyrolysis to convert biomass waste into biochar for soil amendment and biodiesel or synthetic gasoline is fossil-neutral and net carbon negative. This is perhaps the best contribution agri-sciences can make on climate change.