Climate Corner: Tackling climate change one forkful at a time
Mar 12, 2022
When COVID-19 closed down restaurants and affected food distribution, we were reminded of how important food sources were and how quickly those sources could be jeopardized. One of the greatest threats to food security today is climate change. Amanda Little’s 2019 book “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World,” “explores what it will take to continue feeding 7.5 billion people in a world where farming practices are becoming dangerously compromised due to the effects of a climate crisis that includes catastrophic droughts, record-breaking heatwaves, and wildly swinging weather systems.”
There are ways we as consumers can adjust our diets to be less carbon intensive, and rather than exacerbating climate change, we can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2018 study in Science, what we eat might be the most significant personal choice we can make to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Over the past 50 years, foods and fossil fuels have become united in a toxic marriage where modern technology bends nature at its will. Small family farms have been erased. Industrialized farming (Big Ag) now controls the majority of our foods from planting to harvesting. Genetically modified seeds, pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic chemical fertilizers, and monocultured fields of corn, soybeans, and cotton are now the norm in the Midwestern farming regions.
While proponents of industrialized farming claim this is the only way to feed the world, the techniques used have many drawbacks including a lack of biodiversity in our diets and a large carbon footprint. A 2018 study in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems states “75% of the world’s food comes from just 12 plant species and five animal species.”
A 2017 USDA report titled “The Role of Fossil Fuels in the U.S. Food System and the American Diet” said “in 2007, fossil fuels linked to U.S. food consumption produced 13.6% of all fossil fuel emissions in the U.S.” Farming activities, agrochemical production, and large-scale food production facilities all require large amounts of energy. Fuels are needed to power the heavy farm machinery, to process foods, to transport the food in refrigerated vehicles across the country, and to make the plastic packaging. Petrochemicals are also needed to make the fertilizers and pesticides used on crops. Indeed, foods today have a large carbon footprint.
According to Ms. Little’s book, it will take a blend of many approaches to create a sustainable food system by 2050. Some questions that need to be addressed include: What do we eat? How do we grow it? Where do we grow it?
The production of meat and dairy is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases. According to a study in March 2021 Nutrition Journal, “the livestock industry accounts for about 14.5% of total global manmade greenhouse gases.” Red meat is the biggest culprit emitting up to 66 pounds of carbon dioxide per one pound of meat produced. Even the U.S. dietary recommendations are not eco-friendly as they are higher in carbon emissions that those of the six other countries used in the study (India, Germany, Oman, Netherlands, Thailand and Uruguay).
Beef and lamb top the charts for greenhouse gas emissions. One reason is these animals have multiple stomachs made to digest very fibrous materials. In the process they expel methane gas, a very potent greenhouse gas.
Additionally, large amounts of land are needed to raise beef cows. Tropical forests that once sequestered carbon have been cut and burned in order to create grasslands to raise cattle. Studies show that “beef and soy production are driving two-thirds of habitat loss in Brazil’s Amazon and Cerrado regions, and Argentina and Paraguay’s Gran Chaco region.” The majority of soy produced is used for feeding chickens, pigs, farmed fish, and cows.
Pastures for grazing often rely on nitrogen-based fertilizer and water. Water is needed for the animals themselves, for processing the meat, for cleaning, for irrigating crops used to feed the animals, and for agrochemical production. If you add in all sources of water, including rainwater falling on pasture land, beef requires approximately 2,400 gallons of water per pound of beef.
Another factor to consider is transportation. We certainly want to avoid shipping products across the country if a local source is available. However, while many people argue in favor of local meat production, studies show carbon emissions from transporting food tends to be relatively small when compared to other inputs for meat production.
What about those new meat substitutes? On average, “emissions from plant-based foods are 10-50 times smaller than those from animal products.” The carbon footprints for the Beyond Burger made from pea protein and the Impossible Burger made from soy and potato protein are about 20 times smaller than the same amount of beef. Dairy milk emissions are almost double those of plant-based milks with almond milk being the lowest for emissions. However, the high amounts of water and pesticides used for almonds makes the next best milk substitute, oat milk, a better choice.
How will we grow our food? One idea is to use practices that incorporate indigenous knowledge. The University of Arizona is researching ways to grow foods in a warming climate. Their research facility, dubbed Biosphere 2, is looking at methods that will produce foods in areas of droughts and intense heat. Some methods include: growing crops under the shade of solar panels, using heat-resistant varieties of heirloom seeds, and passive use of rainwater and storm water to irrigate crops.
The final question that must be addressed is where will we grow our foods? We know that the western portions of the USA are seeing significant dry spells, the most recent being referred to as the worst since medieval times. Forty-two percent of the soil moisture loss in the past twenty years is directly attributed to man-made climate change according to a recent study in Nature Climate Change. Some of the crops affected include: mint, safflower, peas, oats, rice, melons, sunflowers, millet, onions, beans, sugar beets, sorghum, cotton, onions, potatoes, legumes, barley, corn and hay.
Growing regions may shift due to increases in precipitation and temperature extremes. Instead of plowing up grasslands and clear-cutting forests, farmers could be incentivized to limit the destruction of these carbon rich ecosystems and adopt techniques like agroforestry. Keeping forests and grasslands areas in-tact is important as these are places where carbon is sequestered.
One area that we all can improve on is the amount of food wasted. “The U.S. alone wastes 133 billion pounds of food every year.” The 2017 book, “Drawdown,” ranks the top 80 ways to address the climate crisis. Reducing food wastes is number three, and adopting a plant rich diet is number four. Over 40% of all foods produced in the USA never make it to the table. Foods can be lost during production, harvesting, and shipping, and when they do arrive at our homes, they are often thrown away. “Wasted food is a major contributor to climate change, producing more GHG emissions than 37 million cars.”
The next time you walk into your kitchen or open your refrigerator think of this, “what effect does this food, its packaging, its production, its shipping have on our planet?” Are there options I can adopt? In the end, what we eat affects us as well as the planet. Those effects can be positive it we consider them one forkful at a time
Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in Environmental Studies and is certified in Hazardous Materials Regulations.