5 Important Food Issues Related to Climate Change
I’ve been reading the book All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, and among many things, it’s gotten me thinking about issues of food that are related to climate change.
Although you may not realize it, both food production and food waste are major contributors to greenhouse gases. And climate change is going to make some current food problems even worse.
I know climate change is big and sprawling and may seem insurmountable at times. That’s why it helps to focus on one or two areas you’re passionate about and do what you can to make a change there.
And since issues around food are important to me, I wanted to touch on these areas of concern as they relate to climate change.
1: Food waste
Samantha Bee recently did a segment about food waste and how it contributes to climate change, covering many important points.
She talked about how food waste comes in many forms:
Farmers planting too much in case they have problems with the crop
Blemished or “ugly” produce being discarded
Stores overfilling their shelves to present an image of abundance
Restaurants throwing out the excess from overly large portions
Yet households are the biggest contributor, generating as much as 43% of the food waste.
And that’s a problem because rotting food produces methane, which is at least 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
The good news is, this is one of the easiest areas to address, and it aligns closely with mindful eating. You can start by trying to pay attention to how much food you need and then only buy that much.
Also, don’t buy food that, realistically, you won’t eat. No matter how many people rave about kale, if you know it will only turn to sludge in your fridge despite your best intentions, don’t buy it.
You can also explore options for composting. If you have land, you could make a compost pile or get a compost bin. If that doesn’t appeal or isn’t an option, you might be able to sign up for a curbside composting program. I can’t say enough good things about Garbage to Garden, and even though I rarely throw out food, it’s great to have an option for peels, scraps, and bones.
2: Food insecurity
Unfortunately, many people have the opposite problem. Instead of having so much food that they can afford to throw some away, they don’t have enough.
According to Good Shepherd Food Bank, in 2021, about 85,000 Mainers could have very low food security. Maine also has the sixth-highest rate of people in this category.
And Feeding America estimates that nationwide, this year 42 million people could be food insecure.
Those numbers are bad enough, but climate change threatens to make them worse.
According to this article from the United Nations, agriculture is more at risk for disruption from climate change than other areas. If you look at industry, tourism, commerce, and agriculture, 63% of the impact is on agriculture. Even worse, countries that are less developed and have lower incomes feel the effects of such disasters much more than wealthier countries while having fewer resources to deal with the challenges.
And when farmers are impacted, food prices go up. This makes it even harder for low-income households, who are already facing food insecurity. As Concern USA noted, this can lead to some people spending up to 75% of their budget on just food.
This situation has no easy solutions, but in the short term, donating to or working with a local food bank can help those in immediate need.
3: Inadequate nutrition
Yet another challenge is making sure that people are getting adequate nutrition.
This is already a problem, particularly in food deserts. According to the USDA, a food desert is where one-third of the population lives more than a certain distance from a supermarket. For urban areas, it’s one mile, and for rural areas, it’s ten miles.
Limited access to supermarkets leads to a greater reliance on fast food and processed, pre-packaged foods. Without the proper nutrition, people in these areas are more likely to have poor health conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Poor nutrition also impacts performance in school and on the job.
Unfortunately, climate change threatens to make this problem worse as well.
In addition to lower crop yields due to flooding, droughts, pests, and other natural disasters, the nutritional value of the crops is expected to decrease. According to some studies, a higher concentration of CO2 will reduce the protein, iron, and zinc content in produce. And by 2050:
175 million more people could be zinc deficient, which could make it easier for them to get sick
122 million more people could have low protein levels
This reduction in nutrition also impacts the animals that eat plants, including ones we raise for livestock, creating problems all around in getting enough nutrients.
4: Factory farming
Speaking of livestock, the way most of our animals are raised has a huge impact on climate change.
If you’re familiar with the concept of factory farming, this is where the majority of our meat comes from. It’s an industrialized approach to rearing and slaughtering animals in mass, which includes keeping the animals in extremely confined spaces and often in terrible conditions.
All of this contributes to climate change in several ways:
Deforestation to create space for animals, leaving fewer trees to sequester carbon
Generation of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide from the factory farms
Emissions of up to 41 million metric tons of CO2 annually as a result of burning fossil fuels to create synthetic fertilizer
Slaughtering, cutting, packaging, and storing meat is energy-intensive
These reasons and more are why many people are switching to a plant-based diet. And that can certainly help, but not everyone can go all-out vegan – I’ve known several people who had to reintroduce meat into their diet due to health reasons.
The goal is to reduce meat and dairy consumption where you can, and when possible, get animal products from local farmers with organic, sustainable practices.
Finally, industrial agriculture contributes to climate change in several ways.
As with factoring farming, deforestation and the use of synthetic fertilizers are contributing factors. Pesticides are another problem, and so are monocultures.
A monoculture is when a farmer focuses on a single crop and generates large amounts of it, usually subsidized crops like corn and soy. The problem is, monocultures aren’t very resilient – a single disease or pest could wipe out the whole crop. Monocultures also drain the soil of key nutrients and microbial life, increasing the need for fertilizers.
On the other hand, regenerative agriculture can help by putting carbon and other nutrients back into the soil. This practice can also lead to more resilient farms.
The goal of regenerative agriculture is to be like a native ecosystem. This includes:
Maintaining soil coverage
Restoring microbial life that helps keep the soil healthy
Using organic waste to build the soil
And some estimates indicate that with regenerative agriculture, we can sequester up to 1.5 gigatons of CO2 per year. Climate change presents challenges and opportunities One of the things I like the most about All We Can Save is that while it doesn’t pretend that we have easy answers for climate change, it also reminds me that things aren’t hopeless. As individuals, we can certainly do what we can to reduce our own food waste and share the information with others who may not realize how harmful food waste is. We can also support local farmers, particularly those who focus on sustainable, regenerative practices, and be as careful as we can in the types of food we consume, with the understanding that not everyone can afford organic, free-range, etc. And we can contact our local representatives to tell them that these issues are important to us. None of this is a guarantee, of course, but I leave you with this quote that I found helpful in staying motivated.
“I want to live on a planet that can hold us…. If nothing else, why not try? Why not hope, and then act as if? This is our one wild, lone home; what other choice do we have?” – R. O. Kwon