Food for Thought: Mitigating Climate Change Through Sustenance

Regardless of their feelings about the scientific consensus (hint, it’s verified), a majority of people are at least familiar with the concept of climate change, that the evidence points to fossil fuels being to blame, and that small acts like turning off lights seem to help. We know that Tesla and renewable energy are what’s “hot,” and most people seem to be aware that 2016 was the warmest year on record. In other words, we know about climate change, we know about its causes and effects, and we have a pretty good idea of what we’d need to do to change its course. We’ve begun the process of mitigating and adapting.

COMM NC Cows 2017 02But are we doing enough? Though it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the “not enoughs,” what if we are ignoring some of the lowest hanging fruit that could affect change? What if a quarter of our carbon emissions target is missing from the agenda?

While the top fossil fuel companies seem to garner swarms of activists, there is another factor that is just as insidiously woven into our economy and lifestyle as carbon is woven into our warmth and travel, and yet, the industries responsible seem to be either hidden from or ignored by many climate activists.

The answer lies in our food systems.

Did you know that the single greatest lifestyle change an individual can make to address climate change might not lie in renewable energy or electric cars but in everyday breakfast, lunch, and dinner choices? Without implying that everyone should immediately switch to veganism, anyone who is vested in the long-term viability of our planet ought to consider the impact of eating food sources low in embedded carbon emissions.

According to Craig Hanson of the World Resources Institute, agriculture and associated land-use change accounts for 24% of global net emissions, equating to roughly a quarter of our emissions that are not being addressed by transportation and energy sector strategies. This means that the food sector alone is responsible for a shockingly large portion of climate change. Of the food sector, the two greatest contributors are the beef and dairy industries. In fact, the methane emissions from cows is roughly equal to the methane emissions from the entire natural gas sector, which is rather disturbing considering that methane is about 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in 20-year global warming potential. For a much more in-depth exploration of the agricultural sector’s contribution to climate change, as well as a look at potential solutions, Cowspiracy is a powerful and well-researched documentary.

Thankfully, there is plenty of optimism to be had. Reforming the agricultural sector would kill multiple birds with one proverbial carbon-free stone: according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), agriculture can address poverty, hunger, and climate change all at once through things like food waste reduction and sustainable agriculture. The FAO reports that roughly one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted, and although that number is devastatingly large, it represents a fantastic opportunity for improvement. Less food wasted means less water, land, and energy wasted to produce it. Strong local food systems contribute to greater food security for impoverished populations. And sustainable agriculture can even improve communities’ resilience to climate change.

All this is not to say that we’re wrong to look forward to the possibility of owning that brand new Tesla, and we should definitely still look into retrofitting our homes for solar panels and other renewable energy options. But we will be severely shortchanging ourselves if we believe that other societal changes – particularly food-related changes – aren’t necessary. From our Sierra Nevada region to the global level, we can all find ways to incorporate a more sustainable food system into our climate adaptation and mitigation plans. Just some food for thought.