Why our fight for the climate needs to start with our forks.
I remember the first time I truly encountered my food. A born-and-raised city kid, I was on a backpacking trip at Isle Royale National Park. My group had hiked for miles atop the rugged ridge of the island, and we arrived at our destination during the hottest part of the day. We stumbled into the Chickenbone Lake campsite, ready to pitch our tents and collapse into a needed rest. That is, until I heard someone shout “berries!” I looked up and saw that the bushes that edged our tent site were overflowing with crimson thimbleberries, a delicious fruit that grows in only a few regions of North America and can’t be bought in a supermarket.
My friends and I took one look at the ripe berries hanging in front of us, and our weariness evaporated. We plunged into the bushes, not even pausing to take off our backpacks, and ate thimbleberries until our hands were stained red and there was no more fruit within reach.
The berries we ate that day were more than just “food” in the common sense. They energized our bodies and lifted our spirits in a way I have never felt before or since. The long hike, the bright sun, our weary muscles, the stunning scenery…everything about the day played a role in forming a connection between myself and the food. In a way, the thimbleberry bushes and I were equals: two parts of the vast and beautiful web of nature.
Food, in many ways, is a simple and beautiful thing. Yet the issues surrounding food are volatile enough to cause serious disagreement. Food is deeply personal, but the effects of what we eat are frighteningly global in scale. The modern food industry is implicated in nearly every societal issue, of which none may be more pressing than the climate crisis.
Attempts to quantify how food production contributes to climate change have proven difficult. Some sources, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, reports that agriculture makes up only 9% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. The EPA also claims that agriculture, forestry, and land use combined make up no more than 24% of global GHG emissions. But other sources disagree. The University of Minnesota’s Food Matters environment report (“How does Agriculture Change our Climate?”) estimates that the footprint of food production alone is responsible for 30% of global emissions.
Why the inconsistency in these estimates? For one thing, it’s hard to define what processes should be considered part of food production. Some sources only consider the resources involved in planting, raising, and harvesting raw food materials. But this ignores a massive portion of our food system. Between a kernel of wheat and a loaf of Wonderbread lies a twisting chain of actions, each one with its own effect on the climate.
Let’s look at just a few examples. First, much of our food does not naturally grow in the same region in which it is consumed. These foods have to be either grown in greenhouses (using energy-intensive heating), or brought in from other places by way of polluting trucks, ships, and airplanes. Second, most of us do not consume our food in its original form. Our food comes in plastic or cardboard containers, and much of it is processed food that has been prepared in factories. Every box, bag, and can uses resources , which are often produced unsustainably. Finally, what we don’t eat has a huge effect. The environmental organization Project Drawdown estimates (conservatively) that one-third of all food produced globally is wasted, and that this waste is responsible for 8% of global emissions.
The impact of our food, however, reaches far beyond carbon emissions. Large farms that produce thousands of acres of a single crop have a devastating impact on biodiversity. Pesticides harm countless species beside the ones they are designed to target, and fertilizers wash into our oceans, where they create oxygen-poor “dead zones.” Deforestation and corporate land-grabs damage and dishonor indigenous groups’ homelands and heritages. Animal agriculture is implicated in severe health problems, caused by the over-consumption of meat and by diseases spread through animal waste products in factory-farms.
Our food system also affects us in deeply personal ways. As agriculture becomes more production-focused and corporate, we have a harder time understanding what, why, and how we are supposed to consume. Food, for many Western cultures, has become a confusing maze of “good” and “bad” labels and judgements. Eating no longer serves as a reminder of our intimate relationship with the world.
The environmental author Anna Lappé likes to give her audiences a quiz. “When was your last experience of nature?” she inquires, and after listening to their responses, asks why none of them mentioned what they ate for lunch. We are so far removed from our food system that it’s hard to comprehend that our burger was once an herbivore species in a food chain, that our juice boxes come from trees in an ecosystem, and that we are part of, and dependent on, the environment that produces our food.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what percentage of carbon emissions can be traced to food production. Food is our first, deepest, and most intimate connection to the planet. When I encountered those thimbleberries on my hike that summer day, I gained a new awareness of how fundamental nature is to my life. Food is our constant reminder that we cannot live without a functioning environment. If we are going to end our current path of planetary destruction, it must start with food. Eating is the one thing that we all have in common. If we change our mindset and practices around food, economic and societal changes will follow by necessity.
How do we start? The food industry is clearly bigger than any of us. Our personal choices of what food to buy and which businesses to support are not enough to uproot a broken system. Yet, although our dollars only go so far, our voices can go farther. We need to talk about these issues. We need to teach children about food, and why it matters. We need to grow gardens, and see how they change us. We must write, whisper, converse, and shout. Let us prepare for a world in which the old ways are torn down, and something better is built.