As Awareness Grows About Food’s Role In Climate Change, What Solutions Exist?

After a decade of work to connect food and climate, four experts say the link is being made, but much work remains to be done.

by Civil Eats

Over the past 10 years, we have seen a tidal shift in awareness about the dangers that climate change poses, and the fact that it’s only going to get much worse if we don’t quickly take dramatic action. In fact, data released just last week found that alarm over climate change in the U.S. has doubled in just the last five years.

Despite the growth in coverage, dialogue, and action to address climate change, food and agriculture remain far from the conversation. And yet we know that food and agriculture play a major role in the production of global greenhouse gas emissions—as much as 30 percent by some estimates. Take the recent interactive report from the New York Times highlighting the ways in which countries can dramatically reduce emissions; it gave less than one full sentence to food and agriculture.

Jon Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization focused on dramatic reductions of carbon in the atmosphere, has witnessed first-hand the momentum building. But he laments the wasted decades spent debating the existence of climate change.

“I wish we were having these conversations back in 1970 instead of 2018,” Foley said. “We’ve lost so much time.”

According to data from the Global Carbon Project highlighted by David Wallace-Wells in a recent op-ed, had the world begun reducing emissions in 2000, it would have only required a 2 percent per year reduction in emissions, rather than the 5 percent per year we face if we commit to acting today.

As part of Civil Eats’ 10th anniversary, we’re hosting a series of roundtables this year to look at the past, present, and future of the issues critical to the U.S. food system. Given the urgent need to act, and the strong swell of momentum behind policy solutions such as the Green New Deal, we begin this year with a focus on climate change.

The participants in this roundtable are: Renata Brillinger, Executive Director, California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN); Rosie Burroughs, farmer and rancher, Burroughs Family FarmsJon Foley, Executive Director, Project Drawdown; and Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet and director of the Food & Democracy program at the Panta Rhea Foundation. Civil Eats’ editor-in-chief, Naomi Starkman, and managing editor Matthew Wheeland facilitated the wide-ranging discussion. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Looking back over the last decade of the food movement and the climate movement, has the divide gotten smaller? What would need to happen to bring these movements together? And can these two movements even coexist?

Anna Lappé.
Anna Lappé.

Anna Lappé: When I look back to 2006, when the United Nations published “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” it was a wake-up call that got many of us thinking about the intersection between food and climate. At that time, there was a very strong climate movement that had been engaging people around the country and the world. And there was not much integration within the climate movement, or even much of a conversation around food or agriculture and agribusiness.

My sense of that was really confirmed when colleagues at Johns Hopkins did a study of climate coverage in the 16 biggest newspapers in the U.S., and only a tiny fraction—about 2.5 percent—even mentioned food and agriculture as a part of the problem or the solution, and a much smaller percentage talked about it as a substantial focus area.

I think it was a blind spot, not just for the climate movement, but for policymakers and for folks all across the spectrum. Many of the biggest environmental groups were campaigning around climate already, but certainly very few had integrated campaigns around agribusiness or food systems’ impact. Now, I feel like that story has totally changed. So many of the biggest climate organizations are really understanding that farmers and ranchers are on the frontlines of [climate] impact, but also the frontlines of the solutions.

Renata Brillinger: CalCAN formed 10 years ago, and I agree with Anna that [since then] the conversation has really widened from agriculture being mostly identified as the problem to it also being a solution. There’s also a more widespread appreciation of the very specific and unique contributions that properly managed farmland and ranch land can make to reduce emissions and store carbon.

Renata Brillinger.
Renata Brillinger.

I think, though, that talking about the food system or food movement is tricky. There’s quite a distance between consumers and urban dwellers and producers. Even if we were to bifurcate the so-called movement into those two categories, [consumers] and agriculturalists, it’s hard to generalize.

We’re lucky in California to have a context where we can talk about climate change—even in agricultural communities—without ears shutting. Nonetheless, farmers are not typically motivated to bring forward their climate solutions because of the benefits to the climate. That’s not the first thing on their list of priorities when they get up to go to work every day; they’re thinking about staying in business, the market pressures and price, input costs, natural resources, and weather. They’re not necessarily saying, “I’m going to go out and sequester some carbon this morning.” But the connections, all the co-benefits that we get by doing climate-friendly practices, those are what speak to farmers.

By way of a benchmark, California did its first Scoping Plan in 2008, which laid out the pathway to achieving the greenhouse gas emissions targets that the state had put into law (targets that have since been increased). At the time, only about half a page of that plan dealt with agriculture. Fast forward, and the 2014 update to the Scoping Plan included a much more substantial agriculture section, and a draft report was released in January 2019 focused solely on climate solutions on natural and working lands, including agriculture.

We just saw Governor Newsom propose the largest budget for the Healthy Soils Program, one of the state’s tools for reducing emissions in agriculture; and there are now more than $300 million worth of incentives for agriculture to deliver climate solutions [in the state], up from $0 four years ago.

Jon Foley
Jon Foley.

Jon Foley: I would say that the two communities still have some work to do to really get together. A lot of progress has been made, but I fear not enough. The food and agriculture system altogether is about 24 percent, we think, of our total emissions of greenhouse gases, which is tied basically with electricity as the two largest emitters.

Within the food system, the three big parts are still deforestation, methane emissions from cattle and rice fields globally, and nitrous oxide from overusing fertilizers. Those numbers haven’t budged—if anything they might be going up again, especially as Brazil’s new leader seems to be going after what was a suspension of deforestation across the Amazon.

While food is slowly being recognized as a contributor to climate change, and also a solution, it’s nowhere near the magnitude of discussion or investment as electricity gets. Every time you hear about climate change, we’re going to talk about coal and renewables—but only maybe one in 10 times do you hear about food. Right now, 80 percent of the press, funding, investment, and attention is going to about 20 percent of the climate problem.

On the positive side, we’ve had a lot of discussions about reducing the problems of the food system. To me, the biggest levers are still things like slowing and ceasing deforestation, because not only does it prevent the source of carbon dioxide, it helps preserve the sinks of carbon that forests naturally are, as well as their benefits to biodiversity in watersheds and to the livelihoods of Indigenous communities.

I think food waste has gotten a lot of attention, too, which is nice since we waste 30 to 40 percent of all the food we grow. There’s also an active discussion around the role of meat, especially beef—the grass-fed vs. feedlot debate—whether this can flip from being a problem to being a potential solution.

Rosie and Ward Burroughs.
Rosie and Ward Burroughs.

Rosie Burroughs: In terms of the farming connection, the encouraging part is that two years ago, I would have said that most of conventional farmers were not really concerned about climate change, nor were they interested in regenerative practices that sequester carbon. In the last two years, I’ve seen many younger farmers really embracing and trying new practices. For example, there’s a conventional farm next to ours—they’re young parents, and they’re looking at the future, but also the health for their children.

I’m encouraged that there are so many young farmers coming to our farm and saying, “I’m interested in doing some things better. I’d like to learn how to not use synthetic fertilizers.” Let’s get all farmers starting on regenerative practices, because once they learn the tools, they’re going to adopt them because they cost less.

What do you think it would take for the general public to start to understand that link between food and climate? Do you see signs that that it’s starting to happen?

Jon Foley: It’s not even just the broader public discussion, I think it’s [also] among policymakers and even so-called experts. Even people who have focused on climate change their entire lives tend to think only about CO2, forgetting methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gases that we emit. We tend to think only about energy, and we often forget things other than electricity. Even at the governor’s conference on climate solutions [in 2018] and at the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] meetings, electricity gets much more discussion than it has impact on the atmosphere. Transportation probably gets the second biggest, and food usually doesn’t get a lot of attention until recently.

I find that there are a lot of myths; people often start talking about food miles. Well, it turns out if you run the numbers, food miles are really negligible when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

What I’m really excited about is highlighting solutions, like how we can protect forests and reduce food waste. How can we help shift to more sustainable kinds of diets that are also healthier for us? How can regenerative agriculture flip farms from being maybe a “problem” to being part of the solution? And especially the health of soils: Soil really does capture the imagination. It’s not hard for people to recognize healthy soil that’s teeming with life, versus soil that has been beat to hell with industrial farming for far too long. I think that might spur part of the conversation if we do it right.

Farms have a special place in Americans’ hearts—they’re part of our culture, our heritage, our ethos as a nation. This is a very positive opportunity for us to highlight the problems, look at the solutions to mitigate those problems, and also the opportunities for new farming. The time is now.

Anna Lappé: I really agree with what Jon is saying, but we have so much more progress to make. I have seen this real shift in how much people are talking about the food and climate connection. And yet we know from last year’s really alarming IPCC report that we have 12 years to radically shift systems worldwide; what is clear is that food and agriculture absolutely have to be part of that conversation. If you look at projections moving forward 10-20 years, unless we’re making some radical shifts, the impact on the food sector is going to really balloon.

I’m alarmed that we aren’t making more progress. We have to be looking squarely at corporate power, corporate influence on politics, and the fact that the immensely powerful fossil fuel companies really thwart a lot of progress. What we can see is that some of those very same companies are deeply involved with the food system. And unless we bring that conversation about challenging corporate power to the solutions we’re putting forth around food, I don’t think we’re going to see the progress we need. For instance, there’s been incredible campaigning around energy companies and we’re seeing some of those players move into fertilizer production. Koch Industries just put several billion dollars into fertilizer production plants in the South, for instance.

Rosie Burroughs: [We need to be talking] not only about food coming into the conversation, but nutrient-dense food—so food that’s healthy, food that’s medicine, food that’s going to keep the humans and all the animals on this planet thriving.

Where are you seeing traction on a policy level? Are there policies helping to shape and bring these two seemingly disparate movements together?

Renata Brillinger: It’s challenging to talk about the food system as a whole when it comes to policy because it’s an apples and oranges comparison. CalCAN only focuses on the farm production piece, and the estimates are that it’s roughly 8 percent of California’s emissions. That obviously doesn’t count all of the energy that goes into the inputs, especially nitrogen fertilizer, and it doesn’t count packaging, transportation, processing, and all that.

There are other efforts going on, for example to put some cap and trade funding into building compost facilities to deal with food waste, and the methane emissions that are associated with landfills. There are efforts to improve food processing facility energy efficiency, etc.

There are now four programs that all have what we would call natural solutions or biologically based solutions to reducing emissions on farms. One of them incentivizes farmers to reduce their energy and water use. Another incentivizes methane reduction in dairies, which is, as Jon said, a big source of potent greenhouse gas emissions. There’s a program to preserve farmland in perpetuity so that we can limit urban sprawl. Our transportation sector is our biggest problem in California; addressing it contributes to reducing future emissions from urban growth and sprawl. And the fourth program is the Healthy Soils Program.

California is unfortunately one of the only places in the world—maybe the only place in the world—where there’s a comprehensive suite of such programs. There are some other examples, but none that are quite so robust. It’s great that we’re blazing that trail, but it’s also obviously, completely insufficient if we need to get to bending our carbon emissions curve within 12 years. So, we’re both a beacon and obviously inadequate.

There are some other states that are moving forward with trying to put carbon-pricing mechanisms in place. Oregon, Washington keeps trying, New York—these are some places where then we can hopefully derive some revenue to direct toward [climate-smart] agriculture. And there are a number of other places where that’s impossible politically, but there are some organizations trying to figure out how to incentivize practices that deliver climate benefits on farms by calling it something other than climate protection—calling it “water-quality improvements” or “regulatory streamlining” or “erosion control.” “Healthy soil” is a becoming a proxy for a whole bunch of promising improvements in agriculture in various pockets around the country.

Anna Lappé: Outside our country there is actually a lot of movement to really scale up regenerative farming systems. I just had the opportunity to connect with a leader in an effort in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It’s an inspiring, farmer-led movement to improve the livelihoods of farmers using practices that are also good for the climate. The kind of soil health efforts that build up carbon that also produce nutrient-dense food.

The project is called Zero Budget Natural Farming, and it’s about using on-farm nutrients to grow crops without relying on chemical fertilizers or pesticides, which is not good for the climate and not good for farmers—it pushes farmers into debt. They piloted it with about 100,000 farmers. And the government is planning to invest a huge amount of money across 6 million farmers over the next five years or more. When you have government investing, stepping up, and saying, “We want to have programs that benefit farmers at scale,” you can see incredible impact.

Going back to Jon’s earlier point about deforestation and agribusiness pressures on forests, I feel like this is where there could be some policy solutions, but we should also look at how can we put pressure on the finance sector not to underwrite the destruction of those vital forests. How can we put pressure on the insurance sector not to underwrite the agribusiness companies moving into those vital areas of the planet? And how can we also put pressure on the consumer-facing brands to make sure that nothing in their supply chains traces back to those vital forests? So yes, there’s a lot of really great policy solutions, but I also think we really need a whole host of strategies.

Jon Foley: We have four big tools to change the world: policy is one, but it’s also the flow of capital—where the money goes—and helping to highlight the risk of certain kinds of agriculture and the performance of other kinds. Where people invest and where they don’t is a really powerful thing. Also, changing the rules in technology and how people farm, showing that regenerative agriculture, organic, and other kinds of systems can actually be better—not just good for the environment, but just better overall for everybody. And of course the larger, behavioral side of things, like what we buy, our diets, our waste. So policy is not the only lever, and I worry that we’ve waited far too long for policymakers to get off the dime and they haven’t.

We’ve wasted 30 years waiting for the U.N. to save us—and it hasn’t done anything except produce a bunch of reports. It’s time to look elsewhere, which is why I get interested in cities and states. California’s doing some great work. Other places are, too. We’re seeing interesting intersections of business, civil society, NGOs, and even scientific organizations. The early success in Brazil in limiting deforestation, with activist groups going after big agribusiness and then agribusiness trying to reform and certify soybeans and beef from deforested regions—that was actually a pretty big success story. Hopefully it’s not being undermined now.

Ward Burroughs inspects compost on Burroughs Family Farms. (Photo courtesy of CalCAN)
Ward Burroughs inspects compost on Burroughs Family Farms. (Photo courtesy of CalCAN)

On the global scale, there are some big leverage points: On deforestation—about half of historic deforestation in the last 20 years occurred in only two countries, Brazil and Indonesia. That’s where we ought to focus a lot of attention: on those two countries, and the soybean, beef, palm oil, and timber supply chains. That’s really where a lot of action is happening and only a handful of companies are involved in those, so it’s a good place to focus.

On fertilizer use, China, India, and the U.S. together represent about two-thirds of all the fertilizer use on the planet for three major commodities—rice, corn, and soybeans. And then if you look at methane emissions, again it’s China, India, and the U.S., mainly rice [paddies] and cattle. While it’s nice to grow organic arugula in our backyard, we have to look at these big systems, too, How do we reform them, how do we change them with that policy lever, with the changing-how-we-farm lever, and the how-markets-and-consumers-look-at-these-systems levers? We need to focus more on the big levers, because the planet doesn’t have time to wait. We have to significantly cut emissions and improve solutions in food—in a decade, basically. And there’s a lot of momentum, but we really need to look at getting big wins and where the possibilities are. That’s why I get excited about California as a leader.

Rosie, from your perspective, are some of these policies or incentive programs better at encouraging farmers to adopt regenerative and more sustainable practices than others?

Rosie Burroughs: Yes, but we still have a long way to go. Cover crops seems to be one thing that most farmers can just adapt to and implement. And there are some programs where farmers can get seed for free or at a reduced cost to start trying some of the cover crops, and of course they’re mostly highlighting the benefits to monarchs, bees and other pollinators.

Cover crops planted at Hundley Whaley Research Center as part of a multi-year study looking at how different tillage systems and seeding systems effect yields of soybeans and corn. (Photo by Bruce Burdick for CAFNR)
Cover crops planted at Hundley Whaley Research Center as part of a multi-year study looking at how different tillage systems and seeding systems effect yields of soybeans and corn. (Photo by Bruce Burdick for CAFNR)

[It can be difficult to plant cover crops on a no-till farm], but cover crops is one of the first places that we can try to get more farmers to adapt, because it reduces the use of synthetic pesticides on the land and it improve soil biology. And once you start seeing and experiencing more life in your soil, you can see it above-ground, too; you’ll see more birds and beneficials.

We [at Burroughs Family Farm] are an organic, seasonal, grass-based dairy using regenerative practices, and as Jon pointed out, there’s only a few big companies that are controlling all the buying power and distribution power, and we have had a terrible time trying to market our own product—everything from stores not wanting to have to add the paperwork for an independent distributor who sells farmer-direct to the store to the politics that are on the shelf. I knew of one farmer who wanted to get a new product on the shelf, and they were told it would cost $50,000 to buy a space. So the small farmer does not have a chance.

There is a crisis, particularly in the organic dairy business and there are several reasons for it, but people should know that Danone gave a one-year notice to many of their farmers across the nation. All but the majority of them have one year to find another home. Well, there isn’t another home to go to. There are just so few companies in that business so we have farmers going out of business left and right, and once we lose the farmers off the land, we’ve lost the resource of organic to be part of the [climate] solution. In my neighborhood, we’ve lost two organic dairies in 2018.

Given the state of the crisis, is there one thing that makes each of you hopeful in this moment?

Renata Brillinger: There is an explosion of science and willing practitioners like Rosie, who are way ahead of the curve. Rosie and her husband Ward joined us as advisers 10 years ago, but now they’ve got lots of amazing company in the farming community—people who are really curious. I’m blown away by the fact that young farmers are trying to get into this very hard business and are motivated in large part because they see it as having ecological benefits. That’s really hopeful.

There’s also been a big shift in the university world; not just science, but technical assistance providers, extensions, the Resource Conservation Districts, non-profit organizations, and there’s just an increasingly large coalition of those who are seeing this as an exciting growth area with lots of opportunity, co-benefits, and exciting, intellectual work to do. It’s like no other challenge we’ve faced as humans, and it’s bringing out the best in a lot of really smart people. It’s really popping, and it’s really hard, but I see a lot of curiosity and innovation.

Jon Foley: I think this discussion highlights some of the great momentum that’s building. The academic community, the NGO community—in food as well as in environment and climate change—are all beginning to recognize the opportunity here. And to me, the top-line issues—protecting rainforests, reducing food waste, and shifting diets—are beginning to get some traction.

I love what’s going on with different kinds of grazing techniques and stuff to maybe flip beef [production] from being a problem to a solution. On the whole, the planet’s beef and dairy systems are hugely responsible for a lot of our climate change problem because so much of it is not done well.

Cattle grazing in a silvopasture forest in Georgia. (Photo CC-licensed by the USDA National Agroforestry Center)
Cattle grazing in a silvopasture forest in Georgia. (Photo CC-licensed by the USDA National Agroforestry Center)

We do have to look simultaneously at shifting to better kinds of systems, but also just reducing demand for beef overall and making sure we don’t waste what we do grow. There are a lot of levers we can pull all at the same time: Less beef, no waste, and better [farming practices]. We’ve lost so much time because powerful people don’t want this change. And whether it’s the fossil fuel business or big agribusiness, that at the end of the day the impediments are gigantic and we have to just acknowledge that elephant in the room and find a way to move that as well.

Anna Lappé: My source of hope is always the energy I get from activism around the planet, from people really standing up to those powerful interests that Jon just named. I think if we are going to make the progress we need to make, that kind of speaking truth to power and standing up to really powerful corporate interests is going to be critical. What we’re seeing in the food industry is shape shifting—where you see a lot of the biggest, most powerful corporations that are really driving deforestation, non-regenerative practices in the beef industry, and fertilizer use—using a lot of public relations spin to try to make them look like they’re on our side, so to speak.

For example, we just saw the merging of two of the biggest chemical corporations in the world, Dow and DuPont. They’ve now spun off their agricultural chemicals sector and rebranding themselves as Corteva, a name that comes from the combination of “heart” and “land,” and they’re trying to kind of present themselves as a benign force. We know the chemical industry is an essential part of a system that’s not sustainable for many reasons; it is not good for health and certainly not good for the climate. I get hope from the sense of the energy we’re seeing, energy around the Green New Deal, for instance, which will include areas of work around food and agriculture.

Rosie Burroughs: What gives me hope is believing that regenerative ag practices give us purpose and make us feel that what we’re doing is right. We wouldn’t farm any other way. It’s like what my husband says: “If we ever had to go back to conventional farming, we wouldn’t farm—because that’s a death sentence in terms of the soil, the animals, and food for humans.”


Header image from Civil Eats

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