An Imperfect Food System: It All Comes Back to Climate Change

This is part 3 of a 4-part series on the connection between food waste and food insecurity.

Read part 1: Grocery Privilege • Part 2: How Food Waste Perpetuates Food Insecurity.

Photo by Annie Spratt

Climate change and food security

When we waste food, we might lament over the wasted resources that went into growing it. Lost resources are hugely problematic—but food waste affects our planet in other powerful ways: for one, it is a significant contributor to global warming. Not only does agriculture contribute to a third of greenhouse gas emissions while 40% of agricultural product is wasted, but food that decomposes in landfill also releases methane (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. 

“Climate change is a major issue related to food security,” says Karl Deily, President of Sealed Air Food Care. “Weather patterns are becoming increasingly erratic, and extreme weather caused by a changing climate is making it more difficult for farmers around the world to succeed.” This means a couple things: farmers and farm workers, who make up half the population of developing regions, who are subject to some of the most acute poverty around the world, and who make up the highest poverty rates of any labor market in the US, will have it even harder. And, when climate change threatens the production of our food—who will feel those effects, but low-income communities? 

Photo by NOAA

Our globe has warmed barely 1 degree Celsius in the last century, yet crop loss is already an issue across the world. Carnegie Institution estimates that about 5 billion dollars of crops are being lost each year due to this measly 1 degree. Every year, farmers are seeing a decrease in about 40 million metric tons of wheat, barley, corn, and other grains.  

Looking beyond how our food system is impacted by climate change, low-income populations have been especially vulnerable to the effects of global warming. If you’ve heard the term environmental injustice, you will know that minorities have been the hardest-hit and the last to be served when it comes to climate-caused natural disasters, rising sea levels, and global pandemics(!). 

Preventing food waste can improve global food security by easing the effects of climate change on food production and on disadvantaged populations. 

Time to embrace Impossible Burgers and oat milk

Photo by Nik Ramzi Nik Hassan

Adjusting the richness of our diets by removing (or lessening) meat and dairy is one of the biggest things we can do for the environment. 

A diet free of meat and dairy is far more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than cutting down on car and plane travel. At the same time, you’ll reduce the destruction of endangered species, ecosystems and carbon-sequestering habitats. You’ll reduce water use, pollution of air and water, bacterial contamination of our food supply, animal suffering, and, obviously most important of all, your risk for heart disease.

“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” says Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford. “Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.” It’s in all of our interests to cut down. 

If you need baby steps, start by reducing the red meat in your diet, as beef and lamb have a substantially larger climate footprint. Replace your cow’s milk with resource-efficient oat milk (or one of the other excellent dairy alternatives). 

To vegan or not to vegan

If you’re not vegan, I’m not interested in convincing you to become one. There’s a silly cultural friction between vegans and non-vegans that obscures the graveness of our need to cut down on animal products: conversion tactics, morality battles, judgment, and stereotyping are counter-productive for all of us. What’s more important is understanding the environmental, social, ethical, and health implications of your diet—and really understanding it. 

Photo by Helena Lopes

Because of the vegan typecast, I am sometimes embarrassed to admit my dietary preferences, despite these preferences being an incredibly positive addition (not limitation) to my life.

I ate meat and dairy most of my life and it was a process to find the internal conviction to remove them—and when I did, I went slowly. Though it’s one of the best changes I’ve made environmentally and emotionally, I know how difficult it can feel to initiate “going to the other side.” But declaring your faithful allegiance to one label isn’t always necessary. Flexitarian is a great way to propel your journey toward a lighter footprint.

If you are interested in reducing your consumption of meat and dairy, it’s not only drastically easier now than five years ago—but actually enjoyable! There are loads of great alternative products available, and more coming. 

I feel a thrill of gratitude every time I buy a plant-based product. Unconventional foods can be hard to access, and for many—even those who are lactose intolerant—this choice is simply not on the table. The more demand there is for these products, the sooner they can appear as staples, regardless of location.

For more info about the climate footprint of your food, the New York Times put together a great resource that lays it out.

Choice is a gift

Most people want to do right by the environment, animals, and humankind. But there’s a common notion that can come in conflict with this.

It seems innocuous enough to feel that as long as we’re spending our hard-earned money, it can be spent without reservation—and that as long as we are paying for our products, we’d better get exactly what we’re looking for. Choice is a national right. Right? 

But we often forget that for many, the luxury of choice isn’t so near at hand. With food physically or monetarily inaccessible, choosing what to eat is a freedom that not all Americans share. 

While we shop, it’s important to remind ourselves that most liberties come with a price not always visible. Beautiful, bountiful food at our fingertips all year round—this comes with a tremendous amount of food waste that aggravates both climate change and food insecurity. The abundance we enjoy in our markets is the product of an unjust food system that many are locked out of, and buying in excess only exacerbates this.

A crumpled receipt
Photo by Michael Walter on Unsplash

If you’re reading this, frivolous spending is likely not a regular habit for you; you don’t need to be nagged about it. But, as I threaten to morph into a damp blanket, I promise—rather than trying to hammer in a sober state of depression while you shop for groceries, I actually want to help reinforce your love of buying food: every trip to the grocery store is a chance for you to participate productively in our food system and create more ethical standards within it.

Gathering your weekly groceries should be a pleasurable experience… it should be full of possibility and even inspiration, as cooking is a creative process and eating is simply the best thing ever. For those of us lucky enough to feel the joy of a grocery store and the fulfillment of a balanced meal, I am absolutely not saying we need to forfeit that. But now in addition, when we enter those one-way automatic doors, we have a mission that makes filling our cart even more worthwhile.

We need to expect more from our supermarkets and challenge their role in our societal ecosystem. We need to tell them we want nothing to do with routines that exacerbate human and environmental strife—which are always tied. We do this through our purchases, and more importantly, our lack of purchases. 

Read part 4: Reducing Waste While You Shop

Related Posts:

How Restrictions During Coronavirus Can Ignite Long-Term Environmental Healing

Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

Published by Yenny

I want to share with you what I’ve learned from my work as a food rescuer and from my personal waste-reduction journey, while bringing you perspectives from my network of wise industry professionals. Let’s push full-steam ahead toward building the tools and systems we need to conserve, preserve, and value our resources.

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