Environment | Health

What does climate change have to do with food security?

Well over one third of our 292 Junior Leagues work in their communities to fight food insecurity, addressing inequities in our food system using a wide range of strategies and tactics. There are plenty of obvious choices when considering the issues that intersect with hunger and food insecurity (health, poverty, education), but have you ever thought about climate change?

The theme of this year’s Earth Day Campaign, Environmental & Climate Literacy, advances education as the way to “build a global citizenry fluent in the concepts of climate change and aware of its unprecedented threat to our planet.” Food systems both affect and are affected by the environment and climate change. Agriculture, along with fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, are major contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which impact climate change. And, as climate change increases, so does heat, extreme weather conditions, and change in rainfall patterns, all of which directly impact food production and prices. Addressing climate change solutions, both within and outside of the food system, could be an important strategy to protect food availability for our communities.

In attempting to reduce our environmental footprint, it’s important to understand how agriculture plays an important role in climate change. All activities associated with our food system, from production to transportation to storage of wasted food in landfills, produce GHG emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency noted that in 2014, agriculture was responsible for 9% of total GHG emissions in the U.S. (exclusive of transportation of the goods produced). The inefficiency of livestock production alone accounts for an estimated two thirds of global agricultural GHG emissions and 78% of agricultural methane emissions. As meat and dairy consumption around the world has increased, so have GHG emissions.

Other agricultural practices can impact the climate. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are widely used in agriculture, and are often made from fossil fuels. Manufacturing and transporting these chemicals uses significant quantities of energy and produces greenhouse gases. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that chemical farming uses considerably more energy per unit of production than organic farms, which do not use these chemical inputs. In addition, the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers in soils produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is approximately 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

While only a small percentage of the overall carbon footprint of food, where your food comes from still matters. The average meal travels nearly 750 miles, during which time it must be processed and in many cases refrigerated to reduce spoilage. Food that is grown closer to home will therefore have fewer transportation emissions, will be fresher and will support local farms.

Food waste is not only an enormous problem but a significant cause of GHG emissions. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, over one third of food produced worldwide is lost or wasted, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year. The percentage in the U.S. is the same, accounting for some 37 million tons of food each year, yet just five percent of that is composted. The EPA’s United States 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal notes that more food ends up in landfills and incinerators than any other single material, about 21% of the total waste stream. When food is left to rot in a landfill it produces methane, the most potent of greenhouse gases. National Geographic reports that if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind China and the U.S.

Scores of fruits and vegetables are regularly disposed of because they are misshapen or “ugly.” Strict rules determine what a fruit or vegetable must look like if it is to be sold. If a carrot has two ends on it, for example, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a carrot anymore, but it would certainly never make it to the grocery store. As a result, many farmers and distributors have no other option but to throw these “ugly” foods out. (This is actually a practice that has only been brought to light in the past few years, and grocery stores have begun selling misshapen fruits and vegetables at a discount.)

As damaging as food waste is on our societies and our planet, it is one of the easiest environmental and health problems individuals can help solve. A few ideas: shop more often and buy less to cut down on the amount of food we have to throw out due to spoilage; buy “ugly” and misshapen foods that would otherwise be rejected; donate regularly to food pantries (many people don’t realize that fresh product is welcomed, provided it’s relatively fresh); eat leftovers frequently; pay less attention to sell-by and expiration dates, which do not necessarily indicate the true “toss-by” date.

In order to protect food security, we must also protect the earth. Everyone can play a role in mitigating the effects of climate change. You too can help reduce your environmental footprint by becoming a more conscientious consumer and changing simple day-to-day decisions.