June 26, 2022

A changing climate means changes on the plate

A changing climate means changes on the plate
A changing climate means changes on the plateA changing climate means changes on the plate

Food has always been complicated, not the least because we can’t live without it. Throughout human history, the hunt for food has fueled migration, war and exploration. Changing tastes in food can change history. Europeans came upon the Americas while trying to break the Ottoman Empire’s monopoly on the spice trade. And Europeans’ yen for sugar in the 17th century sparked the development of Caribbean sugar plantations and the transatlantic trade of enslaved people.

In this issue, we consider the future of food through the lens of climate change. Currently, one-third of human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions are related to food. And there’s growing focus on how to shrink food’s climate footprint.

Agriculture is one big opportunity. In India, experiments in climate-smart agriculture include planting trees that boost soil nutrients and keep carbon out of the atmosphere. Freelance writer Sibi Arasu talked with Pravinbhai Parmar, a farmer in the state of Gujarat who switched from using diesel fuel to electricity from solar panels to pump irrigation water. He no longer has to pay for diesel and has income from selling excess electricity. Around the world, people are identifying foods that can thrive despite increasingly volatile weather, such as millet and Bambara groundnuts, our intern Anna Gibbs reports.

But as you might imagine, the calculus on food and climate gets complicated quickly. Six economies contribute more than half of Earth’s food-related greenhouse gases, according to reporting by freelancer Betsy Ladyzhets. But the sources of those emissions vary widely. China and India are high emitters largely due to their big populations, while bulldozing forests to clear land for farming is a big driver in Brazil and Indonesia. And in Europe and the United States, it’s our penchant for meat-heavy meals and reliance on industrial-scale farming, which is dependent on fossil fuels and chemicals.

Not all efforts to make for a greener food system require changing the habits of entire countries, continents or global industries. Individuals like me who appreciate a good burger every now and then will be heartened to learn that dining meat-free one day a week takes a bite out of greenhouse gas production. Other changes, such as eating vegan for two out of three meals a day, can have an even bigger impact. So I could have my occasional burger and help the planet, too.

I grew up in the Midwest. Each fall, my family stocked the freezer with a side of beef and a side of pork to get us through the winter. But we also grew vegetables and put them by. Over the years, I have found myself enjoying vegetables more and craving meat less, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Given that food is so entwined with culture, family and identity, researchers are keenly interested in how cultural and personal food preferences can change, as social sciences writer Sujata Gupta reports. Sometimes it’s as simple as being more inclusive: For many, “flexitarian” sounds much less restrictive than “vegetarian.”