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When a warming climate threatens your dinner plate

October 15, 2018

Introducing Understanding Food and Climate Change : A suite of free digital resources

Whether you’re a student in Osaka, Japan, tucking into a bento box of salted fish and edamame, a University professor in Dakar munching on Senegalese yassa, or an American steelworker unwrapping a hamburger, chances are you sit down several times a day to a plate of food, no matter who or where you are. You may not be aware of all the ways your choices at mealtimes are affecting the climate, but they are, and greatly.

Our understanding of the links between food systems and climate change is growing, but public awareness of the importance of this relationship is not widespread. Even people who accept that anthropogenic climate change is occurring are more likely to think first about home energy or focus on transportation. Fewer people consider the impact of the dinner on their plates, but the connections between climate change and food systems are deep and wide-ranging—the food choices we make; the ways we grow, raise, transport, process, store, prepare, and serve food; how we manage food waste. The Center for Ecoliteracy is making great strides toward shifting this awareness.

The Center for Ecoliteracy recently released a suite of free digital resources with two parts: a collection of essays, and an interactive guide that offers videos, original animations, interactive pages, photography, and sample activities to help explore the relationships between food and climate change. The suite is generating broad interest among students, educators, campaigners, environmental advocacy organizations, and food producers. The resources serve as a primer on the principles of ecology as well as an inquiry on what it means to think in terms of systems and relationships when it comes to our personal lifestyle choices and the impact they have on a changing planet.

Using systems thinking, the guide makes surprising connections between seemingly unrelated topics. For example, drastically reduced snowpack becomes a threat to beer marketing slogans the world over. Why? Because Olympia Beer’s “It’s the water” or Zephyrhills’ “Pure water. Great beer” are rendered cruelly ironic if that water is no longer available. Something as mundane as fish sticks could vanish if a warming Bering Sea causes zooplankton stock to plummet. That’s because Alaska pollock—without which there would be no “fish” in fish sticks—feed mainly on the rapidly disappearing zooplankton.


Why Systems Thinking?
A bowl of cornflakes and milk—it seems simple enough, but as part of a food system, it’s far more complex. There are people, activities, crops, weather, soil, transportation, and much more that interact to bring this bowl of cereal and milk together. Systems thinking makes it possible to explore and understand the relationships among food systems and their component parts. It makes it possible to understand some of the complexity of the intersection of Earth’s systems and human systems and to discover creative responses.

Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Beer…What’s the Future for My Favorite Foods?
Between 2012 and 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) periodically issued “Climate and …” reports on a variety of popular foods. (At the time of this writing, these reports are still available).  Some examples:

What if you had to choose between chocolate and endangered habitat? Cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) only grow within about 20° north and south of the equator. They require conditions including fairly uniform temperatures, high humidity, abundant rain, nitrogen-rich soil, and protection from wind. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that under a “business as usual” scenario the world’s primary cacao-growing regions would experience a significant increase in temperature and a marked reduction in suitable cultivation area by 2050.

According to the NOAA report, “Cacao-growing countries may have to choose which priority matters more: growing a product to meet a global demand, or preserving natural habitat.”

Peanut Butter
With climate change, peanut butter could one day become a luxury item. The peanut (Arachis hypogaea) is not a nut, but rather an annual legume that requires up to five months of fairly consistent warmth, combined with about 20 to 40 inches of rain at the right time. But the 2009 US Global Change Research Program report “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” concluded that temperatures would rise, and spring and summer precipitation levels would likely drop, in peanut-growing states if greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase at a high rate.

In 2015, a number of leading breweries signed a “climate declaration” to call attention to the effects of climate change on the beer industry. “Warmer temperatures and extreme weather events are harming the production of hops, a critical ingredient of beer that grows primarily in the Pacific Northwest,” they said. “Rising demand and lower yields have driven the price of hops up by more than 250 percent over the past decade.”

Seventy-three percent of hops in the United States are grown in the state of Washington, primarily in the Yakima Valley on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains. Craft brewers in particular prize flavorful varieties of hops that have been developed specifically for the Yakima climate. In recent years, the area has experienced record high temperatures and extreme drought, conditions which some researchers believe will be the “new normal” by mid-century.

Despite the playful tone, there is substantial depth and breadth to the information contained in these free resources. An Interactive Guide gives a robust overview of critical topics such as food systems, ocean health, extreme weather, temperature change, food waste, water management, and climate change adaptation and mitigation (all on a responsive interface), while A Systems Perspective brings readers up to speed on systems theory, the greenhouse effect, the carbon cycle, soil microbiome, agroecology, livestock emissions, greenhouse gases, and more theoretical topics such as climate justice in food production and the capacity of public policy to build healthy soil.

The authors of An Interactive Guide, Center for Ecoliteracy creative director Karen Brown and science educator Margo Crabtree, want to personalize climate change for young people while making learning about the relationships between food and our environment fun. The guides are aimed at grades 6–12 with the goal to increase understanding by connecting daily experiences and practices of students and schools to these issues. Connections are made to diet and food waste—including through the lens of school meals—as well as learning in the classroom and the garden.

Young people today have to face the reality of a changing climate thanks to our legacy of a consumer economy and blatant disregard of environmental limits, and they are vulnerable to the impact of decisions made by past and current policymakers. They have both the most to gain and the most to lose. What can we do to support them in developing powerful responses? People take action when they believe they can effect change. Food uniquely offers the potential for personalizing climate change and helping young people imagine promising strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate risks. It inspires hope.

The Center for Ecoliteracy’s intention in publishing this free suite of digital resources is to foster a deeper understanding of climate change and inspire planet-friendly choices about how you eat, shop, grow, and prepare foods. Join us in viewing the rest of these resources in their web version for all computers and tablets here and hereUnderstanding Food and Climate Change is also available as a free iBook for Mac and iPad users here.

Originally posted at Resilience.org