Farmers market in BrooklynPhoto courtesy humanin via Flickr

A few years ago, I stumbled on a United Nations study that transformed how I think about the climate crisis. In the report, researchers pegged greenhouse gases from the livestock sector at 18 percent of total global emissions. Combine this with other aspects of our food chain — from agricultural chemical production to agribusiness driven deforestation to food waste rotting in landfills — and food and agriculture sector is responsible for nearly one third of the planet’s manmade emissions. Move over Hummer; it’s time to say hello to the hamburger.

It doesn’t take high-level math to realize if we’re serious about averting the climate crisis, we need to add the food chain to our conversation. (Of course, we should be talking about agriculture’s impact on the environment for a host of other reasons, too. Agriculture is the world’s single largest user of land and water, using up 70 percent of the world’s freshwater resources every year. Agriculture is also responsible for widespread air and water pollution and agricultural chemical runoff that causes aquatic dead zones around the world. At last count, there are more than 400, including one in the Gulf of Mexico that swells every year to a size three times larger than the BP oil spill.

Climate-friendly food means more than just following a “green” checklist; it means considering the values underpinning our food system.

So what can we do? Thankfully, we’re learning every day about the power of sustainable food systems to help reduce emissions from the food chain and mitigate the climate crisis.

Now, the “food system” may sound (and feel) like an abstract concept that has nothing to do with the sandwich sitting on your desk for lunch, but it’s all related. And that sandwich you’re about to eat connects you to the livelihoods and fates of farmers and food workers around the world. It also connects you to the climate.

We can, with every food choice we make, align ourselves with a “climate-friendly diet” by choosing to eat sustainably raised food and steer clear of feedlot meat and industrial dairy, for instance. A climate-friendly diet also means going for fresh, whole, real foods, not the processed victuals so typical in our supermarkets, and limiting food packaging and food waste. But a climate-friendly food system means more than just our following a “green” checklist; it means considering the values underpinning this kind of food system, foremost among them ecology, community, and fairness.

That values “frame” is critical, now more than ever. As the food industry catches on that more and more of us care about the climate impacts of our food and that we’re asking more questions about the provenance of what we eat, they’ve stepped up their green marketing messages. McDonald’s recently launched an “Endangered Species” Happy Meal, “to engage kids in a fun and informative way about protecting the environment,” explains project partner Conservation International. A far cry from their GM partnership several years back, which launched the Hummer Happy Meal and ended only after 42 million toy Hummers had been given away. Earlier this year, Sara Lee unleashed with much fanfare a new line of “Earth Grains” bread that promotes “innovative farming practices that promote sustainable land use” as part of what the company calls its “Plot to Save the Earth.”

This new wave of food industry marketing is creating a green-tinged fog for some of us who are trying to sort out what’s truly green and what’s just spin. But, I believe, if we frame a climate-friendly system in core values, we can see more easily through the fog. By shifting the conversation to core values, it’s much harder for the message to be co-opted, no matter the savvy of the marketers.

1. Ecology

Ecology, from the Greek oikos, for house or dwelling, and logia, for the study of, draws attention to the relationships between living things and their environment. Coined in the 1870s, the term took root in the United States in the 1960s as environmentalists strove for a way of emphasizing the importance of these relationships. As we struggle to understand the role that food plays in the climate crisis (both its power to harm and to heal), the value of agroecology is key to our understanding.

Perhaps the clearest case for the need for agroecological systems was expressed in a ground-breaking study released in April 2008 in Johannesburg, South Africa by a consortium of more than 400 scientists from around the world. The report — with the tongue-twistingly long name the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) — stressed in no uncertain terms the importance of agroecology and small-scale farming and the need for sustainable management of livestock, forest, and fisheries. The IAASTD, as it is known, urges a transition to “biological substitutes for agrochemicals” and “reducing the dependency of the agricultural sector on fossil fuels” to foster a healthy food system and one that will help us mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.

“We don’t need a single super gene or a super variety that somehow will be a silver bullet approach to climate change. It’s a technological engineering approach to a biological problem.”
–Molly Anderson

Understanding ecology allows us to poke holes in the quick-fix solutions to climate change we’re hearing from agribusiness, like Monsanto’s promotion of genetically engineering seeds to withstand drought. (The company’s recent ad campaign — “How can we squeeze more from a raindrop?” — seems to be in every magazine I’ve picked up lately.) But as Molly Anderson, an expert on agroecology and an author of the IAASTD says: “Climate change is not something you can engineer a gene into a plant for. Climate change is a really complex se
t of processes. We don’t need a single super gene or a super variety that somehow will be a silver bullet approach to climate change. It’s a technological engineering approach to a biological problem.”

When we talk about our ecological food values, we’re focusing on the importance of interconnections and of the complexity of a truly sustainable food system. As agroecological farmers like to remind us, sustainable food is not just defined by the absence of chemicals — it’s about the creation of a healthy ecosystem, especially healthy, carbon-rich soils.

2. Community