This past April I was invited to speak at a climate event on Charlottesville’s downtown mall. The event was a “sister march” to the People’s Climate March held that same day in Washington, D.C. Several hundred thousand people participated in the DC event, as well as hundreds of sister marches around the country that day to raise awareness about the growing threat of global warming, and the Trump administration’s defiance on the issue.
My best guess is that about 100 people attended the Charlottesville march on the east end of the mall. I was one of about a half-dozen speakers. All the others focused on the environmental issues that seem to get the most attention and stir the most passions: our nation’s decades-long addiction to fossil fuels; and more locally, our state’s receptivity to plans by Dominion Energy to build natural gas pipelines through the Mid-Atlantic region. No offense to my fellow speakers that day (I don’t even recall who there were), but it’s not that difficult to galvanize the environmentalist choir into chanting: “Down with coal!” and “Stop the pipeline!”
I was chanting along with them by the time I got up to speak toward the end. But my message was different. I spoke about food and agriculture and how important it is for everyone to focus on the role it too plays in climate change. Now I’ll admit I’m no Pericles when it comes to my oration skills, but I’m no slouch either. I think I at least presented a compelling case describing how we produce and consume food has such a toxic effect on our world. But somehow I couldn’t get the crowd to chant, “Change our food!” In fact, besides maybe one or two people, I’m not sure anyone gave a flying crap, as evidenced by the sea of blank stares. And I was supposed to be preaching to the choir.
So why am I writing about this now, more than six months later? Because every day since then, it continues to pain me to witness the destructive path we’re going down, and how food is so carelessly ignored as a prime cause, and as the most hopeful solution. As I write this piece, world leaders are convening in Bonn, Germany for COP23. Most people have no idea what that is (COP stands for “Conference of the Parties”), but it’s more generally known as the United Nation’s climate change conference. The 23 means this is the 23rd annual… yes, that’s correct for all those living under a rock, there have already been 22 of these (sarcasm emphasized). In fact at the 21st version of COP in 2015, the Paris climate agreement was announced. Now we’re getting somewhere, right? You’ve surely heard of that. The Paris Agreement is a collaboration by all the countries of the world to begin working on greenhouse gas emission mitigation. Well, almost all the countries of the world. The day before I began writing this piece, Syria, the last holdout, announced their support of the agreement. So with the Trump administration declaring earlier this year the US would pull out of the agreement, that leaves our proud country as the only country in the world not participating, despite the fact that we are the second-highest emitter of greenhouse gases next to China. So Syria’s in, and we’re out. Yes, we’re making America great again (sarcasm emphasized).
That’s not to say the Paris Agreement is some perfect solution to global warming. It’s not even a solution, really. It’s just an agreement to find solutions that can keep global temperatures from rising too far above pre-industrial levels. And even at that, the process of identifying these solutions doesn’t begin until 2020. That’s just a little over two years away; but it’s too long to wait.
At the end of October, a report published by the British science journal, The Lancet, said the “delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardized human life and livelihoods.” The Lancet is not so well-known in our country of high-brow publications, but it is considered one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. It was responsible years ago for bringing to public attention the connection between smoking and lung cancer. You with me? Its report on global warming goes on to say that the human symptoms of climate change “are unequivocal and potentially irreversible.” So waiting until 2020 to begin talking about potential solutions doesn’t seem like a great strategy to me. That doesn’t mean I don’t support the Paris Agreement. I do. And I despise that the Trump administration is not supporting it.
I just worry it’s not enough. And I am concerned that - like those at the Charlottesville climate march in April - the focus will not be on the best target. While many of you are probably proud that you’ve heard of the Paris Agreement, most of you will have to admit you’ve never heard of “4 per 1000.” This was another initiative that came out of COP21, the same year as the Paris Agreement. Obviously with much less fanfare. The “4 per 1000” was spearheaded by the French government, and in essence it was an attempt to focus on the critical role our food system plays in anthropogenic (human caused) global warming, and at the same time, the potential it holds for reversing said global warming. More specifically, it is the role that soil plays. And it is soil that’s the core of the concept of regeneration, which has made our world turn since the dawn of time and is fundamental to saving our future.
My blog pieces tend to run too long to begin with so I can’t possibly take the time to explain all the details about “4 per 1000” and regeneration here. I have certainly written about regeneration in the past through The Juice Laundry blog, and on Foodwaze. And there is a new book coming out this month called Kiss the Ground,authored by Josh Tickell, that does a much better job than I can. I’ve read an advanced copy and urge you to get your hands on the book as soon as you can. It explains “4 per 1000” very succinctly, and it expounds on regeneration in a way that is easy to understand. What Tickell does exceptionally well is paint a paradox of despair and hope when it comes to climate and the role food plays in the intricate equation.
The general message in the book… and the message I read from other experts every single day… and the message I fear is overlooked by the Paris Agreement, and climate change activists in general, is that food matters… above all else.
Soil and water. Soil and water. Soil and water. Got it? Our extractive, chemical-dependent agricultural system is destroying the soil that is the lifeblood of our planet. Without healthy and fertile soil, the water cycle is disrupted, leading to erratic precipitation, drought, and eventual desertification. Desertification means plants can’t grow. Fewer plants means less carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and less oxygen released into the atmosphere for humans to breath. If this all seems over-simplified and far-fetched in its forecasting, it is not. Just keep an eye on California’s Central Valley, where a majority of our nation’s most popular fruits and vegetables are grown. It is teetering close to extinction as a viable growing region. It is alarming beyond imagination.
The stress on water resources is further exacerbated by confined animal systems that depend on massive amounts of water not just to run the systems but to produce the monoculture commodity crops to feed the animals. Unless and until we change the way we produce food, particularly meat, away from the industrial model to a more regenerative food system, we don’t have much hope to reverse the rapid acceleration of global warming.
That’s not to say greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, are not important in the fight against global warming. They absolutely are. In fact they are at the highest level they’ve been in millions of years. And once again, it is our food system that is playing a significant role.
Earlier this month, a non-profit organization called GRAIN produced a report that shows three meat companies - JBS, Cargill and Tyson - emitted more greenhouse gases last year than all of France and nearly as much as some of the biggest oil companies like Exxon, BP and Shell.
The report goes on to state: “Over the past few decades, the meat and dairy majors have become immensely powerful and have successfully pushed policies to support rapid growth of industrial meat and dairy production and consumption around the world, at all costs. One consequence, among many, is that livestock production now contributes nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, even more than the transportation sector. If production continues to grow as projected by the FAO, emissions will escalate to the point where industrial meat and dairy production alone will undercut our ability to keep temperatures from rising to an apocalyptic scenario.”You can read the rest of the story here.
While the more conventional climate activist may be able to point to different statistics about the percentages of greenhouse gas emissions (food vs energy sector), they miss the point. And this is where the concern lies. We simply can’t reduce global warming down to a single issue (greenhouse gas emissions) and forsake the whole, which includes soil and water… and the overall cycles of decay and renewal that are essential to all life on earth. It is in our food system, not the kind of cars we drive, where all the issues come into play.
Furthermore, by transforming the way we produce food, we have the potential to draw carbon down out of the atmosphere. And that is the most critical point of all. Most scientists agree that we are way beyond the tipping point with our atmospheric CO2 levels. So what this means is we can yank as many gas-guzzling cars off the road as we might… and that’s great. But it won’t reverse the crisis that has perhaps already been set too far into motion, as The Lancet report attests.
Let’s face it, we need all the solutions we can get, as quickly as possible. In his groundbreaking book,Drawdown, environmental activist Paul Hawken lists 100 potential solutions for drawing down greenhouse gases. Ten of the top 20 solutions involve transforming the way we farm or produce food.
I completely understand why food is overlooked, compared to other climate justice strategies. I believe there are several reasons for it. Perhaps the biggest is that issues around our addiction to fossil fuels are easy to understand. We all pretty much get it, even if we don’t always abide by the strictures: drive less, turn off the lights more, convert to cleaner energy however possible. We all pretty much agree that the solutions make sense, particularly in our technology obsessed world. Who among us doesn’t think that electric cars and solar panels are cool shit, and definitely belong in our future! And there are plenty of savvy entrepreneurs out there making these things happen. And if they get filthy rich in the process, fine.
But food is different. For one, I don’t think changing our food system should make anyone filthy rich. That’s part of the problem in the first place. What we do need is to make it more economically viable for people to practice regenerative organic agriculture at a small-scale level. We also need to stop fighting amongst ourselves… all of us who understand the dire need to change our industrial food system.
Growing and producing food is indeed complicated, with a seemingly infinite number of variables. Even those practicing sound agroecology on their farms often get petty about their own methods versus someone else’s.
Furthermore, food activists are often divided by issues rooted in the endless personal dietary choices we each make. These choices involve the consumption or non-consumption of meat, gluten, grains, dairy, alcohol, and on and on. My response to this is that no matter what your dietary descriptor is (vegan, paleo, vegetarian, nut-free, etc.), the commonality must be a stance against the industrial food system. The commonality must be participation in transforming our world from an extractive one to a regenerative one, where decisions are made that place the health of the entire biosphere into consideration.
When I spoke at the climate march in April, I closed with a line that I frequently use: “Every bite matters.” I’m hoping it’s a chant that our choir will add to its repertoire real soon.
Michael Reilly is co-founder of Foodwaze, LLC, a social enterprise based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The mission of Foodwaze is to help consumers find the best sources of real regenerative food at restaurants, cafes, markets, farms, and more. Foodwaze produces an online and mobile food guide that curates and rates businesses based on their commitment to a local regenerative food system.