Almost 800 million people are currently facing chronic hunger, and we waste one-third of all the food we produce. Americans are eating nearly a quarter more than they did in 1970, but we’re not just eating more than we used to—we’re eating way more than we need to. While our consumption is up, we’re misinformed and less connected to what we’re putting in our mouths.
Many people don’t know where their food comes from—where their vegetables or the grains in their bread are grown, or the farming methods used to harvest them, or how they arrive in the store from which they were purchased. According to a 2017 survey by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy, 7 percent of American adults believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows. This reflects a broad social trend—we generally don’t learn about farm-to-fork food systems in school. But the Center for Ecoliteracy is trying to change that.
CEL recently released a free digital suite containing an interactive guide on the connection between food and climate. “Understanding Food and Climate Change: An Interactive Guide,” which debuted on International Mother Earth Day at the United Nations, promotes thinking about food systems and their connection to climate.
Written at a six-grade level, the suite is for science curricula for secondary schools, though universities and organizations that serve adults are interested in using the suite. CEL hopes the guide will help personalize food systems for readers in a fun and accessible way, according to suite co-author and CEL creative director Karen Brown. “One of the best ways you can have people learn something new is to start with the concrete and move to the abstract … which is what makes food such an excellent starting point because everybody eats,” she says.
An unexpected number of Americans are agriculturally illiterate. This matters because climate change will impact agriculture and food supplies through extreme weather patterns like more frequent droughts, crop failures, and increased flooding. And addressing coming challenges will require new policies—and an informed public.
When we understand “our relationship with food as a dynamic system of interacting elements of seeds, soil, water, people, livelihoods, and financial transactions, we are less likely to think of food as the end product of linear agricultural food production. … Understanding [this] helps us grasp the key elements of climate-resilient food systems,” says CEL co-founder Zenobia Barlow. “Then we will be better able to encourage healthier personal, community, and production practices. We will discover improvements in human health and the health of soil and the environment.”
The guide makes surprising ecological connections between seemingly unrelated and otherwise mundane things, like “What do changes in rainfall patterns to southern states in the U.S. have to do with a peanut butter sandwich?” or “How are farmers in the Philippines using drones to identify climate risks, like drought and flooding?”
The authors behind the new suite, Brown and science educator Margo Crabtree, are eager to see young people make climate change a part of their everyday conversations. Crabtree, who has worked for decades promoting science literacy in education, believes teaching climate change is critical. “Climate change is not getting a lot of play in classrooms, in part due to politics, and the amount of time available in science classrooms, and the fact that it’s restricted to science, that’s it not in social studies.”
Food systems work starts with the individual.
Various states are trying to undermine climate science standards in public education, thwarting efforts to establish a cohesive curriculum that can be taught nationwide. A 2017 survey by The National Center for Science Education shows that few teachers have taken a college course on climate change, possibly because climate change is a fairly new topic to most teachers; it isn’t an established academic mainstay like other sciences or mathematics.
As people across the globe suffer the far-reaching consequences of climate change, our food systems aren’t left untouched; they will need to adapt as ecosystems rapidly change. By 2030, The World Food Program estimates, a 35 percent increase in food supply demand will require stronger food systems that effectively address the excesses of waste, consumption, and pollution related to the production of our food.
Food waste—a byproduct of inefficient food systems—is considered one of the greatest threats to the climate. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Global efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of a changing environment are growing. Brown is especially excited by smaller shifts with large impacts, for example, universities that are abandoning cafeteria trays to reduce food waste, farmers in Africa using termite tunnels for water infiltration, or California farmers planting hedgerows to support biodiversity. “When people start to see modifications like that, they get inspired,” Brown says.
For her, food systems work starts with the individual. “Understanding what it takes to get food to you is probably the best way to modify a food system that serves you. Some of the best answers may be local—certainly more local than a global industrial food system.”
It’s certainly a start.