Lake Mead and the Great Salt Lake are drying up. Yellowstone closed its gates due to flooding. Wildfires flare up out west. Caused by climate change? Made worse by climate change? Is global climate change the central issue of our time? Or is it overhyped? Is it an existential threat or a mirage? No one knows, but we all have our beliefs. If it is real, can we conquer it through either conservation or technology?
I was once a climate-change denier. I left the University of Florida campus for the University of Massachusetts. Talk about a culture shock! My moderate-conservative mindset was not ready for an ultraliberal campus. My first exposure to climate-change activism was during the summer I arrived. A massive back-to-nature fair spread all over the main campus. Global Warming and what we could do about it was theme of the fair. I thought those people were crazy! Two of my professors had written a book discounting the movement. That was good enough for me.
I took my fresh PhD to the University of Georgia to start my career. To be frank, I did not think much about climate change during my research or teaching careers. In my survey course, I delivered a lecture each semester that provided a balanced view on the topic. I tried to explain it as viewed by optimists and pessimists. The optimists were confident that technology would meet every climate challenge. The pessimists considered us doomed unless we changed our ways. During my last two summers on the Georgia campus, I taught a discussion class around a central theme. We watched a contemporary video each week, discussed the video, and prepared a class report. Environmental issues started bubbling up during those discussions. My students were trying to teach me something.
I retired. My mission became writing a book about processed food. I researched each of seven issues in depth. Only one issue underwent a dramatic change in my mind: food sustainability. I started this blog to support and market my book. My marketing effort failed, but the blog has helped me explore topics from the book as well as branch out in other directions. Global climate change has become a primary topic on the blog.
I read books and review articles to draw my own conclusions. Nourished Planet has admirable goals. But is agroecology the answer to solving climate-change issues? The Wizard and the Prophet pits conservation against technology. The author concludes that the time to find an answer through conservation has passed. If we are to conquer climate change, it will be with advances in technology. Jay Inslee believes that cooperation between business and government is necessary. Otherwise we will not meet the challenge. The Green New Deal relies only on government.
Robert Paarlberg rejects agroecology as impractical. American society refuses to enact legislation to combat climate change. It is willing to clean up damage when incurred. Greta Thunberg calls out politicians for what they are not doing. She seems inflexible in what actions we should or shouldn’t take. Raj Patel sees solutions to climate change in agroecology and conservation. Bill Gates embraces technological solutions.
Food culture wars have erupted. We must take a stand or we fall into the detested middle, the proverbial valley of the shadow of death. Some of the battle lines in these culture wars include
o Corporate vs. the Green New Deal
o Nuclear power vs. renewable energy
o Agroecology vs. Biotechnology
o Organic vs. conventional
o Whole vs. processed foods
o Home-cooked vs. ultra-processed food
o Plant-based vs. real meat
In culture wars we ignore A AND B as a solution. Rather, we state C BUT NOT D. We must choose sides and condemn alternative routes. If we embrace the Green New Deal, we must reject any corporate solutions. Couldn’t government and the corporate world work together? Nuclear power is becoming a less dangerous supply of emission-free energy. But it takes a long time to get a new power plant online. Renewables can’t meet our total energy demand. We need both to meet zero emissions by 2050.
Agroecology and biotechnology have different audiences. What might work in some areas of the world might not work in others. Is there room for both approaches? Of all these issues, these battle lines may be most difficult to find compatibility. Regulations against GMOs became so stringent that only the biotech giants survive. With such power, look for Biotechnology to overpower Agroecology. Organic agriculture can’t produce enough nitrogen to feed the current population of the world. Organic farming can make significant contributions to the food supply on the planet.
When we get beyond the farm gate, we find more food culture wars. Should we eat more whole foods and less processed products? Whole foods are great. People who have the time, money, and desire to buy, prepare, and eat whole foods should. But not everyone has that time, money, or desire. Processed foods meet their needs. Shouldn’t they have a choice? In the same vein, home cooking is great. I prepare most of the meals for my wife who continues to work. In that pursuit I combine fresh, whole foods with ultra-processed products. Is it critical that we avoid most if not all ultra-processed products? Are the health effects of UPFs as dire as we read on the net? Speaking of UPFs, what about plant-based meats as substitutes for real meat? Can we continue to tolerate emissions associated with food from animals?
Each side in the food culture wars diverts attention from preventing climate change. When we choose C BUT NOT D do we put personal preferences above desires to save the planet? Is the construct that important to us, not the goal? Even if we don’t like D, can we live with it to serve a greater good? How committed are each of us to fighting global climate change?
Food sustainability is the way we approach its environmental impact. First is the amount of land required to produce food. Finding enough land to feed livestock is difficult. Clearing more land encroaches on wildlife habitat. Factory farms solve part of the problem, but we need land to grow feed, land not available to grow food. And then there is the manure and other waste, leading to runoff and other problems. Eating less meat helps, but we need to eat a whole lot less meat to make a difference.
Net-zero emissions by 2050 is the goal advanced by most climate activists. In the food world some of those those emissions come from methane emitted from burping cows. They also come from agricultural machinery, food transport, and refrigeration. Food processing consumes large amounts of energy in the plant. Shelf-stable foods lining supermarket center aisles need little energy input in storage. Fresh and frozen foods need temperature control to maintain quality. Home cooking is an inefficient use of energy to feed a small number of diners. Runoffs of fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals pollute rivers and streams. Runoff also leads to growth of microbes and plants in lakes. Excess growth depletes the oxygen levels and causes death of freshwater life.
Food loss and waste also affects sustainability. Food loss refers to edible food becoming unacceptable before arriving at the market. Waste refers to discarding of edible food at the market, in a restaurant, or in the home. All inputs before discard contribute to unsustainability of that food. Loss can occur on the farm, during transport, and in storage. Waste occurs on display, during processing, or during meal preparation. Fresh foods undergo rapid spoilage. Careful planning in shopping, storing, and food prep reduces food waste in the home. Composting of fresh waste reduces the negative impact to the environment. Failure to recover or upcycle material in processing leads to waste of ingredients.
When purchasing a product, we don’t know how responsible the manufacturer has been. Food labels provide some information on sustainability. Certifying agencies put their reputation on the line when approving a food for its seal on a label. QR codes provide more information. Can we trust this information or do we assume it is an example of greenwashing? We need a simple set of guidelines to help us navigate the world of sustainability. Alas, sustainability is anything but simple!
Optimists and pessimists abound in response to climate change. Climate-change deniers can become believers. Look at me. Among believers there are both optimists and pessimists. At the end of my lectures on climate change, I told my students that optimists could be right for a long time. The pessimists only needed to be right once. Then it would be GAME OVER. In my book, written in 2015, I presented the views of an optimist, a pessimist, and one in the middle.
The optimist indicated that we needed to expand food production by 70% by 2050. He also called for an increase in world food trade to stem inflation. It’s not looking so good for that optimist right now. The pessimist looked to reducing emissions by 80% by 2020. and eliminating poverty around the world. He also said we would need to stabilize global population at 8 billion by 2040. We are not meeting those goals. The pessimist has not won yet, but we are blowing through all projections.
What about the perspective between the rosy scenario and gloom and doom? The middle-of-the-roader predicted the collapse of capitalism, democracy, and generational harmony without changing. Expect wild swings in markets and climate events unless we start working together. What I viewed as science fiction seven years ago, I see as more realistic today.
Where I stand. I see global climate change as an existential threat to humankind. I see the number and intensity of climate-associated events increasing. I am trying to do my part. The pandemic limited my travel. My concerns about climate change continue to keep me close to home. We have two cars, and we fill each one up about once a month. I have eliminated my need to buy ground beef by buying the plant-based alternative. I have not found any other plant-based products to substitute for meat, milk, or eggs that appeals to me. Meat still remains at the enter of my plate for most meals. I do prepare some meatless meals. I try to reduce food waste, but I do not compost. I am doing something to combat climate change. I could do more, but personal sacrifice will not be enough. Governmental action, much of it unpopular, must be a major part of the effort.
During my life I have been a perennial optimist. I always try to look on the bright side. I want to be an optimist on our progress to meet the challenge. Activists shame believers who express pessimistic views. Despite that, I have become a climate-change pessimist because:
o The food culture wars overpower long-term solutions. Too many activists cling to personal viewpoints and speak out against alternative perspectives. The movement has become a circular firing squad.
o Every decade activists set targets and every decade we blow past them. For example, can we reduce emissions by 50% by 2030? Or limit world population to 8 billion by 2040 when we are currently at 7.8 billion in 2022?
o Politicians around the world ignore any movement towards significant progress. Americans focus on repairing damage after a climate disaster rather than reducing risk.
My 100th birthday will happen 46 days before January 1, 2050, the expected year of doom. I don’t expect to be alive then, but I envision a world in turmoil by that date. I don’t have children or grandchildren. I will leave behind a total of nine nieces and nephews. I will also leave behind children I taught in Sunday School. I remember the lunch buddies I sat by each Wednesday when school was in session. I fear the consequences each of them will face because my generation failed. I wish I could be a climate-change optimist, but I can’t. Zoomers, aka Generation Disaster, prove me wrong! Please!
Next week: Safe water and organic vegetables