GLEANINGS
The world is what we eat: food choices and climate change

By Wylie Harris, Prairie Writers Circle

Posted October 15, 2004: The movie “The Day After Tomorrow” gives people a Technicolor take on the havoc that global climate change might wreak. Despite President Bush’s reassurances to the contrary, the growing consensus among scientists is that the problem is real. No less sober a source than the Pentagon recently made predictions rivaling the movie’s for grimness.

No one can say when, where and how global warming will actually play out. That makes it even scarier. With this uncertainty, “better safe than sorry” seems the best prescription.

So what can you and I do?

We can push policy changes. We can drive less and practice other forms of conservation. And we can consider other ways we spend our money -- in particular, what kinds of food we buy.

There are two strategies for lessening the atmosphere’s load of the heat-trapping greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. One is to emit less of it. The other is to reduce what’s already there by sucking it out of the air and storing it somewhere else, such as in the soil. Certain kinds of farming -- and shopping -- can do both.

Pound for pound, growing food organically emits less carbon dioxide than the methods most commonly used to grow food today. Conventional agriculture uses large amounts of synthetic, fossil-fuel-based nitrogen fertilizer, whose production and use account for as much as a third of agriculture's carbon dioxide emissions. Organic farms don't use synthetic nitrogen, relying instead on crop residues and manure for fertility. What’s more, Rodale Institute studies show that this recycling of organic matter back into the soil can increase the amount of carbon stored there.

So organic farming takes the prize in today’s agriculture for addressing the problem of mounting carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. And organic has an added benefit: It doesn’t poison our soil and water with the synthetic pesticides so widely used in conventional farming.

Growing food, however, is only half the battle. Getting it to the table also puts out a lot of carbon dioxide. Food in the United States typically travels 1,500 miles before landing on the dinner plate. The food industry is the largest user of freight transportation in the country. Buying more locally grown food would reduce those miles, keeping more fossil-fuel carbon in the tank and out of the sky.

Local foods might seem hard to find at first, but there’s no better way of increasing supply than to make demand felt. And demand is already growing. The number of farmers and customers at farmers’ markets and other direct sales outlets is up 20 percent annually over the past decade. Web sites like localharvest.org, csacenter.org and eatwellguide.org are good places to start looking for local sources.

Buying organic and local food is a nearly unbeatable combination. Home gardening is another option, and is also a great source of exercise -- without the gym fees.

If you’re concerned about global warming, you can -- and should -- express that concern to your elected representatives, and get them to start applying your tax money to keeping the worst-case climate change scenarios in the movies. Meantime, you can send a more immediate signal in the way you buy -- or grow -- your food each week.

Wylie Harris is a Food and Society Policy Fellow, funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. He ranches with his family in north-central Texas. Harris is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.