The Food System and Climate Change

Two billion people all over the world are affected by iron deficiency contributing to anemia. Two hundred and fifty million children suffer in more than half the countries on the planet suffer from Vitamin A deficiency. And 805 million people suffer from hunger. In the U.S. though, 1.3 billion people are overweight or obese due to a diet that is damaging to our bodies and our environment.

How could something so simple as eating, the most natural human activity, damage our environment? It is in the way in which our food system is set up, built upon fossil fuels. In the tropics, destruction of natural rainforests for agriculture contributes to 12% of total warming annually, even though only 50% of the food produced ever make it onto a plate. The creation of chemical fertilizers rely on oil, coal, or natural gas to supply the hydrogen gases necessary to artificially re-create the act of nitrogen fixation. Corn- and soy-fed cows consume on average the equivalent of 35 gallons of oil in their lifetime, due to the fertilizer used to grow their corn, transportation emissions, and many other sources of emissions along the industrial food chain. Wet milling, the process factories use to break down corn into factories to become cornstarch and various sweeteners, burns 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of processed food it produces. It takes 1.3 gallons of oil to make 4,150 calories. Food transportation is yet another contributor to GHG emissions, producing about 12% of emissions in developed countries, such as the United Kingdom.

The food supply chain greatly affects climate, but a warming climate will also affect the food supply chain. It disrupts crop yields and pushes food prices up, increasing food insecurity for the world’s population. A study led by the Harvard School of Public Health found that rising CO2 levels strip foods of vital nutrients, which will increase the number of undernourished children in developing countries. In Africa, this number is expected to rise ten-fold by the year 2050.

Poverty and climate change are self-reinforcing. As climate change threatens crop production, the number of hungry and malnourished in the developing world will increase, which will result in unsustainable practices in these places to meet their current needs. To mitigate climate change, and in turn allay undernourishment and poverty, we must reimagine our food system. We should support small farms, which will rely less on fertilizers due to their being polycultures (most likely, because it will make more financial sense for a small farm), as opposed to many corn farms in Iowa, which are grown as monocultures with no other plants and animals, other than corn and soy. We should convert degraded lands into productive farms, which will help adapt to and mitigate climate change, reduce rainforest destruction, along with enhancing global food security. Breastfeeding for infants is a highly sustainable intervention that will reduce the carbon footprint of our food consumption.

As we near the COP and the world inches ever closer to the 2 degrees C limit, we must remember not to treat climate change as an isolated issue. Every action we take will affect it, and it, in turn, will affect every action we take.


All statistics without a link from The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Climate Change and Sustainable Development: A Perfect Fit


According to the latest IPCC Synthesis Report there is a clear human influence on the climate system. The “unequivocal warming” can be seen very well over the last three decades, which have been warmed successively. The effects of this human induced climate destabilization can be seen in the present and are projected to worsen over time, regardless of the level of carbon emitted into the future. This does not mean that global and regional systems should not be overhauled to reduce carbon emissions. A rapid decrease in emissions is necessary to avert further warming of the planet and changes in the climate system. As the various effects of the shifting climate are being seen now, it can be clear that a level of dangerous climate change has been reached, although not threatening on a global scale. In order to ensure the perpetuity of our species in conditions that are not life threatening, a new development pattern must be adopted. The old way, some may say the “dirty way,” is no longer feasible. No longer may we dig up energy reserves that were sequestered over millions of years and burn them in a matter of hours. This is not as sustainable as once was thought. The planet is telling us that we must radically shift the way we build, develop, live, connect, move, eat, recreate, etc.

Sustainable development is a young notion, but a powerful one. Around it, is a conversation that attempts to unite every person on the planet in the hopes that we all might work together to further our species. Climate change fits into this conversation very well. Results of unsustainable development, the effects of climate change are a huge risk to the safety of our species. It however lends itself nicely to sustainable development. While posing significant threats to the stability of society, it is a driving force of this newfound development scheme. With changes in line with sustainable development, great gains in living conditions can be seen.

Wedding photos from a smog-day in Beijing, China. Source:
Wedding photos from a smog-day in Beijing, China. Source:

In looking at the driver of climate change, fossil fuels, an obvious need for doing away with all fossil fuels can be seen.
Just as important to look at though, are the public health benefits that come from reducing the burning of fossil fuels. Smog and airborne particulate matter are a huge health risk all over the world, from the smog filled skies of Beijing to the United States, where in 2013 118 of the 231 counties in the United States exceeded the EPA’s allowed level of ozone.[1] These dangers are a direct result of burning fossil fuels. Switching to power-generation systems that do not emit will not only slow global warming, it will directly save lives and promote healthier activities.

The alleviation of poverty is one of the United Nation’s direct responsibilities.[2] Taking a look at poverty one will find that about 1.3 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity.[3] One solution to this would be to build large centralized coal plants, which would be the centers of massive electricity transportation networks. This inefficient and unsustainable system is currently in place in much of the developed world. However other solutions exist. There has been a great deal of work done on the link between renewable energy and poverty alleviation. Not only studying the prospects, but actual tangible change. For instance in India, Project Chirag is bringing light to rural villages across the nation and it is being done with the use of solar panels and batteries.

Effect of electricity on poverty. Source:


Climate change has been described as the biggest challenge our species has ever faced. And a challenge it is, altering the way nature of the planet that humans have grown up in. Why look at climate change merely as a challenge? The notion that by 2100 fossil fuels must be phased out and renewable grids in place is just incredible. A recent study estimates, with an 80% chance, that the projected population by 2100 will range between 9.6 and 12.3 billion. They will all need electricity, food, water, and space. Developing for sustainability is the only option if we want to be sure that this population will be able to live safely and without struggle. Using climate change as a tool, rather than looking at it simply as challenge, to make the world a better place seems like a reasonable way to ensure that type of development.




Works Cited

“Bodies, History, Visits, Employment, Address, Members, Budget, Information.” UN News Center. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.


“Can Renewable Electricity Reduce Poverty? – Institute of Development Studies.” 13 Jan. 2014. Web. 2

Nov. 2014.


“Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report, Longer Report.” Intergovernmental Panel on Cliamte Change.

November 1, 2014.


Gerland, Patrick, Adrian E. Raftery, Hana Sevcikova, Nan Li, Danan Gu, Thomas Spoorenberg, and John

Wilmoth, et al. 2014. “World population stabilization unlikely this century.” Science no. 6206: 234.


Resutek, Audrey. “Study: Cutting Emissions Pays for Itself.” MIT News. 24 Aug. 2014. Web. 2 Nov.