Food, Climate, and the Holidays: What’s the Connection?

December 24, 2020

Written by Nathan Slauer

During the holiday season, it’s nearly impossible to stop dreaming about food. Your  cousin texts a selfie proudly posing with his massive turkey. Scrolling through the Facebook  reveals countless photos of big fresh slices of pumpkin pie with piles of whipped cream. Yum! After work, you curl up on the couch with a bowl filled with warm holiday dinner leftovers and binge watch the Great British Baking Show. Food can definitely be bliss.

In 2020 — a year defined by a public health crisis, political turbulence, and racial unrest — everyone could use a source of comfort. With all the anxiety swirling around the election, economic difficulty, and partisan bickering, it can feel calming to turn off the news and cook a homemade meal. There’s nothing quite like a good meal to distract from the stress of the day.

For many people, the topic of food is safe, neutral territory. In many households, the mantra is no politics and religion at the kitchen table. So, when someone draws a connection between food and climate change, it can be awkward and even downright unpleasant. When food, a symbol of comfort and safety, is tied to climate change, a source of fear and anxiety, it can be hard to stomach. No one wants to see their one escape turn into yet another ideological battleground. 

Ignorance is bliss, but it is true that food and the climate cannot be neatly separated. Climate is intricately linked with the systems that interact with our lives and a part of addressing climate changes involves changing the way we eat. It doesn’t need to be painful though. If anything, a change in diet could be fun and maybe even become a new hobby!

Our food supply is changing, and we need to be prepared. Agriculture makes up a $300 billion industry, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. This critical sector faces major challenges as the climate shifts. Increases in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) can lead to positive changes such as an increased crop yield. However, it also causes negative environmental effects such as droughts, flooding, extreme weather patterns, wildfires, and harm to livestock and crops. With growing unpredictability, farmers will need to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. 

Beyond changes to the food supply, we need to reconsider what we eat. The world’s food system generates about one quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases. Livestock alone takes up an enormous amount of habitable land and emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. It takes a whopping 17.7 kilograms of CO2 to produce 50 grams of beef protein –an incredible amount. This will continue to contribute to climate change if the demand for red meat remains high.

Of course, individual choices cannot on their own change our food production system. The government needs to act on the local, state, and federal level to make better choices more available and easier. But your individual choices can help make a difference. For those who love hamburgers and steak, it might be time to switch things up. You don’t even need to give up meat cold turkey and become a vegan to have an impact. Even adopting a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fish, nuts, and beans as protein sources over red meat and poultry, can help reduce your carbon footprint. To take an even smaller step, try cooking at home instead of dining out or do a “meatless Monday.” Every little bit counts.

The next time you’re craving something delicious, like a holiday favorite — you don’t need to feel guilt. But you should be aware that each action you take or not, affects the world we live in.

Nathan Slauer is a volunteer communications assistant for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. His public service experience includes two terms as an AmeriCorps VISTA member and time spent with the Michigan House of Representatives. Slauer is currently pursuing his Master of Public Administration from Grand Valley State University.