When a Warming Climate Threatens Your Dinner Plate

by Zenobia Barlow

Published: 11/02/18, Last updated: 1/22/19

The Center for Ecoliteracy is an internationally recognized leader in education for sustainable living. For decades, it has engaged with educators and students about the systems that sustain our earth and that contribute to our ability to be healthy, engaged, and conscious participants in making our world a more sustainable place to live and thrive. Their books and online tools for teachers and students are invaluable resources, and they have just added to their toolbox! Here their Co-founder and Executive Director Zenobia Barlow discusses their new suite of educational resources that help explain the connection between food systems and climate change.

Whether you’re a student in Osaka, Japan, tucking into a bento box of salted fish and edamame, a University professor in Dakar munching on Senegalese yassa, or an American steelworker unwrapping a hamburger, chances are you sit down several times a day to a plate of food, no matter who or where you are. You may not be aware of all the ways your choices at mealtimes are affecting the climate, but they are, and greatly.

Our understanding of the links between food systems and climate change is growing, but public awareness of the importance of this relationship is not widespread. Even people who accept that anthropogenic climate change is occurring are more likely to think first about home energy or focus on transportation. Fewer people consider the impact of the dinner on their plates, but the connections between climate change and food systems are deep and wide-ranging—the food choices we make; the ways we grow, raise, transport, process, store, prepare, and serve food; how we manage food waste. The Center for Ecoliteracy is making great strides toward shifting this awareness.

How Our Food System Affects Climate Change

The Center for Ecoliteracy recently released a suite of free digital resources with two parts: a collection of essays, and an interactive guide that offers videos, original animations, interactive pages, photography, and sample activities to help explore the relationships between food and climate change. The suite is generating broad interest among students, educators, campaigners, environmental advocacy organizations, and food producers. The resources serve as a primer on the principles of ecology as well as an inquiry on what it means to think in terms of systems and relationships when it comes to our personal lifestyle choices and the impact they have on a changing planet.

Using systems thinking, the guide makes surprising connections between seemingly unrelated topics. For example, drastically reduced snowpack becomes a threat to beer marketing slogans the world over. Why? Because Olympia Beer’s “It’s the water” or Zephyrhills’ “Pure water. Great beer” are rendered cruelly ironic if that water is no longer available. Something as mundane as fish sticks could vanish if a warming Bering Sea causes zooplankton stock to plummet. That’s because Alaska pollock—without which there would be no “fish” in fish sticks—feed mainly on the rapidly disappearing zooplankton.

Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Beer … What’s the Future for My Favorite Foods?

Between 2012 and 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) periodically issued “Climate and …” reports on a variety of popular foods. (At the time of this writing, these reports are still available).

An example:


What if you had to choose between chocolate and endangered habitat? Cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) only grow within about 20° north and south of the equator. They require conditions including fairly uniform temperatures, high humidity, abundant rain, nitrogen-rich soil, and protection from wind. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that under a “business as usual” scenario the world’s primary cacao-growing regions would experience a significant increase in temperature and a marked reduction in suitable cultivation area by 2050. According to the NOAA report, “Cacao-growing countries may have to choose which priority matters more: growing a product to meet a global demand, or preserving natural habitat.”

Young people today have to face the reality of a changing climate thanks to our legacy of a consumer economy and blatant disregard of environmental limits, and they are vulnerable to the impact of decisions made by past and current policymakers. They have both the most to gain and the most to lose. What can we do to support them in developing powerful responses? People take action when they believe they can effect change. Food uniquely offers the potential for personalizing climate change and helping young people imagine promising strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate risks. It inspires hope.

The Center for Ecoliteracy’s intention in publishing this free suite of digital resources is to foster a deeper understanding of climate change and inspire planet-friendly choices about how you eat, shop, grow, and prepare foods. Join us in viewing the rest of these resources in their web version for all computers and tablets here and here. Understanding Food and Climate Change is also available as a free iBook for Mac and iPad users here.

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