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Michael Pollan: It's Time to Choose Climate-Friendly Food

Climate

When the international climate negotiators assembling in Paris this week sit down for dinner, they might reflect on the climate impact of their meal.

Indeed, in the midst of a growing—and very encouraging—global conversation on how to address the common threat of climate change, far too little attention has been paid at the highest levels to the impact of our diets and farming practices on planet-warming emissions.

If we are serious about changing the climate, we need to get serious about changing agriculture. Photo credit: Common Dreams

To put it another way: if we are serious about changing the climate, we need to get serious about changing agriculture.

The climate impact of fossil fuel-based—and, not incidentally, extremely unhealthy—industrial agriculture and processed food is still far from common coin in climate discussions that focus mainly on coal plants, oil refineries and motor vehicles.

But while energy is indeed the top source of greenhouse gas emissions, the food system is #2. The best available estimates suggest that industrial agriculture and livestock account for as much as a third of the total emissions causing climate change. This situation has its roots in decades of unsustainable agriculture, particularly excessive meat consumption (more than a quarter of the Earth's land is now used, directly or indirectly, to raise animals for human consumption), monoculture farming and the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers. As I've noted elsewhere,

"Approximately one-third of the carbon [now] in the atmosphere had formerly been sequestered in soils in the form of organic matter, but since we began plowing and deforesting, we'[ve] been releasing huge quantities of this carbon into the atmosphere ... the food system as a whole—that includes agriculture, food processing and food transportation—contribute[s] somewhere between 20-30 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by civilization—more than any other sector except energy."

Moreover, these emissions are strongly associated with foods and diets that we now know are very unhealthy.

Industrial food and especially industrial meat, contains pesticides, hormones and antibiotics suspected to contribute to many diseases. More generally the so-called "Western diet," which includes large amounts of meat and highly processed foods, is associated with higher levels of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer. In contrast, people who eat mainly plant-based diets and unprocessed foods have far lower rates of these diseases.

So what can we do? Simple: we can make a choice—one that will benefit both our planet and our health. I discuss these issues—and these choices—in a new documentary, Time To Choose, which will stream live on the Huffington Post starting this morning just as the UN global climate talks get under way in Paris.

Either we can continue to feed ourselves using millions of gallons of fossil fuels to make synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to support the unsustainable monocultures that undergird the present food system or we can turn towards modern organic and regenerative agriculture. The good news is that, thanks to the innovations pioneered by our most creative farmers, we already know how to do the right thing.

We can produce healthier food while at the same time storing carbon in soil—carbon taken from the atmosphere, thereby helping to reverse climate change. Farmers, consumers, entrepreneurs and elected officials the world over are beginning to implement sustainable agriculture on a large scale. But far more needs to be done—and the more people know about the challenge and the solutions, the closer we'll be to a sustainable food system.

So here's hoping that our leaders take a good, long look at their plates in Paris and reflect on how a crucial part of the climate solution is right at the end of their forks.

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The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."