Take on global warming from your dinner table

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Every time the most everyday kind of people make the most modest kind of change for the better in their food habits, they have a triple-whammy effect that the cognoscenti of global warming are unaware of.

The Annual Trudeau Foundation Conference on weathering  the change of impending climate chaos, held in Toronto from November 20-22, distinguished itself by defining food as a crucial factor in global warming.

That represents progress in a field dominated by organizations -- be it Greenpeace or Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change or be they organizations promoting left-wing analysis -- who talk almost exclusively about greenhouse gases coming from car-based transportation and inefficiently-designed buildings.

Notably missing from the Trudeau conference -- and more importantly from the general public discussion -- was recognition of the special role people can play by moving on food issues.

Nothing can match the ability of people working on food to deliver a three-course meal of  climate and environmental benefits. To lend this force scientific credibility, I call it the TWE (Triple Whammy Effect) lens.

Check out a typical three-fold multiplier when one person works on food by composting kitchen scraps.

First, the action eliminate all the emissions associated with wrapping the scraps and leftovers (usually about 40 per cent of weekly purchases, which cost approximately $1,500 over a year) in a plastic bag, hauling the material to a landfill site, and allowing the organic material to rot without oxygen, thereby giving off methane, which is 22 times more potent in causing global warming than carbon dioxide.

Composting does not reduce the emissions -- as happens when people take a bus or subway instead of a car, or use electricity generated by wind power rather than coal. Composting eliminates the entire problem by turning waste into a resource.

That’s the first effect of a typical food change.

Secondly, the simple act of composting creates a host of benefits -- over and above eliminating problems.

Compost applied to soil helps the soil store carbon underground, rather than release it to the atmosphere. It also helps replace artificial fertilizer, which pollutes the water table and emits global warming emissions when it's produced from gas wells.

Stale and unpleasant to look at to human eyes,  cabbage or lettuce a bit past their best-before date can be fed to livestock, thereby producing high-quality manure to fertilize the soil, plus high-quality animal protein -- at no cost of new energy.

The point here is that food is multi-functional, as European Union officials describe it, generating  wins for health and economies, as well as the environment.

Then comes the third level of benefit from a typical food shift.

Composting empowers individuals and groups (from students in a gardening program, or unionists looking to cut costs at a workplace providing institutional food, for example) to act independently to prevent global warming, regardless of what governments or politicians do.

This third element, I would argue, is fundamental to serious climate policy for today and the near-future.

Anyone who has observed the global political landscape over the last decade, particularly as regards programs for climate stability and environmental sustainability (a.k.a., the survival of life as we know it), should be ready to brace themselves for the right question about global warming.

Lead speakers at the Trudeau conference asked: can we hold global warming to a two or three-degree increase in temperature (damaging but not end-of-the-world catastrophic) over the next 35 years?

IMHO, if several important governments came behind doing something serious about fossil fuel emissions, the answer to that question would be a resounding yes.

But a realistic and relevant question needs to be put with a clear subtext.

The real question with subtext is: can we the people hold global temperatures to damaging levels -- given that almost all political parties (from right to left) have pathetic policies on environmental protection, and given that almost all governments devote their tax and regulatory incentives and infrastructure around servicing the fossil fuel industry, to the disadvantage of sustainable businesses?

Ever getting to yes on that formulation of the question depends on whether food is moved to the forefront of the climate change debate.

Individuals and groups can act independently of governments to make a transformative difference on food issues and the climate.

They can compost, eliminating a major city-based cause of warming emissions.

They can reduce animal protein consumption to several modest weekly servings of grass-fed beef or milk, poultry or eggs, or pork raised on pigs fed safe and clean veggie scraps, or fish raised in the wild or on farms feeding insects to fish.   

When people choose products from livestock raised on grass, insects and human leftovers, they transform climate impacts of meat and dairy production. Grasslands store carbon underground  as a result of their deep roots, and the carbon stays in storage because there is no need to plough the land, exposing it to air and allowing carbon to escape.

When people reduce meat and dairy consumption to more nutritious levels (approximately one modest serving daily), they have the power to eliminate 20 per cent of yearly global warming emissions, which come from the global destruction of forests. Forests are cleared  to make way for corn and soy crops that fatten livestock more quickly than grass and insects (what grazing animals mostly ate before the era of factory farms).

When the forests are cleared, usually by burning, the carbon once locked up in their trunks and in the soil goes up in the air.

People can buy fair trade coffee and cacao, almost automatically supporting producer co-ops that tend  coffee bushes and cacao trees in forests, where they take down carbon from the atmosphere and store it deep in the soil. This displaces the eco-destruction caused by raising coffee and cacao in plantations.

Since coffee beans and cacao pods aren't very perishable, they can take a slow ship that doesn't rely on fossil fuels. Given that coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world, it's a no-brainer to shift transportation to sail -- many huge rigs already are equipped for that -- and rail.

If people at educational and health institutions insisted on mostly local and sustainable foods, they could, just for starters, replace the standard 2000-kilometre trip from farm to fork to less than 500 kilometres.

According to careful estimates by Local Food Plus, which introduced such programs to University of Toronto, McGill and University de Quebec a Montreal, made a careful calculation of environmental and economic benefits of such shifts. When 10,000 people spend ten dollars every week on local and sustainable foods, they accomplish the equivalent of taking 1,000 cars off the road -- while creating 100 new jobs.

Such actions at one campus the size of University of Toronto would likely have the impact of taking 7,000 cars off the road while creating 700 jobs -- a decent-sized appetizer for what a citizen-led global cooling campaign could achieve.

With a little imagination, a Do It Yourself list for citizen action could be expanded to include urban backyard gardening, and food processing, retail and catering co-ops at the neighbourhood level -- all of which were quite common throughout the world before the rise of an industrialized food system after the Second World War. 

I thank Trudeau Foundation organizers for making food part of the conversation about global warming, and for making urgency the acceptable tone of people thinking seriously about climate change.

I apologize to Trudeau Foundation organizers for using their event to clarify my own thinking, rather than summarize conference speakers.

I congratulate Joan Monfaredi, executive chef at the posh Park Hyatt hotel, where the Trudeau conference was held, for launching her philosophy of "responsible eating," which features local, organic and humanely-raised ingredients. Not a bad place to start setting the standard for conference hotels. 

And I challenge those who think they can do better than the Trudeau conference organizers to start building the institutions that empower people to sink their teeth into the biggest challenge facing planetary well-being.


Wayne Roberts is a founding member of Food Secure Canada, is the author of Food for City Building: A Field Guide for Planners, Actionists and Entrepreneurs.

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