1. Introduction: What Makes Food and Climate Change a Compelling Topic for Ecological Education?

This collection of essays explores a variety of topics concerning food, climate change, and the links between them from a systems perspective. While they are appropriate for a wide audience of nonspecialists, the essays are intended in particular for teachers wanting to further their own understanding and preparation for teaching and structuring student discussion.

The collection does not devote much space to presenting evidence for climate change. For that, there are numerous excellent resources available, including some written especially for teachers and students.1 We accept Scientific American’s summary in an article titled “Why Climate Skeptics Are Wrong”: “[T]here is a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry—pollen, tree rings, ice cores, corals, glacial and polar ice-cap melt, sea-level rise, ecological shifts, carbon dioxide increases, the unprecedented rate of temperature increase—that all converge to a singular conclusion.”2 The starting point for these essays is that climate change is real, current rates of change are driven substantially by human activity, the consequences are serious, and potentially disastrous, and the need to respond is urgent.

Linking Food Systems and Climate Change

Awareness of the links between food systems and climate change is growing. Several organizations, including the Center for Food Safety, the California Climate and Agriculture Network, and the Climate Food and Farming Research Network, are devoted to investigating and acting on these connections.3 Nevertheless, 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 energy—“green” buildings and energy conservation, or solar panels and wind farms versus fossil fuels. Or they focus on transportation—gas-guzzlers versus hybrids, or bicycles and public transportation versus single-occupancy vehicles. And so on.

Fewer people think first about 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. Many researchers currently attribute about a third of human-generated global greenhouse gas emissions to activities somewhere in the food chain.4 Data differ from region to region, and the amount and proportion of emissions associated with food systems might be much larger—and could grow in the future if current dietary trends such as increasing worldwide consumption of meat and dairy continue and action is not taken.

Ecological Education and Systems Thinking

The juncture of food systems and climate change is especially pertinent to ecological education.

First, it is as basic to sustainable living as any topic. Food is essential to survival, and food systems and the people who depend on them are profoundly threatened by climate change.5

Second, the links between food systems and climate change can only be understood ecologically. The issues are complex (and often politically charged), which is all the more reason for helping students, who are and will be citizens, to understand them and imagine how to act accordingly. Achieving that understanding can be challenging, but systems thinking, with its attention to relationships, patterns, and context, provides tools for making sense of this complexity. (See especially the second and third essays in this collection. Each of the collection’s essays also includes a section highlighting the systems perspective.)

Third, food and climate change can be a helpful entrée for teaching ecological concepts and systems thinking. The topic offers a real-world context—with real-world consequences—for teaching and learning about key ecological principles and processes, including cycles, flows, interdependence, diversity, development, and dynamic balance.6 These, in turn, overlap with many of the crosscutting concepts of the Next Generation Science Standards,7 including patterns; cause and effect; systems and system models; energy and matter flows, cycles, and conservation; and stability and change.

Fourth, connecting food systems and climate change entails describing links between this contemporary environmental concern and the daily experiences and practices of students and schools, from learning in the garden to procuring, preparing, and providing meals and reducing food waste. For instance, the Center for Ecoliteracy is dedicated to education for sustainable living. Investigating the links between food systems and climate permits engagement with the Center’s mission, as stated in its strategic plan: “We advance a model of K–12 ecological education that encourages students to experience and understand how nature sustains life and how to live accordingly.”

This topic that can be approached through the Center’s Smart by Nature Guiding Principles:8

  1. Nature is our teacher
  2. Sustainability is a community practice
  3. The real world is the optimal learning environment
  4. Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place

Fifth, food systems are particularly relevant to an ecological discussion of climate change because of the opportunity—the necessity, in fact—of what the essayist, poet, and farmer Wendell Berry calls “solving for pattern.” Berry speaks of “solutions that cause a ramifying series of solutions.”9 With respect to food systems and climate change, the adoption of a variety of agricultural practices (variously called “climate-friendly agriculture,” “agroecology,” or sometimes “organic agriculture”) can contribute to combating climate change while simultaneously supporting increased food security, replenishment of soil, restoration of degraded resources, protection of ecosystem services and biodiversity, retention of water, improved finances of farmers, and the well-being of farm communities. Sixteen of the 80 strategies assessed in the 2017 book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming involve food.10

Sixth, of all the strategies proposed for addressing climate change, strategies based on practices in the food system offer some of the greatest promise for removing carbon from the atmosphere by sequestering it in soil and living organisms.

At the same time, some observers point to obstacles or worry that strategies such as soil-carbon offset markets, which reward landowners for sequestering carbon but may not be appropriate for smallholder farmers, may create incentives for “soil grabbing” by industrial interests more concerned with profit than in growing food or sustaining communities in Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere.11 A program of ecological education should familiarize students with such proposals and help them identify tools and resources for assessing them.

We can hypothesize several reasons why the topic of food systems and climate change is not being widely addressed in K–12 education. The resources to help teachers present this material are limited. As noted above, food systems have not been featured as much in climate change discussions as might be expected in light of their importance. A Worldwatch Institute research paper observes that most climate leaders come out of the atmospheric science or energy sectors. Some, in fact, may even be reluctant to consider agriculture-based solutions out of fear that that would detract attention and resources from efforts to transform the energy economy or would take industrial-emitter countries “off the hook.”12

These essays are a response to the gap in resources for teaching about the links between food systems and climate change. The essays can be read sequentially or individually. Rather than attempting to cover the large volume of subject matter comprehensively, they focus on questions (suggested in part during interviews with high school science teachers) which, we hope, can engage learners around their interests and concerns. When addressing controversial matters such as animal agriculture, the essays do not take a position, but offer a basis for discussion and further exploration. The endnotes to the essays and the References section provide pointers to additional resources for readers who want to pursue topics in greater depth.