Yeast, vegetable seeds and local farm boxes are new hot-ticket items. Windowsill scallions are having their moment in the sun. People are exchanging tips on how to use every bit of food in the fridge, how to pickle and preserve. While these new habits and hobbies make for engaging Instagram stories and a motivation to call your grandmother, they’re important for a much bigger reason: these new interests are exactly what Mother Nature needs from us.
Amid the chaos and fear of the coronavirus pandemic are signs of a global community ready and willing to take action on the other emergency looming: the climate crisis.
Changing how and what we eat is a powerful — yet often overlooked — tool for climate action. Reducing food waste is the No. 1 solution for reversing global warming. Eating plant-rich diets ranks No. 3. Those are the conclusions of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit group of scientists, activists and others that has compiled the most promising ways to address the climate crisis. Food-related changes can make a greater impact than the approaches most widely touted by environmentalists, such as solar panels and electric vehicles. This means that those yearning to make a difference need to look no further than the kitchen.
The conveniently great news is that what’s good for people often happens to be good for the planet. “Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth,” concludes the EAT-Lancet Commission, a group of 37 leading transdisciplinary scientists from 16 countries.
We tell you this not just as superfans of science, but as two new mothers. The moment you bring a human life into the world, once-vague notions of “sustainability” and “natural resources'' take on real meaning. Will my children and their children live in a world with enough fresh water, rich topsoil and wildlife habitat, one with peppy pollinators to keep our food supply thriving? And, as parents, we’re shaping little people’s habits, so our choices have a multiplier effect.
Before covid-19, millennials and members of Generation Z — who together make up over half of the global population — were already sounding the alarm on climate breakdown and collectively driving the rise of “foodie” culture. As experts who have spent more than a decade interviewing youth around the world about the role food plays in their lives, we know that all of the raw ingredients are here at this moment to empower young people to use their market muscle to push for food that’s better for both human and planetary health. Yet, the concept of climate-friendly eating has yet to break through into the zeitgeist.
So, what has prevented climate-beneficial eating from becoming the norm in American food culture precrisis? We’ve gotten the messaging all wrong.
All too often, climate-related initiatives aim to motivate through statistics and fearmongering. Yet, information alone doesn’t change habits — just look at the flat rates of fruit and vegetable consumption in the United States, despite decades of very well-intentioned, creative campaigns focused on education. And tales of an apocalyptic future often trigger difficult emotions that can turn people off instead of sparking action.
We’ve also found that sustainability campaigns and products commonly target a small, elite audience, and leave others waiting in the wings, concerned about the climate, eager to contribute, but without easy ways to participate. The messaging has also been alienating more broadly through all-or-nothing framing; in reality, there are many meaningful ways to be a conscious eater without going full vegan — be it through buying a greater diversity of edible seeds and plants or using animal proteins as a garnish rather than the main course. These communications potholes have pigeonholed sustainable food as niche instead of mainstream. But now is the time to democratize sustainable food.
We founded the Food for Climate League, a new nonprofit organization, to redefine sustainable eating and help businesses, nonprofits and governments promote food that’s good for both humans and the planet. Supported with seed funding from Food@Google, and leaders involved from Unilever, Sodexo and Future Food Institute, our team has expertise that spans culinary arts, food systems and behavioral science. We are spearheading new ways of talking about and engaging eaters around the beautiful diversity of affordable, delicious food that’s great for us and the planet. Our approach can be championed by leaders around the world so that sustainable food offerings can finally gain the traction they deserve, and all of us can play a role in tackling the climate crisis.
At this moment, the global pandemic is causing us to shift our eating habits. Some are adopting chickens and planting victory gardens. Others are feeding sourdough starters and watering sprouts. Many are discovering a wider diversity of flours, legumes, fruits and vegetables as they substitute foods to compensate for bare grocery shelves. These are the seeds of a sustainable food system: people investing in regional suppliers, home cooking, careful meal planning, heritage foods and plant proteins.
But people are not taking on new rituals due to altruistic aims of sustainable living; they’re engaging in activities that happen to be climate-friendly because they’re affordable, nutritious, connect us to our local and online communities, and provide a sense of accomplishment (just look at this whole grain garden focaccia loaf!). This insight has been missing from most climate communications until now. Connecting climate-smart eating with basic human needs for safety, community, and purpose — during and after this pandemic — can be a recipe for a new, better food culture.
Behavior change is hard, especially when it comes to something as personal as what we eat. It’s often said that culture change can take years — generations even. It’s hard to break routines, even with the best of intentions. Just think of all the times you’ve pledged to exercise more or get more sleep. But these new food trends have emerged in a matter of weeks.
Times of disruption — be it a breakup, a move to a new city, or a global pandemic — are when behaviorists say we’re most likely to start a new lifestyle habit. As we emerge from stay-at-home circumstances, each of us will decide how to shape new patterns of daily life.
“This crisis puts the food industry in a position to rethink business as usual,” notes our partner Sara Roversi, founder of the Future Food Institute, based in Bologna, Italy. Now is the time to reframe what climate-beneficial eating is, make it easy to partake in and make it relevant to all people.
When the threat of covid-19 has passed, the global community will be facing yet another health crisis. But the climate emergency is one we can tackle bite by bite with something we rely on each and every day, that’s viscerally pleasurable, and that we can share with those we love — either virtually, or hopefully someday soon, in person.
Eve Turow-Paul is author of “Hungry: Avocado Toast, Influencers, and Our Search for Connection and Meaning” (BenBella Books, 2020) and founder and executive director of the Food for Climate League.
Sophie Egan is author of “How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet” (Workman, 2020), founder of Full Table Solutions, and director of strategy for the Food for Climate League.