Covering Food Systems — The Next Climate Action Battleground

November 8, 2023
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The author, at right, interviewing a chili farmer in Rwanda. She argues that journalists must focus more on linkages between food systems and the environment, particularly the climate.

Freelance Files: Covering Food Systems — The Next Climate Action Battleground

By Thin Lei Win

I first came to cover the intersection between food systems and climate change after nearly a decade of reporting on natural disasters and their aftermath in Southeast Asia, and witnessing how bad weather can devastate our food production.

But it was not until six years ago that I thought of the other side of the coin: how food production can influence climate.


Climate and agriculture are in

“an unhappy marriage …

an unhappy marriage with

an addiction problem.”


Andy Jarvis, a scientist I was interviewing for an article after the 2017 Bonn climate talks, told me something I have since used ad nauseam. Climate and agriculture are in “an unhappy marriage” because while they are intertwined, they are also “antagonistic” towards each other, he said.

Rachel Bezner Kerr, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University, recently expanded on the theme, saying it is “an unhappy marriage with an addiction problem,” with the addiction being to fossil fuels.

This is because while farming is highly vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, modern food production is also energy-intensive.


Greenhouse gases are a part of today’s food systems

There is direct energy use from machinery such as tractors and irrigation pumps and from heating livestock stables and greenhouses. There is indirect use from fertilizer and pesticide production and post-farm activities such as processing, transportation and storage. At the moment, much of this energy comes from fossils.

Farming practices release greenhouse gas emissions as well. Both cow burps and flooded rice fields emit methane, a gas that is multiple times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Nitrogen-based fertilizers lead to nitrous oxide, the main man-made substance damaging the planet’s protective ozone layer.

In addition, cutting down trees to expand farmland drives biodiversity loss; using pesticides that pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink endangers human health and destroys ecosystems; and failing to harvest, store or consume the foods produced wastes all the energy that went into creating them.


The way food is currently produced,

processed, transported, consumed

and discarded amounts to a third

of global man-made emissions.


In other words, almost every step of the food value chain is associated with greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the way food is currently produced, processed, transported, consumed and discarded amounts to a third of global man-made emissions.

And scientists have warned that even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated immediately, emissions from food systems would make it impossible to limit global warming to manageable levels.

This is why scientists, academics, activists and yes, journalists, increasingly use the term “food systems” to describe all the activities, outcomes and actors involved in the vast and interconnected food value chain. The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food defines a food system as one that “includes not only the basic elements of how we get our food from farm to fork, but also all of the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population.”


Change the framing to not blame the individual

As someone who loves to eat but also cares about the environment and equity issues, I think food, climate change and the nexus between them are some of the biggest challenges humanity is facing today. It’s also an area that needs more journalistic scrutiny than it is currently receiving.

A lot of mainstream coverage around food systems and climate change tends to focus on individual actions — what we are eating or not eating, why we choose certain foods over others and how to nudge us towards “better” behavior.


Focusing on what we are failing

to do on an individual level ignores

the elephant(s) in the room.


Focusing on what we are failing to do on an individual level ignores the elephant(s) in the room: a whole system of actors that have outsized power in influencing these seemingly individual actions, from government policies and subsidies that encourage the production of resource-intensive foods to industry lobbying that keeps these policies in place.

This framing is most apparent when it comes to the hot-button issue of meat. A 2021 analysis by Australian researchers that looked at media framing of red and processed meat consumption found that media attribution of excessive meat consumption to “individual dietary choices” results in the idea that individual consumers are responsible for reducing the impact.

But those researchers found something more than framing at play.

“Challenging evidence and discrediting scientific data is a time-old technique from the corporate playbook, particularly in the realm of climate and environmental policymaking efforts. By intentionally disseminating doubt over the consensus of evidence, the general public is less likely to support public policies that are reliant on that evidence,” said the study’s authors. “Corporations in other harmful industries have used this strategy to combat growing awareness of their harms, for example, cigarette smoking and cancer, human impact on climate change, and sugary drinks and obesity.”

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.

We’ve seen it with the concept of carbon footprint promoted by oil companies and when tobacco companies posited that smoking is a personal choice (may require subscription). So, yes, Big Ag is following the playbook of Big Tobacco and Big Oil, where the latter has perfected the art of “deny, deflect, and delay” tactics going on.


How freelancers can help change the debate

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Journalists can and must change how we frame the debates around food systems.

There is now a growing awareness within the media industry that “bothsidesism” — or false balance reporting — on climate change undermines science, confuses people and delays much-needed action.

Alliances like Covering Climate Now, co-founded by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC in 2019, are actively working to change this.

Food systems reporting needs to do the same because there’s a wealth of material for interested and committed journalists to dig into, whether it’s the trillion-dollar agricultural subsidies and how they’re destroying the planet, or the concentration of power in the hands of a few companies that ordinary people haven’t heard of.

At Lighthouse Reports, a nonprofit investigative newsroom that I now mostly work for, we have looked at: how excessive speculation in commodity markets may be contributing to food price spikes; how toxic pesticides banned in Europe are being used in Brazilian farms supplying Nestlé and Coca-Cola; how Europe’s biggest lobby that claims to speak for farmers and resists reforms to make agriculture more sustainable in fact represents mostly industry interests; and how the livestock industry in Europe thwarted democratic will on animal welfare reforms.


News media looking at new kinds of climate-food coverage

There are many media outlets now covering food systems in a way that is really collaborative, innovative and exciting.

For example, members of Sentient Media’s Food & Farming Media Network receive regular emails on which publications and news outlets are looking for pitches. You can also pitch directly to them if your focus is on factory farming and animal policy.

If you’re in the U.S., news websites that do a really good job of marrying food and climate issues and accept freelance pitches include Civil Eats, Ambrook Research (led by the former managing editor of The Counter) and Vox Future Perfect.

The New Humanitarian publishes food systems and climate stories that intersect with the humanitarian sector. Lighthouse Reports also accepts pitches from freelancers. And while it focuses mostly on climate, Covering Climate Now’s weekly newsletter can be useful; it also has a handy resource page.

A major debate is going on about how to transform our food systems. There’s a broad consensus on the need for change, but disagreements abound on how to do this and who gets a seat at the decision-making table. This is an extremely interesting space to be in as a journalist.

After all, food is the basis of our continued existence on this planet. We come into contact with it every single day. We can choose to forgo driving cars, taking planes or even using mobile phones in our quest for sustainability. But we cannot afford not to eat.

It’s time to give more attention to food systems and their linkages to the environment. Freelance environmental journalists can be part of the solution.

[Editor’s Note: For more on food and climate, check out our features, “Tilling the Storytelling Fields on the Food, Ag and Environment Beat,” “Global Satellite Data IDs Tensions Between Food Production, Biodiversity” and “U.N. Summit Lays the Table for Environmental Reporting on Food Systems,” as well as an FEJ StoryLog report on foods of the rainforest and a BookShelf review of a volume on the culture of foraged foods. We also have special Topics on the Beat pages on agriculture and the food system.]

Thin Lei Win is an award-winning multimedia journalist specializing in food and climate issues for various international news media, including through her own newsletter Thin Ink. She is also lead reporter for the Food Systems Newsroom of Lighthouse Reports, a collaborative European news outlet. Her extensive global experience includes nearly 13 years working as an international correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Thomson Reuters media company, covering topics ranging from climate change and resilience to food insecurity and refugees and displacement. She is also a sought-after speaker on Myanmar and a moderator on food, agriculture and climate change. Born and raised in Myanmar, Thin has lived and worked in Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and, most recently, Italy, and has reported from many parts of Asia, Africa and Europe. Thin founded Myanmar Now, an award-winning bilingual news agency, in 2015 and co-founded The Kite Tales, a unique preservation project that chronicles the lives and histories of ordinary people across Myanmar, in 2016.  

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 40. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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