When I sat in a darkened theatre in 2008(ish) watching Al Gore deliver his now famous slide show on climate change, the enormity of the challenge we were facing hit me. And then I got hungry. Very hungry.
Because if I am honest, the thing that most hit home to me was the way in which climate change would affect food and food systems. I couldn’t imagine – and didn’t want to imagine – a world in which not only the joy of eating was gone, but so too was our ability to feed the planet.
So I decided to get my hands dirty. I turned my tiny 13th-floor apartment balcony in the heart of Sydney into a vegetable garden. This was an odd choice, so my friends enjoyed pointing out, for a dedicated inner-city TV news anchor, but it was a life-changing one. It sparked a far deeper connection to what I consume, and it has changed my life, taking me on a ten-year journey to understanding how growing food in our cities can be truly transformative.
It turns out my journey has been mirrored in the scientific community as our understanding of how we will grow enough food in a climate-changed world has deepened. In fact, pushing for change in the food and agricultural industries may be tantamount to getting the climate action we need, according to a recent report by the Meridian Institute. Food, in fact, could be the crux of both the problem and a needed transformational solution to the problems we face.
The report underlines that food systems have significant, adverse effects on climate change and that climate change impacts food systems in many complex ways – global food demand is set to increase by at least 60 percent by 2050, and global meat consumption alone will double as populations grow, especially in developing countries. The carbon emissions associated with meat production are even greater than for the agricultural industry. An already stretched system will be under even more pressure, at the same time as climate impacts such as droughts, floods and fires increase and make food production more of a challenge.
What’s more, the report acknowledges the circular nature of this relationship: our food choices impact on the planet, and meanwhile the conditions to which we contribute make it more difficult to maintain reliable food systems which will stand up to a changing climate. Think about the processes involved in the production of one loaf of bread. It may contain wheat from the Ukraine, poppy seeds from France, soybean oil from Brazil, and preservatives from multiple origins, all combined in a German factory before being sold in several countries.
Many parts of the process are wasteful and compromise certain people and environments, whether through exposure to chemicals, the clearing of land to grow commercial crops or corporate monopoly over the market. This is before even mentioning the energy involved in harvesting, storage and transportation.
On the other hand, many of the fruit and vegetables which I tried growing were from local and heirloom varieties, untouched by modern agricultural methods. My harvest hadn’t travelled thousands of miles or contributed to deforestation.
As the Meridian paper says, “actions need to consider local, Indigenous, and practitioner knowledge”. We must learn from the methods used for centuries to grow food without a huge environmental footprint. We must also adapt those techniques to fit new environments, like our urban roofs, balconies and walls.
And those messages are starting to gain ground. This week’s Parabere Forum in Malmö, Sweden will feature guests from all over the world discussing the role that women, in particular, can play in the food sector. I will be sharing the result of my journey – that women can lead the charge to grow our own Edible Cities, that producing food is empowering and re-energising. Food systems have caused problems, but when viewed holistically, they can also be a part of the solution for communities and the environment.
Although my personal journey is tiny in comparison to the global changes which need to take place, my experience shows how quickly change can come about. If I managed to provide food for my loved ones in a concrete urban environment, there is huge potential for wider-scale innovative food production. If we are to improve food security and reduce the contribution of food systems to climate change, we need to become more adaptable and start using all the space we have.