Polar bears trapped on icebergs tug at the heart, and the devastation of hurricanes can make for dramatic pictures. But when it comes to environmental stories, even a mundane bowl of breakfast cereal holds a tale.
Global warming and climate change have undeniably been the biggest stories of recent years for environmental reporters. Now many scientists and academics are hoping to persuade journalists, including those outside the food section of the newspaper, that the food on the table in front of them and how it gets there are important components of the beat, and not just when there’s an E. coli breakout in hamburgers or spinach.
A slew of new books — among them Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” — explore the recent changes in the way the country produces and consumes its daily sustenance and tout the benefits, environmental and otherwise, of eating locally produced foods.
But even some of the savviest environmental reporters “don’t necessarily see food as part of the environmental beat. We have to make that connection for them and convince them that this is an important environmental story to cover,” said Ken Peterson, communications director at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif.
Frederick Kirschenmann, who holds the title Distinguished Fellow at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, believes it’s not just environmentalists and journalists who are failing to make the connections. “It’s really most of us,” he said. “Our industrial culture has trained us or taught us to think of things in isolation; we tend to think of environmental problems in isolation from food.”
He added: “There is a failure to look at the incredible way in which nature is interconnected,” noting as an example that his colleagues working on ways to increase corn productivity may not have thought through the implications for water sourcing. “It’s not a high priority to think about the interconnection of all these things, and what I’ve been saying is that everybody needs to take a crash course in Ecology 101.”
For Mr. Kirschenmann, who was interviewed from inside his combine as he harvested barley on his south-central North Dakota organic farm, “The connections between food and global warming are pretty stark if you look at the details a little bit.”
That interconnectedness cuts many ways. The methods used to cultivate and distribute the world’s food supply have profound implications for the climate, but the changing climate also is expected to affect what foods end up on consumers’ shelves and in farmers markets, how much that food costs and how predictable the supply will be year-in, year-out.
For example, as many steak lovers are learning, the growing demand for corn-based ethanol fuels as a way to reduce dependence on petroleum has had the seemingly unrelated effect of causing beef prices to rise as the cost of corn, an ingredient in some cattle diets, has soared.
“One of the things climate change will bring to all regions of the planet is more unstable climates,” said Mr. Kirschenmann. Relatively stable climates, and not just new technologies, have resulted in the rapid increases in food production in the last century, he said.
With stability has come a highly specialized industrial food system, with the vast majority of supermarket goods derived from just four commodities: corn, soybeans, wheat and rice. The potential for more instability in the future, he added, should influence planning, including what to grow and how much grain to store.
Another issue on the horizon is water. If the climate begins to gradually warm, as many scientists predict, there could be less snow melt, which will reduce groundwater resources in some regions of the world, with implications for irrigation-dependent agriculture, Mr. Kirschenmann noted.
Complicating all these issues are questions of economic and social justice. Organic produce often costs more than conventionally farmed crops, pricing them out of reach of lower-income consumers. The buy-local movement can hurt farmers in less-developed countries who depend on U.S. consumers’ purchases.
“Smart environmental writers are seeing this big picture,” said Mr. Peterson of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “and they tend to be looking at sustainability issues — that is, can we continue down this path?”
Sustainability, Mr. Kirschenmann said, isn’t a concept that is easily defined by hard and fast prescriptions for behavior, but it can be applied as a principle when thinking about how to maintain adequate productivity to support the world’s organisms. He cited a recent story he heard about financial and other incentives Russia is offering its citizens to conceive more children, even as the world is grappling with how to feed more people than it can sustainably support. Perhaps a better option, he said, would be for Russia to offer favorable conditions to attract immigrants.
Mr. Kirschenmann said the major change in lifestyle that the future demands “can’t even begin unless people can begin to imagine this new future and how this new future can bring a better quality of life to them.” Indeed, some authors have begun to look past what they see as looming crises to possible solutions.
For the last decade, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been “walking the talk,” as Mr. Peterson put it, when it comes to sustainability issues facing seafood. What started as an aquarium exhibit educating visitors on the threats facing ocean wildlife — from overfishing of certain species to habitat destruction to the growing population’s demand for ocean protein — eventually led to changes at the aquarium’s cafeteria and in the diets fed to the animals in its care. An extensive outreach to consumers followed, as well as a program to work with the country’s major retailers and food service providers in an effort to get them to buy species of seafood that are sustainable.
Some 21 million pocket guides have been produced for consumers, outlining the status of various seafood species likely to appear on menus. The guides have been packaged with the “Happy Feet” DVD, translated into Spanish and regionalized for various parts of the country.
More recently, the aquarium wanted to broaden its focus to include the effect that inland farming practices have on faraway oceans. Its annual conference for reporters, the Sustainable Foods Institute, brings together farmers, winemakers, food service executives and academics, who, with journalists, explore issues such as whether the environmental benefits of buying organic produce flown to the U.S. from Chile outweigh the expenditure in jet fuel, or how consumers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula can restrict their diets to locally produced foods given the shortened growing season.
The aquarium has had good turnout from the print media and Internet journalists, but less interest from broadcasters, Mr. Peterson said, noting the stories are not as easy for broadcasters to tell and don’t have the breaking-news urgency that local TV, in particular, demands.
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