We know climate change threatens food and water worldwide, and we know that how we produce food and use water helps drive climate change. How do we as journalists tell this complex story so that policymakers and everyday people alike understand it and feel empowered to act? Watch our press briefing featuring three experts who brought journalists up to speed and highlighted fresh stories we can tell.
In this press briefing, part of CCNow’s ‘Food & Water’ joint coverage week, we heard about climate’s role in the burgeoning global food crisis, how refining our approach to water management and water use in our food systems can pay vast climate dividends, and how farming practices that prioritize soil health and biodiversity can be not only better for the planet but better for farmers’ bottom lines.
Gabe Brown, a North Dakotan farmer of Brown’s Ranch who transitioned his 5,000 acres to regenerative agriculture and is advising farmers working an additional 32 million acres
Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a MacArthur fellow, and one of the world’s top scientists on climate change and water
Raj Patel, a professor at the University of Texas, a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, and the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System
Mark Hertsgaard, CCNow’s executive director and environment correspondent at The Nation magazine, will moderate.
Key quotes from our panelists:
“Hunger is a gendered phenomenon. Talking to communities that are most affected by hunger means talking to women.” — Raj Patel
“Although agriculture has been part of the problem and has led to some of the climate change conditions we are seeing, it can be a greater part of the solution.” — Gabe Brown
“This doesn’t have to be a disaster story. It can be a solution story.” — Peter Gleick
“Talking about food and food systems can be delicious. Use pleasure as rocket fuel to make change happen.” — Raj Patel
- Gallup poll shows water pollution is a top concern in the U.S
- Water Conflict Chronology —The Pacific Institute
- The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (2021) — Food and Agriculture Organization
- A special report on the food price crisis by the International Panel (2022) — Experts on Sustainable Food Systems
- The Fourth National Climate Assessment on Risks, Impacts and Adaptation in the U.S
- Regenerative Annual Cropping — Project Drawdown
- Further Explanation on the Potential Contribution of Soil Carbon Sequestration on Working Agricultural Lands to Climate Change Mitigation — World Resources Institute
- Our Global Food System Was Already in Crisis. Russia’s War Will Make It Worse — Raj Patel
- Documentary on food/farming/climate change in the U.S and Malawi — Raj Patel
- Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System — Raj Patel
- Conversation with George Monbiot, author of Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet
Mark Hertsgaard: Hello everybody, and welcome to another press briefing from Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard. I’m the Co-founder and Executive Director of Covering Climate Now, and the Environment Correspondent for The Nation Magazine. The subject of today’s press briefing: climate, hunger, and the future of food. Covering Climate Now is a global media collaboration of more than 500 news outlets that reach a combined audience of some two billion people. This week, our partners are doing a surge of coverage around the climate connections to food and water. Back in January, when we chose that topic, we did not realize how distressingly prescient it would be. Spiking levels of world hunger are now confronting humanity with a food crisis that is, “Extremely serious and probably unprecedented.” Those are the words of Gabriela Bucher. She’s the Executive Director of Oxfam International speaking to a Covering Climate Now newsmaker interview earlier this week.
The number of people around the world suffering from so-called food insecurity, which I find a very bland bureaucratic term for, that actually means desperately hungry, that number has doubled in the past two years. There are now 206, sorry, 276 million people around the world who are desperately hungry, on the brink of starvation. This is not on our front pages, but it should be, and it should be on our evening newscasts. It should be on all around the world. It was part of what was discussed this week at the G7 summit. The Ukraine war of course, is one reason for this spike in hunger. Also COVID, a second reason. Many people have lost their jobs and income, and in general, as people get more poor, they get less access to food, and therefore hungrier. The third reason though, is climate change. As the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said in a very powerful speech on May 18, if you haven’t read it, go get it. Secretary-General said that drought, hunger and other extreme weather is, “A major driver of world hunger.”
And just as climate change is affecting food production, so does the way that we produce food affect climate change. The agriculture sector is responsible for roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, but solutions abound for building a more equitable and climate friendly food system. We’ll discuss that in today’s briefing. The good news for journalists is that food and water is also a great way to engage our audiences around climate change. Every human being has to eat and drink. So stories about food and water and climate enable readers, viewers, listener,s to understand how climate change affects them personally, and likewise how their personal choices, not only about diets, but also about voting, affect climate change. So Covering Climate Now has assembled a concise, but we think authoritative array of materials to help journalists get up to speed on these issues.
Among them, don’t miss DrawDown, the book DrawDown. It’s a compendium of 100 peer reviewed climate solutions. It belongs on every climate journalist’s desk. DrawDown ranks eating less meat as one of the top three solutions to climate change around the world. Also don’t overlook the follow-up volume, Regeneration, which was also edited by Paul Hawken. Regeneration is chock full of story ideas on food, water, and climate solutions. Covering Climate Now has arranged free access to that book for journalists. If you’re interested, and I urge you to be interested, you will find a lot of story ideas there, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will give you the access code for that book, Regeneration. Now before we begin today’s briefing formally, a couple housekeeping items. I’ll introduce all three of our sparkling panelists all at once. We will hear from them during the first half hour, and then the second half hour, your questions and answers. If you’d like to verbally ask a question orally, please add your name and your affiliation and your question into the chat box. We will get to as many as we can. If we call on you, you will then be asked to unmute your microphone. Then you’ll need to click okay on a little popup window that will appear, and then you may ask your question. Everyone is also welcome to tweet throughout the session using @CoveringClimate and the hashtag is CCNow.
And now, please join me in giving a very warm virtual welcome to our sparkling panelists. I will begin with Raj Patel. He is a research professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. He is a member of a group I hope all of you will check out, The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. An enormous amount of expertise there on hunger, its relationship to climate, its relationship to water, et cetera. Raj Patel is also the author of a book I highly recommend called Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food Systems.
Joining him is Dr. Peter Gleick. He is, I think having … He’s been a source of mine for so many years, it’s hard to remember when I didn’t follow his work. He is one of the world’s top, top experts on water and climate change. He co-founded the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. That should again be on every climate journalist’s call list. They’re an NGO and they address the connections between the environment and global sustainability. Among many other honors, Peter Gleick has received the MacArthur Genius Fellowship, the US Water Prize, and has been named by the BBC as a visionary on the environment.
And finally joining us is Gabe Brown. He’s the owner and operator of Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota. He transitioned his 5,000 acres from conventional agriculture to regenerative agriculture, and it turned out to be not just a win for the environment, but a win for his pocketbook as well. Gabe Brown is currently advising farmers who are working an additional 32 million acres, that’s million with an M, through his consultancy firm, Understanding Ag. So, Raj Patel, Peter Gleick, Gabe Brown.
I want to note briefly we are, at Covering Climate Now, very aware that our entire panel here today are men. And in a week there’s obviously been a lot of news with the Roe V. Wade decision. And we would just point out that we had a previous session last week. It was all women. We believe in diversity, and today’s panel, this is simply the way it fell out, and we’re very proud to have them all with us, but we do want to note that we understand the diversity question here as well. And we can talk about that later.
So let’s get right into it here. I’m going to start with Raj Patel. So Raj, as you know, Covering Climate Now released this interview with the Oxfam International head Gabriela Bucher, and she called today’s hunger situation around the world, “unprecedented,” both because of the sheer number of people who are now on the brink of starvation, but also because the crisis exists in so many different countries at once. But as a journalist, I have to say unprecedented is a very strong word. So, do you agree with that assessment? And can you give us your general view on why we are seeing such a large number of people around the world right now on the brink of starvation?
Raj Patel: Thanks very much, Mark. I mean, if you look at the history of the number of people who have been undernourished in the world, there have been a couple of moments in history where the number has been higher. If you look at the data, 2005 had around 810 million people who were hungry, and as a proportion of humanity, that was around 12%, and that was a rather high moment. So, unprecedented does however cover the scale of the crisis and its potential reach. Certainly in the past decade, we’ve not seen anything like this. And it’s certainly the case that the circumstances that you mentioned earlier on have conspired to make this particular situation quite parlous. COVID already pushed another 100 million people into under-nourishment, and the current data from the World Food Program suggests that there are 860 million people who are undernourished.
Now for journalists who are just getting into covering this, understand that there are a number of different metrics around hunger that are worth sorting out. There’s the figure that you mentioned earlier on of extreme hunger is 276 million. So that’s people who are absolutely right at the edge, or even in the middle of extreme starvation. Then there’s the 860 million number, that of people who are undernourished. That means that they’ve been having less than a minimum number of calories to survive for around a year. And then you’ve got food insecure. The number of food insecure people on earth are people … Food insecurities is the condition of not being sure that you’ll be able to feed your family over the next week or the next month. The number of people who fall into that category are over two billion.
So globally, we are seeing a rise in all of those numbers. And you’re absolutely right, that actually this is something that’s affecting the planet, particularly food insecurity, no matter where you are. Here in the United States, 40 million people are food insecure a couple of years back, and that number’s only going up as well.
Mark Hertsgaard: These are just such shattering numbers. I urge everyone to remember, it’s easy to get lost in big numbers, but remember each of those numbers, those are human beings. Those are parents. Those are children. And these numbers, correct me if I’m wrong, Raj, apply especially to children and to the elderly. So let’s take this in and understand what is going on on the planet right now. Raj, can you speak to the reasons behind this? Gabriela Bucher talked about, obviously the Ukraine situation has cut off supplies from a bread basket economy, COVID, climate. Can you give us some sense of how much responsibility each of those and in particular climate change has for the situation we confront today?
Raj Patel: It’s very hard, Mark, in part, because climate change is not just the weather. And again, for journalists dipping your toe into this, it can be a little confusing and there isn’t an easy answer. All of it’s rather context specific. So let me give you a quick example. In 2010, there was a heat dome over Russia. Some people may remember that we had a huge price spike as a result of Russian grain burning. And then there was an export ban. And then we saw spikes in the price of wheat akin to the ones that we’re seeing at the moment. People said, “Well, the heat dome was climate change,” and then the response was the economy saying, the Russians saying, “Okay, we’re not going to export grain anymore.” And certainly there is an economic story there that my colleagues and I have covered at IPES, and there are some resources about that that we’ll share later.
But it’s important to remember that actually the heat dome was itself an economic phenomenon. In Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, agriculture was liberalized. And that meant that farmers were able to extract more and be able to plant whatever they wanted and engage in the kinds of extractive crop rotation that Gabe, I’m sure will be able to tell us the dangers of in a moment. But the result of that was that water was drained from the soil and rendered the likelihood of an extreme weather event three times higher. And then you add into that extreme weather, and all of a sudden you have a risk of a heat dome that’s 13 times higher. So again, if you’re trying to report this, remember that actually the way that capitalism and agriculture go together can exacerbate the weather, can make the weather more extreme. So in the Russian case, 13 times more likely was the heat dome as a result of the combination of the way that farming happened and anthropogenic climate change.
And on top of that, then you’ve got the cascading effects of speculative capitalism and driving up the price of grain. So, all of this means that there isn’t an easy answer to, well it’s 20% climate change and 50% Goldman Sachs. There’s a range of answers here. But again, if you’re thinking about reporting it, one way of thinking about it is what would happen if all of a sudden the conflict in Ukraine ended? Well unfortunately, we would still have soaring price inflation. It’s important to remember that what we’re in at the moment is not merely a climate crisis and a COVID crisis, but a crisis in the economy. And I think that that’s something we should delve into in a second.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you, Raj. You have perfectly anticipated and even answered my last question. So I’m going to omit that question and move on to Peter. But I guess just quickly, one other misconception that I hope journalists will avoid, we often think that hunger is caused by an insufficient supply of food, but it’s not just that. It’s the price of the food that is out there. Can you explain, just quickly before I go to Peter, how journalists can avoid repeating that misconception in their reporting?
Raj Patel: Super quickly. If you want to look at who it is that’s going hungry, hunger is a gendered phenomenon. Again, you’ve mentioned that, but it’s important while we mansplain this, to recognize that actually talking to communities that are most affected by hunger means talking to women, talking to mothers. In the United States, it’s female headed households. And as long as you’re looking at farm workers and the poorest in society, and that again disproportionately women, in the US, disproportionately people of color, you are more likely to be able to get the experience not of the absence of food, but the absence of being able to afford that food.
Mark Hertsgaard: Excellent tips. Peter Gleick, water, of course, indispensable to human life, indispensable to growing food, but in increasingly short supply around the world. You’ve been chronicling this forever. Experts have said that the wars of the 20th century were fought over oil. The wars of the 21st will be fought over water. Can you briefly summarize how scarce water is around the world right now, the role that climate change is playing in that scarcity, and then of course, where can journalists find authoritative data and analysis to inform their coverage of these issues?
Peter Gleick: Sure. Thank you, Mark, for having me on the panel. I’m happy to be here. I’m a hydrologist. I’m a climatologist by training. I’ve worked on these issues for a long time. Water is a big issue. Water is a fundamental part, as you described it, growing food. It’s indispensable for growing food. But there are a lot of different pieces to the water crisis. And in fact, your question talks about water for growing food. It talks about conflicts over water. It talks a little bit about climate change and water. There are ecosystem problems with water. There’s what I call water poverty. That’s the failure, as we’ve just heard from Raj, the failure to provide food for people, hundreds of millions or billions of people, we have failed to provide safe water and sanitation for literally billions of people as well.
And so when we think about scarcity of water, we think about not having as much water as we want to do the things that we want. We think about drought. We think about simply the bad way that nature distributes water around the planet. There are water rich areas and water poor areas, even naturally, even without climate change. Water scarcity might be not having enough food in a season to grow the crops that you want to grow, as we’re experiencing now in the western United States with severe drought. It might be having not enough high quality water to do things like make semiconductors or pharmaceuticals that require a certain quality of water.
So there are a lot of ways to describe water scarcity and water poverty. For me, the most severe problem is the failure to meet basic human needs for water and sanitation. As Raj described for food, again, there are probably 700 or 800 million people worldwide that don’t have enough safe water for drinking. That doesn’t mean they’re dying of thirst. It means they’re drinking bad quality water. Or women and children are spending hours a day, walking hours to provide safe water or even bad quality water for what they need. And there are 2 billion people or more that don’t have access to adequate sanitation. Again, things that most people on this Zoom call today completely take for granted.
And the key point perhaps is that water scarcity in one form or another is increasing around the world as a result of actual water availability, the role of climate change in distributing water, or the maldistribution of water around the planet, population growth and growing demand for water. And the role of climate change is very clear. We know that humans are causing climate change. It’s raising temperatures. That increases demand for water. It worsens the frequency and severity of extreme events like floods and droughts. It raises sea level, which harms coastal groundwater aquifers, and coastal wetlands, and so on. The connections between climate change and the hydrologic cycle are incredibly clear. Those things are really the same thing. As we change the climate, we will change, and are changing water resources.
You mentioned the idea of conflict over water. I’ve worked on this issue for a long, long time. Looking at the way water is a trigger of conflict or a casualty of conflict or a weapon of conflict. Part of this is the result of scarcity, in your question. Or inequalities in access or control of water or international disputes. I would recommend that you look at the water conflict chronology. That’s an open source database that we maintain at the Pacific Institute. You could Google water conflict chronology, or go to worldwater.org. There are more than 1,000 examples, literally of conflicts over water. And there are lots of places for data and analysis. You mentioned my Pacific Institute in Oakland. The World Resources Institute For Water. Partly, really, it depends on the specific issue you’re interested in and the kinds of data that you want. Let me pause there.
Mark Hertsgaard: And I will tell all my fellow journalists on this call, please remember you are invited to contact all of these panelists afterwards to follow up on all of this stuff, that we’ll be providing their emails. And we have them on here today because they are such experts. And you should rely on them in your coverage going forward. So Peter, one of the, I think, really valuable pieces of work you all do at the Pacific Institute is to show that it’s actually relatively easy to fix many of the problems with water scarcity. Can you talk a little bit about that, the kind of technology and the policy reforms that in essence amount to using water more efficiently? If you could just highlight a couple of key lessons, because I think oftentimes we journalists fall into the trap of thinking, “Oh, if we need more water, we have to build more dams. Or we have to desalinate,” or whatever it is.
Peter Gleick: Sure. So before I do that, actually I wanted to make one comment about Raj’s example about the Ukraine and the earlier crisis with Russian food in 2010 because of climate change and drought. Because it’s sort of relevant to this conversation. We know that it takes 70% or 80% of the water on the planet that humans use to grow food. And we also know that climate change is changing water availability, but the food and water and conflict example is a really important one.
We’ve seen with the war in the Ukraine how delicately balanced the world’s food supply and markets are. And even slight disruptions—drought, or war, or trade embargoes, the failure of a few food processing plants—can cause spikes in prices and ripple effects around the world. And Raj’s story about 2010 and the drought in Russia was really important for this. Because first of all, that drought was influenced by climate change. It wasn’t caused by climate change, but it was worsened by climate change. It led to the changes in food markets that Raj talked about. But that also contributed, in my opinion, to the revolution in Northern Africa when food prices went up and there’s civil unrest. So it’s a good example of the link between climate and water and food and conflict. And it’s something we should keep in mind moving forward.
In terms of solutions, the first thing I would say is, first of all, that nothing in water is really easy, given institutional and legal and economic and policy constraints. But I really believe that there are solutions to our water problems. And the key solutions I would point to are, first of all, not doing what we’ve been doing in the 20th century, which is trying to strip more water out of the natural ecosystems and drain our rivers dry and over pump our aquifers. But to figure out how to do more with the water we’re already using. What I call increasing water use efficiency. We want water for growing food and making clothes and cleaning and drinking. We can do all of those things with less water. There’s enormous potential in agriculture, and in industry, and in our homes to improve the productivity of our water use, to increase our water use efficiency.
The second key point I would make is we can find alternative sources of water that don’t require draining our rivers and over pumping groundwater the way we’re doing in the Great Plains in the Ogallala Aquifer, and the Central Valley of California, and China, and India. But we can reuse water. We produce an enormous amount of waste water. We treat that water, typically, and then we throw it away. More and more places around the world are using water reuse, or reusing treated wastewater for all sorts of things. Ultimately there’s desalination of the oceans. That’s extraordinarily expensive and energy intensive, and there are connections between water and energy that I won’t get into now. But ultimately desalination for very high value uses is something that we can look at. And finally, we need to guarantee water for ecosystems. The 20th century what we did was we took the water we wanted and we didn’t care about natural ecosystems. And that has to change.
Mark Hertsgaard: My fellow journalists, these are solutions stories. And at Covering Climate Now, we’re always urging you to tell the whole climate story, not just what the problem is, which we do ad nauseam, but how do you fix the problem? And so, again, Pacific Institute and Peter Gleick, tons of examples that you can then report out in your stories.
I’m going to turn now to Gabe Brown. And part of the reason that we invited Gabe today to join us is that we want to remind everyone how important it is when reporting on food and water to talk to some actual farmers, people who actually have their hands in the dirt. Not just the experts who are sitting behind desks. We learned about Gabe Brown’s work through the regeneration book that I mentioned earlier. And so, Gabe, can you tell us… You shifted your 5,000 acres in North Dakota from the old style ag to regenerative ag after one too many extreme weather events. And now your farm is both economically and environmentally profitable. So what lessons do climate journalists, not fellow farmers, but what lessons do climate journalists need to know in order to share with our audiences about the differences between conventional and regenerative ag?
Gabe Brown: Well, thank you, Mark. It’s a pleasure to be on here with Raj and Peter. And I think it’s important for journalists to realize that although agriculture has been part of the problem and has led to some of the climate change conditions we’re seeing, it can be a greater part of the solution. And let me give you an example of the difference between the conventional agriculture mindset and what we call today regenerative agriculture. Peter just talked about water use efficiency. And so I’ll give you this example. I was in the Bootheel region of Missouri speaking. And there, the farmers were using 100 inches of water, 50 inches natural rainfall, 50 inches irrigated water, to produce 100 bushel corn. So their water use efficiency was 1.6 bushels per inch.
Meanwhile, on my ranch here in North Dakota, because of the practices we implement, no-till, the use of cover crops, animal integration to build soil health, build soil aggregates, infiltrate more water. And then because of the greater amount of organic matter, our carbon in our soils, we’re able to hold more water. We have a water use efficiency on corn of 8.6 bushels per inch. So when Raj talked about feeding the world, who’s going to feed more? The conventional mindset or a regenerative mindset where we’re actually able to produce more for less? And then I might add, those 8.6 bushels per inch of water that I produced, I use zero synthetic fertility. We rely on all the natural ecosystem, the natural mineral cycle, the biology, and very diverse cover crops to provide the nutrients that the plants need. That’s just in a nutshell the difference between regenerative ag and conventional ag.
Mark Hertsgaard: That is a stunning example, Gabe. That is a factor of five better water efficiency. So that’s huge. And I hope everybody thinks about going to Gabe’s farm and doing that story. Or you can go to the 32 million acres that he is consulting on. So say a quick word about that, if you will, Gabe. What are the practices that are happening on these 32 million acres? And how do they deal with both sides of the climate challenge? That is producing less emissions, but also making the farm or the ranch more resilient to the climate extremes that we know are going to get worse.
Gabe Brown: Sure. So my partners and I named our firm Understanding Ag. Because we feel what’s missing in agriculture today is the understanding of how ecosystems function. I tell people, this is not rocket science. This is simply using the time tested ecological principles. And very briefly those principles, least amount of mechanical chemical disturbance possible. We want armor covering the soil so that soil’s not prone to wind erosion, water erosion, and those high temperature extremes that cause moisture to evaporate away. We need biodiversity. We need diversity. Right now in production agriculture, it’s monocultures, monocultures, monocultures. That’s not how nature operates efficiently. Then we need living roots in the soil as long as possible throughout the year. So often in agriculture a farmer grows a cash crop, and then the land sits idle. Well, what’s there to cycle carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the cycle in the soil? We need living plants. We also need living plants to feed all that biology. In a teaspoon full of healthy soil, there’s more microorganisms than there are people on this planet. Yet how many think of feeding those microorganisms? Well, that’s key to the nutrient cycle.
And then the final principle is animal integration. We have to integrate animals into the production, because they’re key to help in sequester more carbon. Now those principles then drive the ecosystem processes. This water cycle that Peter talked about, the mineral cycle, the energy cycle, which is pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, and biodiversity. We use nature’s time tested ecological principles to drive the four processes. This significantly lowers the cost of production while mitigating climate change.
Mark Hertsgaard: So my follow up question, Gabe, is that if it’s so obvious that this is not just environmentally superior, but economically superior, why are most farmers, certainly here in the United States and in many places around the world, why are they still locked into the old system?
Gabe Brown: Yep. That’s the question I get asked daily. And work by Dr. Jonathan Lundgren at the ECDYSIS Foundation found regenerative farms and ranches have a 78% greater profitability. That’s huge. Okay. Why isn’t everybody adopting this? You cannot implement what you do not know. Okay? I have several college degrees in agriculture. Never once did any of my college professors talk to me about the principles and processes. They didn’t tell me and explain to me how soil aggregate was formed. They didn’t explain to me how carbon in the soil is critical for storing water and making our farms and ranches resilient. So you don’t know what you don’t know.
The other thing is peer pressure. It’s not easy to do something out of the norm. You’re ridiculed in your own community and you’re shunned. Now, I have very thick skin and it doesn’t bother me, but it bothers a lot of people. The third reason is simply the very, very small margins in agriculture. Very high debt loads and farmers have to borrow annual operating money. So they go to a lending institution to do so. That lending institution is not familiar with these regenerative practices. And they’re going to say, “Whoa, we’re not going to loan you the money if you step out of the norm.” Those are the three main reasons.
Mark Hertsgaard: And I would just say that, that third reason is especially onerous outside of the United States among small holder farmers in India, in other places, who don’t need very much money, but the money they need is critical to that. And if you don’t get it from the lender, you are in big trouble. A lot to unpack there, and since part of the problem is that farmers and others don’t know, that’s our job, journalists. It’s our job to help average people know, everyday people know, farmers know, policy makers know, et cetera. So those are the stories that we’re hoping to encourage through this food and water week, and beyond of course. We don’t want this to just stop this week. So let’s start with your questions. And as I said, if and when I call on you, please unmute your mic and share your question with us. And I’m going to start, if I may, with Rachel McDevitt. She is at StateImpact Pennsylvania. And Rachel, can you please unmute yourself and offer your question?
Rachel McDevitt: Hi, can you hear me?
Mark Hertsgaard: We hear you fine, thanks.
Rachel McDevitt: All right, great. Thank you so much. Yeah, I’m from StateImpact Pennsylvania, and I’m curious how climate change is expected to impact farming in this region, like, the Mid-Atlantic. Pennsylvania is expected to get wetter and warmer with climate change, but the farmers… And I’ve done a little bit of reporting on this, but the farmers I’ve spoken to, unless they deal in really specialty crops, don’t seem to be noticing many changes right now. So how can they prepare?
Mark Hertsgaard: Who feels they want to weigh in on that? Peter, why don’t you start, and Gabe, if you have something to offer, please do.
Peter Gleick: Yeah. Obviously, climate change is going to have different kinds of impacts in different regions, as you point out. One of the best resources for looking at this is something called the National Climate Assessment. The US does something under the Global Change Research Project. Every four years, they produce a National Climate Assessment. I think the last one is the fourth one. And they produce regional assessments as well that dig down into what the climate models might tell us to expect on a regional basis, including the Northeastern part of the US. There are a whole series of climate scientists who are happy to talk about what we call downscaling of climate models, to try and get a little more detail on a regional level about what to expect. We’re going to see without a doubt, rising temperatures. There’s no ambiguity about that, and we’re already, of course, seeing rising temperatures. In the Northeast, one of the things we’re likely to see might be actually an increase in rainfall, but in the form of more extreme events. Not average rainfall, but more intense rainfall events, and again, observational data says that’s what we’re already seeing. But on a regional basis, I would look for the National Climate Assessment reports, and I would look for regional climate models. And for example, Pennsylvania has some great resources at Penn State and at the University of Pennsylvania, in terms of climate science.
Mark Hertsgaard: Gabe, could you weigh in just really briefly on, in general, a warmer and wetter climate, whether it’s in Mid-Atlantic or anywhere? What would be a couple of basic things that farmers should be thinking about?
Gabe Brown: And this is going to be the same, Mark, whether you’re in a wetter environment or a dryer environment, you have to make your farm or ranch more resilient, you have to focus on the soil. How do I build soil aggregates? How do I get more carbon into my soil? That makes a farmor ranch resilient. Take my ranch here in North Dakota. We just went through two of the driest years in recorded history here. I still combined cash crops. None of my neighbors did, but I did the last two years. Why? Because my soils are resilient, thus I’m able to mitigate these wide fluctuations in both temperature and moisture.
Mark Hertsgaard: So important, folks, to remember both sides of the climate equation. It’s not just what food production does to climate change with the emissions, but what climate change could do to food production, and how to get ready for it and resilience. Okay. Now a question from, and pardon me if I mispronounce your name, but I think it’s Claude Forthomme, a senior editor with Impakter. Please unmute yourself.
Claude Forthomme: Yes, thank you. Can you hear me?
Mark Hertsgaard: We hear you fine, thanks.
Claude Forthomme: Right. Actually, you didn’t exactly cover what I think… I’ll have to look at my own question now, but I think I asked-
Mark Hertsgaard: It was about G7.
Claude Forthomme: What?
Mark Hertsgaard: I think your question was about the G7 summit and G20?
Claude Forthomme: Yes, exactly. Right. But you didn’t actually cover the role of international organizations in this general problem, and so I don’t know, if you would like to answer that question… Looking for it. Where did I put it down? Sorry, I wasn’t really…
Mark Hertsgaard: Let me paraphrase it for you precisely, because the G7 summit just finished. The G7 leaders agreed to spend $4.5 billion on food security. This is however, barely a drop in the bucket of what’s needed. Raj Patel, could you bring us up to date on that, and also foreshadow G20?
Raj Patel: Sure.
Claude Forthomme: Yes. In fact, if I may add to that, can you put it in the context of the World Bank saying that they are spending $29 billion on fighting climate change through a whole series of projects around the world, which I think is interesting in relation to what the G7 says they’re putting up. And now I remember my full question. I feel that the G20 coming up in November, if it were properly prepared, could maybe do something more than the G7, because basically, the G20 is where… I mean, the countries that belong to the G20 are the ones that are going to be hardest hit by climate change over the next decades, obviously. So I think for the G20, it’s a truly serious urgent matter to address.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you.
Claude Forthomme: I just don’t know how [inaudible]
Mark Hertsgaard: We get it.
Claude Forthomme: What are your views?
Mark Hertsgaard: We get it. Raj Patel, please.
Raj Patel: Thanks very much for the question. The sort of Cliff’s Notes version of what the G7 has announced is, yes, $4.5 billion generally for food aid, but really only $2 billion for immediate food aid needs in terms of buying food on the international market and getting it out into the world. And that’s a drop in the bucket, even of the donor call for aid in the Horn of Africa. That call is for $4 billion. And in terms of actual delivery of food into the world system everywhere, $2 billion is, as you say, a drop in the bucket. But the problem goes deeper than this, and this touches on what both Peter and Gabe mentioned, which is the problem of debt.
Now, the way that the international system works, and it’s very rich at the World Bank, is hemming its own progress in terms of climate change, when in fact, it holds a great deal of debt from countries in the global South. When interest rates go up, countries have a choice between either basically creating money to be able to fight domestic hunger, or repaying their creditors. And one of the ways in which creditors get repaid is through the extraction of water and resources, the felling of forests, and the exacerbation of climate change in order to meet short-term debt needs. The problem with the G7 is that they haven’t really talked about the debt needs. The problem with the G20 is that they can’t because they’re debtor nations not creditor ones.
And so I would encourage reporters to take the step back and say, “Well, all right, what are the needs versus what it is that’s been promised? But also take the bigger step back and say, “Well, why is it that so many countries find themselves in need of mining their soil fertility and their water in order to repay these debts, which in many cases are illegitimate?” And there’s a very good paper from the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, about the ratio of debt to these little drops of foreign aid. And you’ll find that the amount of debt that’s held by the global North is in the order of trillions, and so a couple of billion here and there is really a drop in the bucket.
Mark Hertsgaard: This is the big underreported story, folks, on climate, is debt, and the way that the poorest countries in the world owe all of this money. It came up at G7, not, even though Oxfam and others have pushed for this. So look into that, that is a huge area for investigation. And again, I commend also, Oxfam International has great resources on this. Their research is very solid. Next, I’d like to go to our next question, and that will be from, I think Bud Ward of the Yale Climate Connections. Bud?
Bud Ward: Thanks, Mark. I’m curious if any of the major important “solutions”… Solutions in quotes, if you will, if any of the major “solutions” for addressing either water or food challenges are counterproductive in terms of addressing the other issue? Do we solve one? We solve both? Or are they not 100% equal, if you will?
Mark Hertsgaard: Who wants to jump on that? That is such a broad-ranging question. Peter?
Peter Gleick: Well, sure. I think everyone here probably has examples where some of the solutions in one area are counterproductive in another. And just to note, Bud Ward, who asked the question, is a wonderful resource himself. Bud is of Climate Connections at Yale and has been a journalist in the climate area for a long time. For example, in the water area, I mentioned desalination, which is one of my least favorite water solutions, but everyone asks about it because 97% of the water on the planet is salt water and we know how to desalinate water. But desalination is incredibly energy intensive, and the way we desalinate water now vastly increases the emissions of greenhouse gasses associated with the energy system of our water systems, the energies of our water systems. You can desalinate with non-carbon energy sources, but we don’t at the moment.
Big dams are often a solution for water storage. We store water in wet season so we can use it in dry seasons. Big dams have ecological problems. So it is important when we think about any of these solutions, not just to think when I’m thinking about water, to think about solving water problems, but to think about food and to think about energy, and to think about ecosystems and to think about impacts on disadvantaged communities. If we don’t do that in an integrated way, then we’re doing what we did in the 20th century, which is solving one problem at the expense of another.
Mark Hertsgaard: Good point. Raj, did you want to add to that?
Raj Patel: Just very quickly. The tanks had barely begun to roll into Ukraine when you heard the oil industry talking about, “Drill, baby, drill” as a way of addressing higher fuel prices. And you see the same in terms of farmland and in terms of, for example, the European Union waving its policy on reducing pesticide use. I think for journalists, it’s worth going beyond the press releases that one gets from industry around these questions, because the obvious solution, “Oh, yes, we’re going to open up more land to plant more wheat” is a preposterous idea. Because as Gabe will tell you, you can’t just plant wheat at the drop of a hat. It needs to be the right season with the right soil and the right rain. And the idea of overturning environmental regulations in order to meet the food crisis is something you’ve seen in Europe and the United States, and they’re preposterous in both places.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you. I’m going to go to another question here, which I-
Peter Gleick: Hey, Mark?
Mark Hertsgaard: Yes, sir?
Peter Gleick: Mark, hold on one second.
Mark Hertsgaard: Go ahead.
Peter Gleick: Gabe’s comments earlier made me think about this. Another good example to this problem is, in California we took out a lot of what we call annual crops, and we replaced them with permanent crops. We’re growing a lot more orchards and almonds and nuts, for example, which can use much more efficient irrigation technology than flood irrigation, which loses a lot of water to evaporation. But when you plant permanent crops, one of the problems that results is you have to water them every year. You can’t let the field go fallow during an extreme drought when there isn’t surface water availability. And so during these severe droughts, we now have a million acres of almonds that have to be watered even if there isn’t surface water, and it’s leading to a massive overdraft of groundwater in basins that can’t sustain that in the long run. Another counter example.
Gabe Brown: But if I may, Mark, Peter, on that though, we’re doing a lot of work in almond and walnut orchards, integrating very diverse perennial species in there, which then through mycorrhizal fungi they will transfer water from other areas of the soil profile. We’re actually reducing overall water usage significantly. And then integrating animals to graze under there, we can cut that water use even more. So there’s ways to help mitigate that.
Peter Gleick: That’s a great example of how to do what we want to do better. We might not want to plant almonds, but if we have almonds, can we figure out how to increase the water use efficiency and productivity and soil health of those decisions. Great example.
Mark Hertsgaard: Excellent. I’m going to switch to a question now from the RSVPs, and I’ll say up front this appears to be a US-focused question, but because the US is an agricultural superpower, what we do in the United States has enormous impacts on the global food situation. Okay, every five years in the United States, the United States’ Congress passes a so-called Farm Bill and lays out a lot of the federal policies about subsidies, also includes the food stamp program for people who are lower income, people who need some help with that. So this is a question directed towards Gabe. “How do you view the Farm Bill…” Which by the way, this comes up 2023, is when the next one is due to be passed and there’s already hearings on Capitol Hill about it. So Gabe Brown, “How do you view the Farm Bill and risk management tools such as crop insurance. Do the safety nets for farmers that are included in federal policy? Do those safety nets help or hinder farmers from using regenerative practices?”
Gabe Brown: I get often asked this question, and there are parts of the Farm Bill that help move producers down the regenerative path, for instance, some of the cost share assistance that NRCS provides. However, many of the regulations, especially when it comes to risk management, such as you have to terminate cover crops 60 days prior to planting a cash crop, that’s actually detrimental, because that’s not how you build resiliency, it’s not how you advance soil health. So it’s six of one, half a dozen of another.
What we do with our clients is to focus on the resource. How do we make our farms and ranches more resilient? And then you don’t need crop insurance. I haven’t and my partners, in Understanding Ag, we haven’t taken out crop insurance in years. There’s no reason for us to because our farms are that resilient and we’re profitable. We don’t have to borrow operating money. So that to me is the goal. How do we turn the farm program over to one that’s based on ecological outcomes, not based on yield? We have to go to… It’s my opinion, we need to go to a farm program that shows what is that farm doing for the resource. Are you sequestering more carbon? Is the water that leaves your farm clean, or does it have nitrates or phosphates in it? What are you doing for biodiversity? Are you increasing biodiversity? It needs to be a farm program based on outcomes, because that would really be much better for society as a whole and for that particular farm or ranch.
Mark Hertsgaard: So journalists, the Farm Bill is always a big fight on Capitol Hill, and it’s not too early to start reporting on this and every five years there is this argument increasingly in recent years that says the conventional agriculture approach, which is predominantly what that Farm Bill subsidizes, that that is a loser. Nevertheless, you’ll be shocked to hear, it generally comes out ahead in the Capitol Hill negotiations. So I’d like to ask any of the panelists. Do you have any advice for journalists as they cover the Farm Bill negotiations? Because it’s one thing for Gabe to say, “Well, we need a better Farm Bill.” But there’s a big lobby in Washington against that kind of Farm Bill. So Raj, I think you used to follow this a bit. Can you speak to that?
Raj Patel: Well, I mean, I was just typing in the comments. One thing to observe is that because the farm lobby and the Farm Bureau is such a force in Washington, the kinds of sustainable agriculture that Peter and Gabe are advocating, doesn’t have the dollars behind it in the same way, but there are sort of processes happening in parallel. There are corners of the United States’ Department of Agriculture that are supporting really interesting ideas around markets and experiments in regenerative agriculture, but there is another organization, another place to look, which is school districts.
In the United States, there is something called the Good Food Purchasing Policy. And if you’re looking for a good news story here. Around two million school kids now get their food through school districts, paying a little bit more for their food to support farmers like Gabe in agricultural practices, that pay work as well. Because again, poverty is the main issue in lack of being able to buy food, which are usually local businesses that are doing the right thing or slightly high-road suppliers. So do check out the Good Food Purchasing Policy as an adjunct, but also do look out for the policies that are not in the mainstream at the USDA, but do support Gabe and the kinds of water frugal policies that we need to actually overcome the climate crisis.
Mark Hertsgaard: Raj, do you happen to know, are there stories like that outside of the United States as well that we could turn journalists onto?
Raj Patel: Well, it began in Brazil. So certainly Belo Horizonte in Brazil is a city that took the lead here. And until Bolsonaro came in, it was a really important way in which sustainable farmers were given not just access to providing meals in schools, but a premium if they farmed in the way that Gabe did. They got a 30% premium for farming the right way.
Mark Hertsgaard: Very interesting. So I’d like to go to another question now. A couple more questions we’re going to get in before the end. And I know that Peter has already answered this in the chat, but I’d like everybody to hear it. Erin Stone, I believe is with Southern California Public Radio. Erin, are you with us? And if so, can you unmute please?
Erin Stone: Yeah, hi. Thank you all so much for this webinar. I really appreciate it. Peter answered my question in the chat. So thanks for that, Peter. But yeah, I just actually published a piece today about recycled wastewater in Southern California. I’m really interested in this topic. It seems like a lot of broad consensus that this is a climate solution in the face of a drier future. And yeah, I was just wondering if you could speak a little bit more about the intersection with agriculture and how we kind of use our different types of water in the most efficient and positive way. Thank you.
Mark Hertsgaard: And Peter, went into that. Please, can you speak directly and specifically about the policy fights in Sacramento in California? Which remember folks is the fifth biggest economy in the world, it is a huge food producer, big ag is powerful in Sacramento.
Peter Gleick: Sure. So, first of all, I mentioned this very briefly in my opening remarks, but we use a lot of water, we then throw it away. In the developed world, we collect it, we treat it, and then we throw it away again. Typically, we dump it in the ocean. This is wastewater. We often treat that water to a very high standard and technologically, we can treat it to the most incredibly pure standard we want. We’re doing that now in Singapore, in Israel, in Southern California. There are more and more facilities whose intention is to collect wastewater, treat it to a high standard, and then reuse it. It’s relatively drought proof. It can be any quality we want. It’s less expensive than finding new water sources in places where we’ve tapped out most of the natural water resources. It’s a great alternative source of supply. And it’s a new way of thinking about water, that, again, most of our water managers and engineers don’t don’t think about.
But there’s a fight about it, about how to do it, about how to invest in it. It’s not in California applied very much to agriculture, it’s primarily for urban water use, because that’s where our large volumes of wastewater tend to be collected and treated. But in Israel, for example, they collect and they treat more than 80% or more of their wastewater, and they use it mostly for agriculture. They don’t treat it necessarily to potable standards, but now most of the agricultural industry in Israel is dependent on collected, treated, wastewater. It’s an incredibly useful and valuable resource and more and more we’re going to see it put to use. Again, the key issue here is matching the quality of the water we have with the quality of water that we want. In agriculture, it’s not potable water. We use potable water in the Western U.S. to water our lawns and golf courses, which is a whole separate conversation, but we have this new source of water and we ought to put it to use.
Mark Hertsgaard: Thank you, Peter. We’re coming very close to the end of the hour. So I’m going to ask one last question and I want all three of you to answer. It’s a little bit of a devil’s advocate question from a journalist standpoint. When we, as journalists, are trying to sell our editors, our producers, or whatever on a story. If we say we want to do a story on water, you can just see their eyes close because they think it’s going to be boring, right? And so how do we sell the water and food and climate story as an exciting, useful story? Usually at Covering Climate Now, we say that the best stories that engage audiences are both humanized, in other words, people in there, and localized in your local area, but we could be wrong and we’d love to hear your thoughts just to help our colleagues. How do we sell that at the 10:00 AM story meeting? I’m going to let Gabe go first and then Peter and then Raj.
Gabe Brown: Sure, Mark. So what I like to do is something we call common ground for common good. I don’t care where your interest lies, is it in climate change? Is it in water quality, water quantity? Is it in food shortages? Is it in supply chain issues? Is it in farm profitability? Is it in human health? Okay, all of these things can be addressed to some degree with regenerative agriculture.
So just Monday I was talking to the board of directors of General Mills. I approached them by common ground for common good. Of course, a company like that is interested in supply chain issues. If I’m out talking to consumers, I talk to them from a human health standpoint. If I’m out talking to farmers, I talk to them, farm profitability. But I find that common ground realizing that even though we might have differences in our focus, we can come together for the common good. So I like to think of it as common ground for common good.
Mark Hertsgaard: Peter.
Peter Gleick: Look, I think the good news here is from a water perspective, water touches on literally everything that we care about, all the things we’ve talked about here. And poll after poll, the Gallup poll has done a poll about public opinions for 20 years in the United States, and water is always at the top of people’s concerns. People really care about water. And so you talk about localizing and personalizing. Those are key issues. I’m not a journalist, I’m a scientist, but many of my family are journalists. And make it personal and connected to the things that people really care about.
The other thing I like to say is I’m an optimist, I really believe there are solutions to the climate and water problems. And so this doesn’t have to be a disaster story all the time. It can be a disaster story and crisis story, which of course produces eyeballs and clicks, but it can also be a solutions story. Let’s talk about the success stories, the things that work as a way to not leave the reader in a pile of depression.
Mark Hertsgaard: Peter, I’m going to ask you to please pass along when you have a chance, and we’ll share it through Covering Climate Now, those Gallup poll findings. Because that’s the kind of thing that really does matter at a 10:00 AM story meeting, when we can say to the executive producer, “Wait a minute, this, people care about this. And quick addendum, turns out that disaster stories are not getting the clicks anymore. What people really want to hear, the new social science research shows, are how do you fix it. How do you fix it? That’s a much better way to get them in the tent.” Raj Patel, we’re going to end with you.
Raj Patel: Well, yeah, if we were in the if it bleeds, it leads era, then there are millions of people dying or at risk of death. And that ought to be sufficient, but it isn’t. And on the bright side, actually talking about food and food systems can be delicious. If we’re thinking about food and water and optimistic transformations, then actually you can use pleasure as a rocket fuel to make change happen. I do think that if you have a scowling editor at 10:00 in the morning, thinking about what’s going to taste good and what’s the future going to taste like might be a pitch that’s hopefully perennial.
Mark Hertsgaard: Excellent stuff. Excellent. Thank you all so much. We have been graced with the presence and the expertise of Gabe Brown, Peter Gleick, Raj Patel, all of them can be reached through Covering Climate Now. We’ll have their emails. We’ve mentioned a lot of resources today that you can use. This is just the middle of the Covering Climate Now’s joint coverage week on food and water. We hope these joint coverage weeks continue. So don’t just stop this week. Summer is coming. A lot of opportunities here to tell stories that people really want. So thank you all for joining us. It’s a very good sign that pretty much every journalist who came to this at the top of the hour was still here at the end. So again, big salute and deep thanks to our panelists for sharing with us today. And on behalf of Covering Climate Now, I’m Mark Hertsgaard and we wish you all a very pleasant day.