The food we eat and the water we drink are increasingly under threat from climate change. Scorching temperatures, drought, and flooding are destroying crops, and, as usual, the most vulnerable people are hit hardest. How humanity grows and consumes food also affects the climate; agriculture generates roughly a third of global climate pollution. In short, transforming how humanity feeds itself is essential to living through the climate emergency.
The climate connection to food and water is also a great way to engage audiences, since these issues pervade their daily lives. In advance of CCNow’s June 27 to July 1 Joint Coverage Week on Food & Water, we had a one hour discussion with Q&A, story ideas, and more that will engage your audience.
- Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar, Mumbai, Freelance Journalist, Times of India, NY Times, The Atlantic
- Sonalie Figueiras, Hong Kong, Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Green Queen Media
- Barbara Moran, Boston, Environment Correspondent, WBUR public radio
Mark Hertsgaard, CCNow’s Executive Director and environment correspondent at The Nation magazine moderated.
During the event, Hertsgaard encouraged journalists to review the “Land” and “Food” chapters of Paul Hawken’s book Regeneration. CCNow has arranged for free access to the chapters, which are studded with story ideas. For access to the chapters, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send you the password.
Mark Hertsgaard: Hello, and welcome to another Talking Shop with Covering Climate Now. I’m Mark Hertsgaard, the executive director of Covering Climate Now, and the environment correspondent for the Nation magazine. On today’s Talking Shop, our subject is food, water, and the climate connection. Thank you all for being here. Food and water is the theme actually of the next joint week of coverage that Covering Climate Now is organizing our partners to undertake. That begins next Monday, June 27 and will continue through the July four holiday here in the United States.
I have to say, when we at Covering Climate Now chose the theme of food and water back in January, we had no idea how precious, how distressingly precious, it would be. Although we don’t see it on too many TV screens yet, severe hunger is spiking around the world. The number of people who are suffering from so-called “food insecurity,” which is a bland bureaucratic term for being desperately hungry, that number has doubled in the past two years to an estimated 276 million people. That’s a big abstract number, but that’s 276 human beings who don’t have enough to eat.
War in Ukraine is one reason why that has stopped up the global supply, attack on one of the world’s leading bread baskets. COVID of course is a second reason. Many people have lost their jobs and income. And more poverty means more people go hungry. But a third reason is climate change. And as the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres said in a powerful speech May 18, which if you haven’t seen go back and look, drought, heat and other extreme weather is also a major driver of this spike in world hunger. We’re going to put a link to the Secretary-General’s speech here in the chat, and also we’re going to link to a pretty good New York Times story that showed how all of these factors are coming together and converging in India where hunger is spiking as well.
Dealing with this spike in world hunger is on the agenda at the G7 summit this weekend. Begins June 26th on Sunday, continues through Tuesday, the 28th. Covering Climate Now is devoting two newsmaker interviews to this. There will be a newsmaker interview with Gabriela Bucher, who is the executive director of the anti-poverty NGO, Oxfam International. She will be interviewed by our partners at The Guardian, Al Jazeera and the Times of India later this week for release next Monday on the 27th. We are also doing next week, a postmortem on the summit with Jennifer Morgan. She is the climate envoy for the German government, and she’ll be talking about what did and didn’t get accomplished in Germany this weekend.
So food and water, and as we have just been discussing, obviously climate change is affecting food production, but it also works the other way around. How we produce food helps drive climate change. About one third of global emissions are related to the agriculture sector. And that’s largely because A, humans today, especially in the United States are eating much more meat than we ever did in our history. And meat carries a very strong carbon footprint. And the second reason is the way that we produce most of our food. The industrial agricultural method is very carbon intensive. And we’ll get into that during this Talking Shop. The good news for us as journalists is that food and water is tailor made for engaging our audiences. Every human has to eat and drink, and it’s a basic part of daily life and culture for people everywhere, which makes it an easy way for our readers, our listeners and our viewers to tap into the climate story and understand how it connects to them personally and how they can affect it through their dietary choices.
In fact, eating less meat is one of the top ways to deal with the climate emergency. It was ranked number three in the book Draw Down, which is one of those books that every climate journalist should have on your desk. Draw Down. It is a compendium of the top 100 climate solutions based on peer reviewed science. Don’t overlook the follow up buy-in, which is called Regeneration. It is chalk full of story ideas about how farmers and consumers can change the food system. For example, Gabe Brown is a farmer in North Dakota, who after one extreme weather event too many decided to switch his farm from the industrial method to the regenerative agriculture method. Turned out it made him money, saved his farm and is helping to save the planet as well. Regeneration is the name of the book. Covering Climate Now has arranged for all journalists who want access to that book, you can have free access to that book. You need the passcode from us. So email us at editors@coveringclimatenow, and we’ll link you up there. Gabe Brown will be a panelist at the press briefing that Covering Climate Now is doing next week, June 29. You can get more details, just look in on our website, CoveringClimateNow.org.
Now, before I introduce the panelists for today, a couple of housekeeping items. I will introduce them all at once. We’ll hear from them in turn during the first half hour, and then in the second half hour, your questions and answers. You’re welcome to tweet throughout. Please use @CoveringClimateNow and the hashtag CCNow. Now I hope you will join me in giving a very warm virtual welcome to our three sparkling journalists. We will be beginning with Barbara Moran. She is a correspondent at WBUR Boston radio public radio in Boston, on their environmental team where she focuses on climate science and solutions and contributes to the series Cooked: the search for sustainable eats. She’s written for the New York Times and the Boston Globe and produced documentaries for the public broadcasting system here in the United States.
Then we will have Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar. She is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai, India. She writes mainly on environment science and development. She has been a consulting editor with the Times of India, which is a partner of Covering Climate Now. She also writes for National Geographic, the Atlantic and The Guardian.
Last, but certainly not least, Sonalie Figueiras. She is the founder and editor in chief of Green Queen. That’s an online magazine based in Hong Kong that covers climate change, alternative proteins and sustainability in general. Her public speaking engagements include the Harvard Business school and Tedx. So thank you all three for coming. I believe that this might be the first time that we have all three panelists at a Talking Shop who are all partners of Covering Climate Now. So that’s a nice landmark to notice. So I’m going to just dive right in and we’re going to start with Barbara. So Barbara, I know that you’ve been interested in the climate story for quite some time, but I’m curious, what made you decide that food was an angle that you wanted to emphasize in your reporting?
Barbara Moran: Well, I sort of started when I was covering the IPCC reports last year and I started to get really depressed. We also started hearing that our audience was getting, I don’t know, tuning out, because the news was so overwhelming. So those kind of things happened at the same time. We were starting to think about how can we give the audience information that they could use? What solutions that they could use to think positively about the climate crisis and what they could contribute. So we had been thinking about doing a newsletter, a popup newsletter and some other content. We said, “Well, let’s try food.” I’m like, “Well, food, that’ll be fun. Maybe that’ll cheer me up. It’ll be less depressing. And we’ll give people some tips that they can use.” So that’s where we came about it. We did have a rule, so I’m in Boston. I wanted to actually do some journalism and not just things you could Google online. So we focused it on New England. So it was about sustainable eating in New England. Because I figured eating sustainably in Boston is different than maybe eating sustainably in California or Costa Rica or somewhere like that. So we focused it on that subject, in that location.
Mark Hertsgaard: So how much, sorry to use this term, but how much content have you all been producing? I assume you’re producing both audio and written content. How much, how often, and what’s been the reaction, both of your management and of your audience?
Barbara Moran: So we produce a ton of content. So we had a six part popup newsletter. I think we had three or four audio features. We did this first person thing where me and two of the other reporters did first person diets. I went vegan for a month and then our health reporter tried to eat no plastic packaging for a month. Then another one tried to eat only local food for a month, or just a week. I feel like I got the easiest deal out of it. Then we all wrote about that. And we went on air and talked about our experiences. That ended up being like a huge hit, weirdly that first person stuff. The newsletter is doing really well. It’s evergreen. It’s supposed to be evergreen for a year, so people can still subscribe. So we hit our subscription goals very quickly and management loves it. I think they might love it a little too much because they want me to do another one, but it was too much work. So I got to crash backer. So we’ll see if there’s going to be a Cooked 2.
Mark Hertsgaard: I have to say to everybody who’s listening, check out Barbara’s story about when she tried to go vegan. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you write also about your offspring and their attitude about this.
Barbara Moran: Yes, yes. So I tried to do vegan January with my husband and two tween boys. Yeah, I lasted for a month and they lasted for a week and you can hear all about it in my writing, but yeah, I felt like it, like you said, it opened. Food is really personal for people. I think there are tweaks you can do, like even cutting down meat a little bit makes a big difference and cutting down on food waste and all these things. So I think it did what it was supposed to do.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah. And how overt were you about drawing the climate connection to what you were experiencing?
Barbara Moran: Oh, totally overt. Yeah. I did a fair amount of research to make … I guess I did this funny little dance because I did a lot of research to make sure that the connections were clear, but also didn’t want to turn people off by telling them what to eat. Because eating is so personal and cultural and people have favorite foods and families and allergies and all these kind of things. So I was like, “if you want to eat, here’s the deal with meat. And if you want to eat meat more sustainably, here are some ways to think about doing it.”
Mark Hertsgaard: That really brings up one of the things I mentioned in my introduction is that one of the easiest ways, certainly if you’re an American, is to just not eat as much meat. 60 years ago, Americans did not eat meat three meals a day. That has shifted in these last 50 to 60 years. It’s not because it’s better for our health. It’s largely driven by corporate advertising and corporate imperatives. So one last question before I move on here, Barbara, what advice would you give to other journalists who are thinking about doing this? We like these Talking Shops to be very practical and constructive and sharing between newsrooms, rather. From what you’ve learned from going through it, aside from it turned out to be maybe a little more work than you anticipated, what would be your advice?
Barbara Moran: So I’m a climate reporter. I feel like there was a surprisingly steep learning curve for me because a lot of the people I was talking to were food people, like foodies and food writers. And it was this whole other world of jargon I had to learn. I know all the science jargon and I’m used to talking to climate scientists and atmospheric scientists and I’m good with that. But all this, I don’t know, it was humbling to … it was almost like a whole different area. Then trying to connect those two worlds, it was a good challenge, but I don’t know, it was a little trickier than I expected. Feed yourself some time.
Mark Hertsgaard: Yeah. That’s what I was going to say. It sounds like give yourself a bit of a runway to get your speed up before you have to go on the air, put a story in the paper. Well, thank you. That’s Barbara Moran of WBUR public radio in Boston and she will be with us for the rest of the hour, of course. I’m Mark Hertsgaard. I’m the executive director here at Covering Climate Now. We’re so glad to have all of you with us. And we’re now going to switch all the way around the world through the magic of internet technology. We’re going to talk to Vaishnavi. She is, as I mentioned earlier, she’s been reporting on these issues in India for a while for a lot of different publications. So India is obviously one of the big players in climate politics around the world and in food. So give us just a little perspective on how that issue is playing out now in India. I referenced earlier this New York Times story about 10 days ago that talked about how climate change in particular and the extreme weather, which has brutalized India, Pakistan, this very, very hot spring that you had. Has the monsoon season begun there yet? Or what’s the update? Then we’ll get into some of the specifics.
Mark Hertsgaard: I don’t hear you speaking. I think you may have muted yourself. So let’s take-
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar: Sorry. Can you hear me now?
Mark Hertsgaard: Now, we hear you. All right. So we may have monsoon.
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar: Thanks, Mark. In India, there’s a saying that the monsoon is actually the finance minister of the country, because everything depends on how good the monsoon is. It determines the rest of the year. It determines food production. It determines incomes, especially rural incomes, and therefore consumption, and the whole economic ripple effect. This year, they forecast a good monsoon. The monsoon has just begun and fingers are always crossed that it’ll work out that way, because rice production, especially, is dependent on a good monsoon. And India, as you know, is a huge producer of rice, and a consumer of rice, and an exporter of rice. And of course, just a little earlier in this year, we had a little problem with the wheat production, because of a very unexpected heat wave. So everyone’s hoping that this monsoon will be good.
Mark Hertsgaard: You mentioned that problem with the wheat. For those who don’t know, the Ukraine war, obviously Ukraine, a major bread basket, the war shut down the supplies coming out of there, that led to the global price of wheat to go way up. And that’s mainly what drives hunger, folks. It’s not that there’s not food out there, but that the food is too expensive for the poorest people to buy. So when that happened, the Ukraine war, Prime Minister Modi of India, rather unconsciously, I think, said, “Oh, well, India can feed the world. We’ll just export more wheat.” And then, he had to withdraw that pledge because of this heat wave, that shriveled production of wheat in not only India. So one question Vaishnavi, has there been any blow back against Modi for that and the backtracking, or has not? Is that a political issue there in India?
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar: I think internationally, there was a lot of criticism, and certainly perhaps his promise was a little ambitious and sort of over optimistic. But in India, local, domestic food prices are the priority and food production is the priority. India has a very large government food procurement and distribution system, and it distributes vast quantities of wheat and rice and other staples at very subsidized prices to about 800 million people. And so, the first priority is to ensure that bulwark against food shortages is there. That’s a system that’s 40 to 50 years old. And I think the step that Modi took was essentially to prevent prices from going up, because farmers would sell for exports because of the rising wheat prices globally and there would be less for procurement. So it’s a sort of averting a potential crisis in the domestic market. But no, the domestic rules in politics.
Mark Hertsgaard: Sure. Of course. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that you’ve been covering the environment and sustainability for a while, and that you’ve increasingly been looking at the food related implications of all that. So can you tell us a little bit, just about your reporting on the ground and in particular for, again, remembering that we’re all journalists here, we’re trying to help one another figure out how to do this coverage the best we can. But we are also very curious, those of us outside of India, about the situation there, because you are such a major player on the global stage. So can you tell us about your own reporting, especially on the ground there, in the agricultural areas?
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar: I first began climate reporting maybe 10 years ago, as part of the fellowship and it strikes me now that 10 years ago, the first stories, where I did from the ground were actually with farmers. Because the farmers were the first to actually see and document changes that were happening. They were the most directly affected. So in fact, I went to farmers in the Himalayas, and because it wasn’t as cold, some of them are moving their farms up land, because their apple crops weren’t getting the right temperatures. And so, actually, I think farming communities saw these changes happen much before we experienced them on consumer shelves or in public media consciousness. I’ve done a lot of climate science reporting, sea level rise, rainfall, extreme events, but I’ve repeatedly come back to looking at how communities are kind of affected by climatic changes on the ground. And also, I’ve been looking at some of the solutions that are being tried out on the ground to help them adapt. I haven’t looked too much at mitigation, and that’s partly because communities in India are sort of at the forefront of climate change impacts.
As we said before, agriculture in India is very much monsoon dependent, and most farmers in India are sort of small and marginal farmers. That means their plot size is really low, they’re not very rich, they don’t have great access to information or credit. So they’re very dependent. They live from season to season, and they’re very dependent on good rains, good weather, predictable weather. And so, they’re really, really vulnerable to climate change.
Mark Hertsgaard: And tell us a little bit about the reception that your stories have got, and both within the newsroom… In other words, does management like it? Are your editors open to these stories? Has that changed over time? And also, what’s been the reaction of the public, the readers?
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar: I think the management has never turned down stories on climate in the last 10 years, but I have to say that the interest in the last three years has really skyrocketed. And that’s because of the fact that now I think climatic changes, extreme events are very visible now I think, and the IPCC reports are becoming more and more strong. So for these reasons, I think climate is sort of moving center stage and I do find there’s much more interest than it used to be. And certainly, I find the general public too is much more interested. I think previously, my climate stories maybe 10 years ago didn’t get so much attraction, but now they’re much more discussed. Although, I do think that there’s still a connection to be made for consumers and readers, between things that are happening out there and things we do, the choices we make as consumers, and in our daily lives, and in maybe politicians that we vote for.
Mark Hertsgaard: You’re underlining one of the themes that we always keep coming back to here at Covering Climate Now, in our three years of operation, that the climate stories that really penetrate and have an impact tend to be human based. Obviously, you have to have the science in there, but you have to be talking about people, not some abstraction, and locally focused. Again, the global importance of climate is obvious, but what people are going to connect to is with that local story. So what you’re describing there in India is actually a trend we think in climate reporting all around the world. So that was Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar, and she is joining us from Mumbai, India. She will be with us for the rest of the hour. She writes for Times of India, The Atlantic, National Geographic, the Guardian, and many more.
And now, we’re going to turn to Sonalie Figueiras. As I said, she was the founder and editor in chief of Green Queen in Hong Kong. And let’s just start with a real basic question. Your focus, Sonalie, has been really on food for quite a while. So in a way, maybe you’re the veteran on this panel of talking about the climate connection to food. So take us through your own decision making process, if you will. How did you decide to make food and sustainability the focus of your platform? And is there something specific related to Hong Kong that affected that decision?
And I’m afraid you too are still muting yourself. So let’s have a take two.
Sonalie Figueiras: Oh, it’s like it’s my first time. It’s so great to be here and I’m such a fan of Vaishnavi and Barbara, and I’m definitely not the veteran. But talking about making things personal, my personal journey is really why food and sustainability and climate became such a focus and such a connection, because I came to Green Queen originally because I was really, really sick, and I couldn’t fix myself with regular allopathic medicine. And it was right around the time when Google kind of popped up and one could become a researcher, and really kind of dive deep on subjects. And the more I dove deep on my symptoms and what was wrong, it led me to food. And so, it came from health, but the more I looked into the food I was eating, the more I got concerned about how it was grown and the lack of transparency that I had my entire life about it, especially in a city like Hong Kong, which many, many decades ago actually was producing our own food. And today, 96% of our food is imported, a bulk of it from China, but also from other parts of the world.
Talking about Barbara going on an expedition to eat locally for a month, would not entirely be possible, especially at certain seasons, like during the summer in Hong Kong. These months now, when we are also in typhoon season, we just can’t grow that many crops and we just don’t have enough local agriculture. So all of that led me to really dig deeper and deeper. And of course, I became confronted with all the issues in our kind of very broken global, but also local food system. I did come from a bit of a business background. And so, I became more and more interested in the rising curves of protein consumption and just food production that were going to be needed.
Hong Kong is a very unique geographical location, because we are within five hours of almost five billion people in the world. And most of the world population growth will happen right around me. So there seemed to be an imperative need to understand better, “Well, how are we going to feed the world if everyone in China and eventually everyone in India becomes middle class and decides they need to have steak three times a day, or what have you?” And so, that’s really where the curation of the writing led me.
And originally, 10 years ago, when Green Queen started, it really was a little bit more health and wellness. And I found, like Vaishnavi, that it was really difficult to get people engaged on environmental topics. But as the person who was the editor, I decided that my job was to kind of put those in there anyway. And of course, what happened is because we built that kind of arsenal of environmental content, which included things like pursuing stories about living zero waste and the problem with plastic and what was a flexitarian diet. And about five years ago, we made the decision that we weren’t going to cover any lifestyle content that was promoting meat and dairy and seafood, because we felt, “Well, we’re a smaller media outlet, and we can make that choice, when all the other mainstream media in the region is promoting and writing about that stuff.” So we just did it that way. And of course, what happened, is in the last three years, the climate story became a global story. And suddenly, here we were with this kind of arsenal of content that was resonating with folks. And then, we were able to kind of pursue the climate story more.
But even today, we do focus still a lot on the consumer angle, and that’s why we’ve gone a little bit more into alternative proteins, because we feel somehow the consumer business friendly news tends to do well with our audience. I would say we have an audience that is Pan-Asia and now a little bit more global, and they want to know who’s trying to find solutions. I think it’s fair to say Asia is a very entrepreneurial region and these stories of entrepreneurs that put climate at the heart of their mission and use food to kind of find solutions, seems to really resonate around…
And we also are in a region where governments are very multiyear strategic, and I think it’s become more and more clear for governments in China, in Israel, in Singapore, that food security is national security. Let’s also remember that a few years ago in China, it was pretty normal to have around 100 to 150 major food scandals per year. So unlike an American or a European consumer, that can kind of trust that their food is basically safe, to a certain extent, consumers in Asia are very connected to food safety. And they’re also very connected to nutrition paneling in food, in a way that’s just different in the West. And so, the kind of food policies are geared a little bit differently.
Mark Hertsgaard: So what I’m hearing from you and all three of you panelists actually, is that food can be a terrific bridge. The subject of food can be a terrific bridge between personal health and planetary health. That your own individual personal health is affected, obviously, by what you eat. And then, what we eat also affects the planetary health. And that seems to be the bridge where we can make the connection to climate change. And that of course is what we’re talking about at this talk and shop, how do you make the connection to climate change in your food and water reporting?
I’m very struck by what you said, Sonalie, about five billion people within sort of a half a day’s airplane ride from Hong Kong, it’s Asia really—and we sometimes forget this in North America and Europe—it’s Asia, where the climate future is arguably going to be decided and is in some ways the most extreme now.
So one more question before we go to Q&A here, so at Green Queen, as you have been trying to make this shift, what have you learned both in terms of your audience’s reaction and sort of how it plays with management about making that climate connection to the food? What have you learned along the way? And maybe preface that, if you could, for some of us. If you could just give a 60 second summary, why is it that meat is worse for the climate than growing vegetables or even growing rice? What is it that gives meat such a strong carbon footprint? And then, what has been your experience with trying to get the message across in your coverage?
Sonalie Figueiras: Absolutely. I’ll start with the meat question. Just really quickly, obviously meat, and these are approximate figures, but uses around a quarter of the water that our water use globally. About 45% of our land is either used for grazing animals or for growing their feed. Emissions, depending on which estimate you go with, between 14-18% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s not even counting the secondary effects of industrial livestock agriculture, which is deforestation, antibiotic, the superbug growth, antibiotic resistance, losing species, mass extinction and so on and so forth.
So it’s just, unfortunately the issue, if we take away the ethics of eating meat from this discussion, the issue is not whether you should eat meat or not. The issue is that people imagine when they’re eating meat that maybe they imagine a happy cow in a field and they imagine kind of, let’s say, regeneratively grown meat or grass fed meat, but of course, 95% or so meat that we eat is industrially produced and that system just isn’t working. And the other thing that I think is often missed in this conversation, especially when it comes to talking about alternative proteins, is that just really, really quickly, if everybody in China started to eat the same amount of meat per capita as everyone in the US eats today, we would genuinely need between five and seven planets. So it’s actually not a question of meat or not, it’s a question of what are we going to do when that demand grows and how are we going to give … We need to find alternative ways to produce protein for that demand. So, that’s number one on the meat side.
And then what have I learned? I think the thing that I’ve learned that shocks me the most, and that’s because sometimes I’m just in my own little bubble, is that we’ve never had so much information at our fingertips on how our food is produced and what’s in our food just in terms of the explosion of social media. But yet people remain so confused about what the right decisions are. And so that’s why the reporting that Vaishnavi and Barbara are doing, especially all the first person stuff, I actually think that’s what people want. Because they still come, every time I talk on a panel, I still have a line of people at the end who tell me, so what should I eat? And this is despite we have thousands of articles and guides and we’re certainly, a few years ago we were unique in our coverage, but today mass media covers this and people are just so confused.
So the great news for climate journalists, as you said food is so personal and there’s so much we can do. There’s many more stories we can tell and we need more Barbaras telling their story. We need more Vaishnavis telling the farmer stories. We need more of that because people are just so confused, but I think food is a way to really make that bridge because everyone eats three times a day. I mean, other than breathing, it’s the only thing that unites every single one of us.
Mark Hertsgaard: And that’s exactly why Covering Climate Now is organizing its next joint coverage week around food and water. And if you’re not already involved, please go to the website. You can find out what kind of coverage is offered. Of course, through Covering Climate Now, we have 500 plus news outlet partners around the world that reach a combined audience of some two billion people and we try to share our coverage one with another. So if you’ve got some great coverage on food and water and the climate connection, please put it in our sharing library and vice versa. If your outlet would like to run more excellent coverage and not just from these three fine journals with us today, but others, go to the sharing library at Covering Climate Now, and we will connect you up. As I mentioned earlier, we’re doing two newsmaker interviews, but there’s a lot of additional stories that are going to be running. And it really is a way to build your audience as well as educate people. So let me try, and I’m going to take a couple of questions that have come in over the RSVPs. And then I will just remind everybody online here, if you’d like to ask a question, please put it in chat. I see a couple have come in already. Make sure when you put it in chat that you put it to everyone, not just to one person or it will get lost, but to everyone, and I will try to get to as many as I can.
One of the questions that came in before we started, I think, is a really good general one. And Barbara, I’m going to start with you, but I think all three of you might want to speak to this. And it’s a little bit like the last question I asked you, Barbara, but it’s sort of the next step. Here’s a question from someone says “I’m new to the climate environment beat. What are some common pitfalls that I should avoid when I’m reporting on agriculture and the environment, agriculture and climate, food and climate?” What are the pitfalls. Barbara, why don’t you start?
Barbara Moran: Oh man, why do I have to start? All right. So I guess what I think is really interesting is how different the sort of local story is from the regional story is from the global story. Beef is really interesting and it’s not … I mean, it’s produced very differently in different parts of the world. And so I was wrestling with how much of that information to sort of give to an audience. And in New England, we don’t really have any industrial beef production. And we do have a lot of fish production. I don’t know. So, I guess the pitfall is you can’t just use like global stats if you’re trying to talk about a local issue. You have to dig up the local stuff if you want to make it relevant for your audience. And that’s not always that easy to do.
Mark Hertsgaard: Not that easy. But again, as I mentioned, that’s one of our mantras here at Covering Climate Now. When you’re trying to do the climate story, humanize it and localize it, think globally, report locally, as we like to say. So Vaishnavi, a pitfall or two that you learned to avoid for somebody new to the beat.
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar: I mean, I really want to second Barbara’s point about context and local context. So one of the things that I found, for example, we talk about meat in a global context and the sort of emissions that it produces. But if you talk about meat in India where we have a whole politics around meat eating that has to do with the right wing government targeting beef eaters, for example, you have to be really careful about the context of which you’re speaking. Something that makes a lot of sense in one context, a policy or a debate, could have very different kind of effects in another context. And I think that is actually one of the hardest things to do. The other thing that I would say is that it’s so important to go to the ground and speak to people because the way that people experience environment locally living on the land is so different from what you hear about in terms of just studies and models and numbers. And it’s actually a much more interesting story.
Mark Hertsgaard: Boy, I will third that comment. One of the things we say at Covering Climate Now is that on food and water, make sure you talk to somebody in your reporting who has their hands in the dirt, a real farmer. I say this as I grew up on a farm, and oftentimes here in the United States, there’s a bit of an urban bias. A lot of the reporters in newsrooms are in urban areas, they have an urban mindset and frankly, they look down on farming people, they look down on rural communities. They think of them as uneducated, as backwards, as culturally conservative, etc. They forget that they wouldn’t be eating if those people weren’t doing their jobs out on the farm. So get out there, talk to farmers, don’t just write your stories based on what the agriculture minister says or the scientist who’s quoted at a TED talk says no, offense to TED Talks, but get out there with the people who are actually making the stuff grow in the ground. And now, Sonalie, one pitfall to avoid before we go onto the next question?
Sonalie Figueiras: Sure. For me, one of the big pitfalls is to avoid the kind of Silicon Valley, techno-optimist view of the world. Because I truly believe in alternative protein as a solution, not the solution, but an important solution for the future, as I mentioned before, because I think we’re not going to be able to feed everyone with the current system anyway. But I do worry that the alternative protein world is infected by, yeah, what I call this kind of Silicon Valley, techno-optimist, “we’re going to save the world,” and it is very divorced a lot of times from the agricultural side of the discussion.
So I am really, my next step now is now that everyone’s reporting on people like Impossible Food, is really to go more in that direction. And I do try to speak to people and do interviews with people like Errol Schweizer and Anna Lappe, who are really on the other side of things, much more grassroots community organizers at the agroecology level. But I tell you, it is hard in the consumer business world. It’s easier to believe there is a silver bullet. And so I think the nuance now that we’ve opened that kind of alt protein beans, it’s time to add nuance and further kind of how are we going to make it work with the farmers and with the growers and with Indigenous knowledge and with localized knowledge. I think there are people doing it so we can tell stories, but we have to be careful not to fall into that trap.
Mark Hertsgaard: This gives me an opportunity, again, to commend to everyone watching the book Regeneration. You can have access for free through Covering Climate Now, a new book that really talks in very specific terms about the shift to regenerative agriculture. The current system is oftentimes called industrial agriculture or mass commodity agriculture, which has a very strong carbon footprint. Regenerative agriculture, quite the opposite, much lower footprint, but also critically regenerative agriculture is much more resilient to the droughts, to the downpours, to the extreme heat, all the things that climate change is going to be bringing. Check out Regeneration. There are literally dozens of specific story ideas in there about farmers who have their hands in the dirt who have made these shifts that you can write about and interview and so forth. So again, you can get that on our website coveringclimatenow.org.
Here’s an interesting question that also came in on the RSVPs, and this is a little bit more sort of big picture. But it talks about the difference in perspective between the global south and the global north and here’s the question.
How do we cover the impacts of climate change on food, on water in a way that makes a comfortable middle class American audience care about those issues without burying the reality that it’s people in the global south and vulnerable people also in the global north, but basically the poor, the world’s poor, who are suffering from food and water insecurity the most? As I said earlier, 276 million human souls around the world tonight are not going to have food and they didn’t have it last night either. How do we hold both of those stories and convey both of those realities in a way that reaches all of our different audiences? And I’m not going to pick anybody for this, but who wants to speak to it? And just raise your finger and go ahead. Come on. Somebody got to raise their finger.
Barbara Moran: I’ll try and do it. This is the million dollar impossible question. I mean-
Mark Hertsgaard: That’s why you get paid the big bucks, Barbara.
Barbara Moran: I mean, in my reporting, I didn’t really talk about the effect on the global south. I talked about food insecurity in New England. It’s like 15% of people in our region have food insecurity or how do you eat less imported food, and touched on the global issue. But I mean, I think part of the reason why I focus on this is because people are getting overwhelmed with the global issue. And then, so it’s like, well, here’s how you can help the global thing with what you are individually doing. But yes, I mean, but if anybody else has other ideas, I’d love to hear them.
Mark Hertsgaard: Vaishnavi, I hope you don’t mind if I little bit put you on the spot because it strikes me, correct me if I’m wrong, but you know, sometimes outsiders have this impression of India that all, it’s just a 1.3 billion people who are on the verge of starvation, and it’s not at all the truth. You have a very strong, a very large rather middle class and even upper middle class there. And so how do you as a reporter speak to both of those realities within India?
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar: Yeah. That’s a great question. And I have to say that it is tough. You’re right. I mean, we sort of have a sort of mini north and south in India where we have these urban middle class and rich, who often are the readers of say English language dailies that I write for. And then we have a rural middle class as well, but also a lot of poor and also a lot of urban poor. So we have these sort of very divided kind of societies and segments. And that’s why I think local stories really matter because each story can be a snapshot that’s relevant to one group at a time and it doesn’t have to encapsulate everything.
But I think what is wonderful is sometimes when you can find that story that connects the two, and that’s a food story very often because how climate change affects farmers, affects farming, affects the food supply, and that affects the food that supplied to you. Why do you have a shortage of oil on the shelves today? Well, palm oil right now, actually, in India. And of course, it’s the Ukraine crisis, but it’s also because of natural disasters and environmental changes. I mean, perfect stories when you can bring them together, it’s not always possible. And so you just have to be reconciled to doing sort of snapshots of different segments and trying to make different segments of society care for what’s going on somewhere else.
Mark Hertsgaard: So again, this underscores the importance of localizing your reporting and humanizing your reporting. And to use an American baseball analogy, you don’t have to hit a home run every time, folks. Some nice singles will eventually score the run. So we’re going to stay with India for a second. I see an interesting question here in the chat, and this is another one of those million dollar questions.. But if you’ve been covering food for a while, as I have, this is one of the elephants in the room, so to speak. And here’s the question from Timothy A. Wise, question, “India’s Green Revolution is now criticized on environmental grounds. Africa is following that flawed model. As I have written, I being Timothy Wise, how can this failure, the failure of the Green Revolution, get greater media attention?”
So Green Revolution, for those of you who may not be up to speed, Green Revolution came really through the Rockefeller Foundation. In the ’60s and ’70s, they were appalled at a human level of the great amount of famine that was in India. And the Green Revolution was a very techno-based approach to growing more food. It was about getting different seeds and developing different varieties and putting a lot more fertilizer in the ground, and a lot of other things that I’m oversimplifying here. That did indeed boost production. No question about that. And also, no question that it kept literally millions of people from starvation in the relatively short to medium term. Over time, however, the environmental impacts of that approach to agriculture have been very, very controversial, to say the least. Because of the fertilizer, because of all these other things, the soil itself is being weakened, and what gets much less attention, the power of food companies in the supply chain up and down the supply chain was dramatically increased. And this is something that all of you in your reporting, this is one of those things that we don’t talk about enough, that yes, it’s important to talk to the farmers who have their hands in the ground.
In America, if you’ll talk to them, they are frustrated as hell that there’s monopolization. When they buy the seeds, there’s no competition, so they’re being priced out. When they sell their product at the end of the year, there’s only one mill that they can sell it to, and so, they have to pretty much take the price that’s there. The monopolization, the corporate control, and the Green Revolution really intensified that. So with that as background, let’s all talk about how can we get greater media attention on that? And I’m sorry, Vaishnavi, but I’m going to put you on the spot again, because India really is, you guys were the test case and sort of the famous… So where do things stand now in terms of the government position and the public position on a Green Revolution approach to agriculture?
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar: Yeah, I think there is a lot of debate and criticism now in the last, I would say 10 to 20 years of the Green Revolution, and in a way there always has been. I mean, I think people would say, yes, it did do, it did stop food shortages. India did achieve self-sufficiency in food production. And that was a great thing, but there is a lot of criticism on the highly industrialized, highly intensive technological kind of mode of farming that it promoted. And, in fact, one of the things I always say is that climate change actually offers you the opportunity to examine existing systems and historical systems and how they came to be.
And so, for example, what we are seeing a lot of now, especially among the middle class, but also in climate sort of adaptation and mitigation policies and projects, is a return to… Because in the Green Revolution, wheat and rice became the top grains that were produced, and a lot of other grains that are less, now, they’re less fashionable. They’re not eaten so much anymore except by the poor. But they are hardier grains, and they, at one time, provided a more diverse nutritional diet to people, to communities. And a lot of scientists and adaptation projects now are trying to convince farmers to go back to some of those grains—sorghum, maize, millets—that actually would stand some of these weather variables better, and at least they won’t be so affected by changes in rainfall or droughts. And also from a nutrition perspective, it’s better to have a diverse diet than to be exclusively focused on wheat and rice. And I think that debate is coming up a lot more, and it’s being discussed a lot more. I think there was a recent study that showed that alternative grains such as millets and sorghum can actually lead to some greenhouse gas reduction of 50 million tons or something like that. So this is definitely being discussed more.
Mark Hertsgaard: And I’m sorry to sound like a broken record, but that book, Regeneration, has numerous examples of how farmers are shifting away from the so-called, the major grains of wheat, rice, and corn, which are what the corporations want to have grown, to a whole, actually I should say, it’s not shifting, but going back to what farming did for thousands of years, many different varieties. Sonalie and then Barbara quickly, do you have any thoughts on this? How can we do more telling, how can we, as reporters, do more telling of this story of the Green Revolution, which is I would… With apologies to Mr. Wise, I would say can kind of almost shoehorn into the difference between the current system, the industrial agriculture system, and the regenerative system, covering that transition, how do we do that? Sonalie and then Barbara.
Sonalie Figueiras: One thing that strikes me, speaking of people who are bridges between that conversation and kind of consumers, is chefs and people who are in that part of the food supply. I tend to find that they tend to be connected to the growers and to the agricultural side of things. But then, they’re also connected to the consumer. And you find this a lot, even with people in wine, for example, because it’s so connected to the climate. And so, I think there’s a lot of scope to kind of mine them for knowledge and kind of involve them more in the climate story, you know?
Mark Hertsgaard: I would say in the United States that is a really popular kind of, pardon the pun, staple of morning television is having chefs on the air and showing you, “Oh, cook this.” And so, that’s an interesting way to get into that.
Sonalie Figueiras: Right. But even getting them to talk more about how they choose the foods that they choose and why and what’s on their menu, and I think people are really receptive to that. And there’s also a really great question on climate resilient food. And I know a lot of the conversation about climate and food tends to be on meat and meat reduction. But I can tell you that in Asia, we have a ton of really interesting entrepreneurs and chefs and growers that are really looking at really changing the basket of crops that we use to more resilient ones. Because I have to say one of the things, if I had to make a prediction on this panel, one of the things that I think consumers are not aware of enough, despite the great sriracha shortage, and currently I’m in France, there’s a mustard shortage… There is no mustard on any shelf because of what’s going on. I think people are not at all clear enough on how much food that is in their fridge and in their pantry is going to be missing in the next few years. And, actually, one of our most popular stories was the one that we shared with CCNow a couple years ago, it’s still very popular, about the five breakfast foods you may not have anymore: chocolate, banana, coffee, potatoes. I think people are not clear that their plate is really going to change. And I think that’s a great way to personalize it, and to kind of get involvement with interesting people, farmers, that are doing interesting things. And that is part of the Green Revolution story as well.
Mark Hertsgaard: Great. Barbara, one quick word from you, and then we’ll wrap up. It can either be about the reporting on this shift from the industrial ag to regenerative ag or anything, any other point you’d like to make.
Barbara Moran: Well, one thing I did in the newsletter, which I thought was came out really interesting was I spoke to a bunch of Indigenous farmers about the Indigenous food sovereignty movement. And there’s a lot of really interesting stuff going on there in North America with seed saving and soil regeneration. And it loops back, and sort of, how can you go back to some of the good stuff that was before the Green Revolution, but still have food, enough food for everybody? So I found that a really good way to go.
Mark Hertsgaard: That is one of those topics, the whole Indigenous role of this, that I’m sorry we didn’t touch on more in this hour, but it is a major focus of, again, our week of coverage next week. Look in the sharing library at coveringclimatenow.org, the Regeneration book, the Drawdown book, talk about the Indigenous knowledge as well. And I hope that all of you have learned from this hour. I’d like to thank very much our three distinguished panelists who have joined us from really quite an extraordinary range of time zones today.
We’ve had Barbara Moran in Boston. She is a correspondent at WBUR public radio station in Boston where she focuses on climate science and solutions and contributes to the series, Cooked: The Search for Sustainable Eats.
And from Mumbai, we have had Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar. She is a freelance journalist, but she’s written for a lot of outlets: Times of India, the Guardian, the Atlantic, and National Geographic.
And, as well, we’ve had from, I was going to say Hong Kong, but I gather she’s now in France, Sonalie Figueiras. And she is the founder and editor of Green Queen, online magazine in Hong Kong. Of course, there are links to all of these panelists’ work at coveringclimatenow.org.
I’ll just remind you again, we have two newsmaker interviews coming up, for partners in the Covering Climate Now collaboration, first with Gabriela Bucher of Oxfam International. We hope that that will be taped on Friday, and we hope to run it on Monday during the G7 Summit. And then, next week will be Jennifer Morgan, the climate envoy of the German government. And we’ll be deciding after we tape that when that will run, but that will be basically a postmortem on what does and does not happen at the G7, in particular around the question of climate and food.
So thank you all for being with us today. It’s been our pleasure, and we hope that you will stay in touch with Covering Climate Now as we go forward. I’m Mark Hertsgaard, and I’m the executive director here at Covering Climate Now. And we wish you all a very pleasant day.