PODCAST: What On Earth? Episode 5: Food for thought

By Molly Lowney and Jennifer Ng | November 26, 2020 12:33am
Food is a huge part of the holiday season, but the food we eat also has many intersections with climate change and the ongoing pandemic. Listen to Molly and Jennifer's conversation with UP environmental studies professor Dr. Heather Carpenter for some food for thought.
Media Credit: Molly Lowney / The Beacon

Molly Lowney  0:00  

Hey Jen, can you believe we only got a couple weeks left in the semester Thanksgiving break is actually just a couple days away, and I can't believe it.

Jennifer Ng  0:09  

Even though this holiday season will be different due to COVID. At least the food will be a familiar comfort. I'm definitely looking forward to mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

Molly Lowney  0:18  

Which brings us to today's topic. As we gear up to start preparations for our various holiday feasts, we thought what better time to talk in depth about food, climate change in the pandemic than now?

Jennifer Ng  0:31  

Because we're sure you've been encouraged to eat less meat and buy organic produce, but what impact do those changes really make?

Molly Lowney  0:38  

We're addressing all of that on today's episode, coming right up.

Jennifer Ng  0:50  

You're listening to What on Earth? a podcast from the beacon. I'm Jennifer. And I'm Molly.

Molly Lowney  0:55  

And this is a podcast where we look at climate change and environmental issues through the lens of current events.

Jennifer Ng  1:02  

We're here with Dr. Carpenter from the Environmental Studies Department. Hi, welcome. Would you like to introduce yourself to our listeners?

Dr. Heather Carpenter  1:12  

I'm Dr. Carpenter, I, I'm in Environmental Studies Department, I teach core science is mainly my job. And I'm obsessed with food issues. So that's my quick background.

Jennifer Ng  1:29  

Great, awesome.

Molly Lowney  1:29  

So today we're talking all about food, especially like moving into like the holiday season where like big comfort meals are a huge thing that suddenly become a part of people's lives again. So I feel like there's a lot of numbers that get tossed around when it comes to agriculture, the agriculture industry and climate change. So how much does agriculture really contribute to overall emissions?

Dr. Heather Carpenter  1:56  

So the reason why there's lots of different numbers is because it depends on how you calculate it because Are you talking about just the animals? Are you talking about the soil impact? Are you talking about the tractors? So that all is pretty obvious, right? But then you start adding - are you talking about the trees that you cut down to grow that stuff? So the land use change? And then you start adding how about the trucks and the trains? And the planes and the ships that transport the food everywhere? How about the energy for refrigeration? How about the energy that goes into making the plastics? How about the energy that goes into mining the oil? How about the you know, so it sort of depends on where you draw your line. And it's a pretty squishy line. 

So it's really hard, but most people are very comfortable with the 20 to 25% of emissions are caused by agriculture, you'll hear is it Food Inc., there's a documentary that everybody always cuts and he's like, 50%. And I'm like, okay, you use squinched really far this way, you know, some foods, you're gonna be like, okay, that is packaged like crazy and refrigerated and processed in tons of energy. So we're going to give it a little more energy to it. So I bet you could say, if you look at the whole process, it's closer to 30%.

Jennifer Ng  3:13  

Is that 20 to 30%? globally, or just for the US? 

Dr. Heather Carpenter  3:17  

Global anthropogenic greenhouse gases come from agriculture. Most people go in the low 20s, the more sciency ones, 

Jennifer Ng  3:26  

how are we keeping track of all of that, I guess, like, trying to factor in everything from production to growing and transportation? And how is all of that aggregated by people? Who does all that aggregating?

Dr. Heather Carpenter  3:42  

It is not done intentionally, it is done post by people who are curious about it. So we do not track this stuff. The government is not out making sure we're not doing too much. Okay. So we it's more people with models, okay, we look at this, and we know these numbers, because we know how much oil is brought in and how much coal is being burnt. So then we can, you know, it's not that, you know, you do calculations and you make guess-timations, which is why the number is fudgy, which is why you're gonna see It's 18%. It's 23%. No, it's 30%. That's where you're gonna get a lot of different numbers is because none of it's based on real world data. It's based on models with some real world data. Does that make sense? So it's not, there's not a real tracking, it's a lot of posts, you know, going hey, you know, if we actually calculate how much that does, and we add that to how much that does, that adds up to a lot. 

Or we have science that says how much each cow tends to burp, right? Yeah. So now even that has a huge amount of variability depends on what you feed them. It depends on the health of the cow, the breed of the cow. Um, non Western cows burp a whole lot less. Like they produce less methane. So, you know, it can tell them so many factors, which is why it gets kind of squishy. But that's kind of how science works for some things that we don't fully fully have the ability to just measure directly. You do lots of people doing different ways of looking at it and trying to calculate it. And if they all tend to agree, you're like, okay, that might actually be true.

Molly Lowney  5:23  

I just have kind of a follow up question. So like, with that, like understanding and foundation, would you say that diet and food, and like changing habits around those does this makes a significant impact on emissions or contributions to climate change?

Dr. Heather Carpenter  5:39  

So one of the things that's interesting, there's, as you guys know, about the big debate between Do you do personal changes? Or do you do political changes and all this stuff? I'm just gonna give you my standpoint on this, I think the personal changes are crucial to get people fired up to change the politics. So I think you need to change yourself before because the politicians like you want that, but you still buy the crap so why should I listen to you? So you need to change yourself and get enough people around you to change, which then provides the pressure that the politics needs to make a real change. So that's where I happen to stand, which I've heard lots of arguments that also disagree with me that have merit to so there's, this is a challenging topic. 

But what I say about food is that it's the easiest to change. Now, it's really hard because culture says things about food. And I, I will say I tend to be like respect your grandmother, eat what she gives you and then when you go home, feed yourself, your vegan meals if you want. I mean, I really think that food, one, is really easy to change. And there's, of course, ways to do it with lots of money. But there's also, you know, a lot of the vegetarians in this world, are budget economic vegetarians who can't afford to eat meat, and so obviously, you know, being vegetarian, you don't have to be rich to be vegetarian. Um, well, unless you live in a place that the only thing you produce is meat, which is a lot of the world, but ignoring that. 

So I think it's something you can do personally, I think it's something that you can actually influence your family and friends, not by making them not by preaching at them necessarily, but by cooking them good food, or sharing the joy of the yummy vegetarian food that you have, or the local meat, if you're a meat eater, you know, like, oh, my goodness, going local, tastes better. Like there's certain things where it's way better for the environment, and it tastes that much better. It's kind of amazing. 

And if you can have, if you have a big enough group of friends, you can start to get a little political group there. So just feeding people is a great way to sort of convince them it's worth eating this yummy stuff. I do think, like, you changing your diet does not fix the world. Okay, you've given up that hamburger that you so dearly love will not have the life changing world changing impact that you know, would make it really worth it. But if you eat less hamburgers, and you convince your friends to eat less hamburgers, and then your friends start voting in ways that make it so that, you know, we're not just subsidizing all the beef production like crazy, that does have an impact.

Jennifer Ng  8:05  

Pretty key to being able to, like start eating less meat and eating local is like having that access. But that's not always super available to people. So what would you say to encourage people who don't have as like access to, like fresh produce?

Dr. Heather Carpenter  8:26  

And this is a really hard one because you'll see, rightly people complaining that the vegan movement or even the vegetarian movement is an elitist, white, racist, you know, like movement, like you'll hear that. I think a lot of this is about education, the amazing impact of putting a community garden in like okay, so Detroit is a great example, like Detroit is, you know, taking like a lot of the buildings are going you know, like the whole economy and like buildings are falling apart. So there are groups, community groups that are just, you know, taking the empty lots and turning them into community gardens. 

And this is amazing because it builds community, you can have teaching things there because, you know, I had an interesting thing you donate fava beans to the food bank and not most food banks won't accept it. Why? Because people don't know how to cook fava beans. Right? So good food banks will actually have like educational things where here's how we're going to have a night on how you cook different kinds of beans so when you get them in your food bank supply, you can actually cook them and anybody, you in your dorm room or your, you know, your apartment can grow basil on your you know, on your window sill, and that isn't all the food you need, but you know what, you can make your own pesto. You can grow certain amounts of things in any circumstances. Even the basement horrible stinky apartments you can you can get a grow light like they're all over the place. Okay. 

The community groups to do the community gardens is one that's been really successful in some very poor inner city neighborhoods. So I think there's some really interesting ways that we can make these things more accessible through community building, which has its own benefits, right, as well as education. So I think that's the big thing. Yes, it can be hard to get accessibility to people. But a lot of the hardness is imposed on us, and we can fight back from it. Um, I lived in a really horrible apartment complex in grad school, and I lined my little driveway with it. And like the administration of the apartment complex, hated it. But I wasn't breaking the rules, and everybody else in the complex loved it, you know, and so there are ways to get around the real issue that it is hard to access these glorious organic foods if you don't have money. Um, there are ways around it - it takes education and community building,

Molly Lowney  10:51  

I think, kind of shifting to like food issues and how it intersects with like, what's going on today. Can you talk a little bit about how the pandemic has impacted our food systems, and even agriculture,?

Dr. Heather Carpenter  11:05  

The pandemic has had a huge huge impact, um, and what it really has done as it has exposed the flaws in our system. So most of us remember the grocery stores that were all empty, and you know, you had people lining up for food banks like crazy. Um, and what was really interesting is back in May, when that was happening, where you had empty grocery stores and empty food banks, farmers were throwing away food, okay, and they were throwing away a lot of food. Because our system doesn't have any resiliency in it. 

Basically, a farmer will contract with a grocery store, or contract with the restaurant, right? And if you're a small farmer, like the big farmers have the big supply chains, and all that stuff, but the small farmers that produce most of the good food, the vegetables, all that yummy stuff, you're really lucky if you contract with like three restaurants in town, you are golden, you have your farm set up then. But when all the restaurants closed, those farmers had food that was ripe. And they don't know where to take it. And if they pick it and try and donate it, it costs them money to pick it. Right, you have to pay your workers, you have to pay for the gas to transport it to pay for the boxes to put it in. Um, and so then if you're donating that there's no you're not getting that money back. And so farmers that are barely making it anyways, because farming is really economically challenging to do, especially on a smaller scale, they can't afford to donate it. So the thing that they can do is they can just let it rot, compost it, try and get some good soil out of it. 

And so what we had is this horribly sad situation where there was no food in the grocery stores, there was no food going to, you know, food banks with all these people that were needing more and more of it, because of course, they had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and food rotting on the farms. You know, we could have- How much do I go political here, um, it would have been nice to see a federal government response of creating transportation of food. So okay, we're gonna create hubs, we're gonna go, we're gonna contact the small farms that no longer have a place to sell their stuff, and we're going to buy your food, and we're going to take it here, all of this stuff, but um, that didn't happen. 

And so then those farmers, like the pandemic hasn't ended, right, grocery stores are filled up, we smoothed out our big food chain and stuff, and we're probably fine there. But those small farms, restaurants aren't back online, right? They sort of were but like quarter capacity, and now we're shutting them down again, because COVID is getting worse. So those farms are toast. We really are expecting a good third of the small farms, and by small, you know, small is hard to define because it depends on what you're growing. But 50 acres or less, when you're talking vegetables, it's often in the one to five acres, maybe 10. If you're in talking animals, you're talking 50, you know, 20 to 50 acres, but, um, these small farms are just going to fold because they've lost their income and they don't have that buffer. They don't have an economic buffer because farming is such a challenging profession as it is. 

You also have the effect on the people producing the food, yes? So what's been really interesting, we've said food workers are you know, what's, oh, I just forgotten the word but the crucial workers, what's the essential, essential, there we go. That's the essential workers thing. And they are because we all need to eat, but there wasn't any standardization of protection for them. So literally, there were, you know, nonprofit groups that were just going around giving people masks because the, you know, the farms weren't providing masks for the workers who are picking the food, so they're really risking their lives just to pick us food. 

Um, yes, yes, yes, they're outdoors. But if you've ever seen people having to pick food, they're working hard, they're breathing hard, they're close proximity, they're breathing on each other, I don't care if it's windy, they're breathing on each other. Then you got into the processing plants were some of the biggest, you know, we had our first outbreaks were in like the the senior homes, but then the next big outbreaks were in meat processing plants. And the whole idea was is your bacon killing somebody? And arguably, yes, meat processing plants. Again, your people are crammed close together, they're working very fast and very hard with low breaks, you know, very few breaks. And they're breathing on each other. 

And they have safety protocols for like E. coli, and other bacteria. But those don't work for viruses. Um, so the people were getting sick from that. And often, people in the meat processing plants, we've had a long history in our country, a meat processing plants, having immigrant families in them. And so then often the immigrant families are living in larger family groups. And so then they expose, and it spreads really, really quickly that way. And so we had a huge impact from processing our food. 

And then the meat plants started putting some protocols, which a lot of them had the excuse, well, we follow the protocols that we were told, will yeah because the government didn't give them good protocols. Right. Um, and I happen to think that you could have read any basic news on COVID and said, Oh, these aren't good enough protocols. But you know, there's, there's that there wasn't a message, you know, said that, okay, all processing plants, here's what you need to update to protect from COVID. 

Um, later in the summer, we then had fruit processing plants. So I'm here in Vancouver, Washington, like a mile from my house, there was a huge outbreak with like, 60 people or something, catching COVID, which is another doesn't sound like a huge amount, but it's a little tiny factory. I think they have 150 people working there, you know, so food production is also a great way because it since it's so necessary, and since we have a long history of paying people very badly, and taking care of people very little, who produce our food. Um, those people are massively at risk for getting COVID. And so it's kind of both farms are crashing, but also the people who are producing our food are not being well protected. And so COVID is having a huge gotcha, gotcha, gotcha kind of moment. See, you're not, if this doesn't work, this doesn't work, this doesn't work.

Jennifer Ng  17:31  

With all of that, like, all the farms failing, and it's being it's become really clear that our workers are treated super poorly in the agriculture industry. How would we go about supporting a more equitable and environmentally friendly food system?

Dr. Heather Carpenter  17:49  

So this is this gets back to the economic thing, if you come from an upper middle class family, buy organic by local, no question. It's more expensive. But if you can participate in the local system, if you can shop at farmer's markets, you can look your farmer in the eye and ask them some questions. You know, I really, really am a big one about buying local, there are skeez-bags locally. No question. But the biggest, most exploitative, problematic sort of agricultural systems are all about trade, not about feeding the local region. So it's just, you know, you're in the Midwest in the Corn Belt, and it's hard, you don't buy corn from there. You know, like you don't go to the grocery store and get corn from Iowa, if you live in Iowa, like it's shipped from someplace else. 

Um, and so if you can avoid those systems that are the big efficiency, efficiency, efficiency systems, and efficiency often means that the subtleties are lost, which, you know, human health is maybe a subtlety to some of these people. Anytime you can break out of the system, the big commodity food system, you're going to be able to help that. And that might involve growing your own food, that might involve eating local, um, it can be hard to do, but there are, you know, you have to do your shopping around there are CSAs. Do you know what a CSA is? So a CSA is community supported agriculture. It's usually like a farm, who will you get a box a week, and many of those are expensive, but some of those are quite cheap, the cheapness often comes because you don't get to choose what you get. So you have to kind of take what it is which means some adventures in the kitchen, right? And again, if you are a single parent with a minimum wage job, this is gonna be hard.

If I had all the answers for this, it would be great. I don't, but I think if you have the power to go local, you should do it. Depending on where you live, this also can be harder. Arizona local is a little a little bit harder than Portland local, because Portland has amazing food locally. But even even in Arizona, there are things that are local, like the chilies that you can grow in Arizona that are way better than the chilies you grow other places, like it's worth it. So anytime you can do that, I think that is just a personally easily accessible way. We try and step away from commodity step away from processed in grocery. And the benefit is that you get healthier food. And it tastes better too. But you have to learn how to cook.

Molly Lowney  20:27  

I think kind of a follow up question to that. I mean, like in the next month and a half people are going to be sitting down and having large meals with family members, I think how would you, like encourage people or give advice to like start conversations about like food equity and sustainability like with their, like extended family?

Dr. Heather Carpenter  20:49  

Yeah, having these conversations with family is really, really hard because you don't want to make them mad for either because you don't want to or because you have consequences, right? You don't want to make them mad. Um, so I'll give you my take, which there are lots of different ways to do this. But my take is to feed them gloriousness that is, you know, the good stuff. But I like to cook so this is a little questionable. 

But, you know, get a local turkey or this year, I happen to grow my own turkeys. This is my first year doing it. It was way more fun than I thought like turkeys are a ton of fun to have around. And so I grew my own turkey, so we're gonna have the turkeys. And one of the things like so if you go to the grocery store, some of the fancier grocery stores will have local turkeys, they are twice as expensive. So you have to get a way smaller turkey. But if you now, I'm sort of ignoring that we're all going to be zooming with our family for Thanksgiving for the moment. Okay, so I'm not ignoring that, but I know that exists. But if you can get a smaller turkey, and it tastes so good, and then you just have more sides you can kind of like see this is worth it family, it can be really spectacular.

I'm a big one about don't judge, just share. Um, so like, if your family you're going to do the zoom Thanksgiving or we're going to have grandma and grandpa on one zoom screen and you know, I got you know, my sister and her kids on that screen and this is me. You know, do you send everybody like if you have the money do you send everybody a certificate for a non butterball turkey, you know, for like good turkey? Or, you know, play some game like that, or do you send everybody like organic squash to make their pie? I don't know what it is. But can you, you know, do it in a way that's about the joy because I haven't Okay, so Thanksgiving, and Christmas, but Thanksgiving. 

So Thanksgiving has a history that is really really sketchy and questionable, but if we ignore all that historical baggage, and we just look at what we see Thanksgiving us today, it's a time to get together with family and eat glorious food. And I personally love that. Like, I am not some austere Let's all eat you know seaweed and tofu and that's it. Although tofu has a huge carbon footprint, it's a terrible example but um, I love food. So like Thanksgiving is hands down my favorite favorite holiday. Um, and I don't believe that you should push back and say, Oh, you gluttons, You're horrible. I say you should love like, fill yourself with love and food. And that is okay. As long as you're not doing that every single day like well, the love I think you should every day but you know the food every single day. But just try and make it better. How much can we go local? How much can we go organic or semi organic? You know, some local farm that may not be certified? How much can we get? Even if all we got is a brussel sprouts that were local? Like, can we do that? Um, I think just don't push back on the joy of the season. Kind of use the joy? Oh, look, I found a way to get us all to have these wonderful turkeys that are so much better. Um, and use that joy and if you happen to convince like grandma had always been suspicious and she's actually like, Whoa, this is actually really good. Maybe you've won, you know, like, so I think that's how I use the joy. I'm just gonna say that use the joy and sharing instead of lecturing and angst.

Molly Lowney  24:27  

Do you have like one or two favorite Thanksgiving recipes that you would be able to share with students that might be easy for college students to make?

Dr. Heather Carpenter  24:37  

So my hands down favorite my grandmother makes us and it is to die for is candied yams but not the kind that most people are used to. So we're not talking to like whipped up with marshmallows on top. So what my grandmother does is she bakes a yam 350 for you know, an hour till it's like soft but not the like squishy, squishy squishy, so like you can slice it. Okay, so think, you know, just like cooked adente? Was that really, but you know, not. So the reason I'm making the point of this is because when I cook a yam which they actually sweet potatoes, the orange ones. But when I cook one of those just to eat, I cook it until the sugar crystallizes as it pours out of it, like that's how I cook it. And that doesn't work for this. So you cook them so you can slice them, you let them cool, you peel them and you slice them and you lay them out on a cookie sheet or a glass baking dish. And you put a little pat of butter and a little sprinkle of brown sugar on each one. And then you put it in the oven at like 200 and they candy. So you cook them for a while. I don't know the actual length of time because my grandmother always makes this. Okay. And they candy and they are so delicious. My in laws didn't know about this. They're like, Oh, I hate candied yams. And they come they go for those first now because they've learned they're so good. So that is my personal family favorite, that I've convinced lots and lots of people is delicious.

Jennifer Ng  26:08  

Yeah, do you have any last advice or resources for people who want to learn more about our food system or want to get involved or take steps in their own life to practice? 

Dr. Heather Carpenter  26:22  

I think anytime somebody sells you something as amazing in green in the grocery store that's highly packaged, you are welcome to be very suspicious. They've learned that green is a marketing strategy. So suspicion of stuff, be aware that most foods, especially the big ones that we're used to the chocolates, the shrimp, the, you know, the beef, these big things have some ethical challenges. So the more that you can find food that is more transparent, the better it is for you for the world. 

I think one of the cool things about food is there's so many ways to reduce your environmental and ethical footprint. If you love meat, find a local transparent person, and, you know, like farm and eat meat from there. If you want to go vegetarian, go for it. You know, like, you could go vegan, you can cut out dairy, because dairy is a problem. You could cut out beef because it's a problem, but still eat your other stuff. You could I love beef so I'm just gonna eat local beef and I'm gonna find this amazing cow that's local, you know? Like, there are so many different ways to reduce your impact. 

And in terms of resources, there are so many it's really, I'm not gonna I'm not gonna give you a great resource. Like Michael Pollan and his stuff is great, but he's also a rich white guy, who's a little - he tries he really does try - but he's still clueless okay, um, you know, I'm clueless. I'm a middle class white girl. I'm still clueless, you know, like, so you have to take a lot of this, you got to find your own way, unfortunately. But there are simple things like peeled shrimp just avoid it, it's usually slavery and horrible bottom fishing that's highly destructive. Chocolate, it has a lot of slavery and stuff in it, so trying to find and fair trade is questionable, but still better than nothing so like try and find a little bit you know, better chocolate. The more processed it is, the more problematic it often is. But guess what a lot of vegan food is processed. The Impossible Burger? Great. We're not eating meat. It's a highly highly processed food. I think Impossible Burger's kind of great, but it's highly highly processed food. So you know, I think the biggest problem about food is the biggest benefit about food that you have to find your own way. But also you get to find your own way, right? So you can tailor make a response to ethics in an environment that fits your family, fits your taste fits, your, you know, budget, but you're gonna have to figure it out in a way yourself.

Molly Lowney  29:09  

You can keep up with what on earth on Spotify, anchor.FM, Google podcasts and upbeacon.com. This is our last episode of the fall semester, but we will be back in the spring. If you would like to submit a topic or questions for future episodes, go to upbeacon.com and click the story idea button on the right hand side of the page.

Jennifer Ng  29:30  

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of What on Earth? Keep asking questions. 

Molly Lowney  29:35  

And good luck on finals. See you next time for season two.

Jennifer Ng  29:41  

Special thanks to Dr. Carpenter for appearing on this episode. This podcast is brought to you by The Beacon, hosted and produced by Molly Lowney and Jennifer Ng and music is from freemusicarchive.org

Jennifer Ng is the opinion editor and a photographer for The Beacon. She can be reached at ng21@up.edu.

Molly Lowney is a photographer for The Beacon. She can be reached at lowney21@up.edu.

Dr. Heather Carpenter is a professor with the Environmental Studies department. She can be reached at carpente@up.edu.