Food and Climate Change: The Way Forward

Thank you to everyone who attended the Food and Climate: The Way Forward lecture and panel discussion at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Monday, October 28th co-hosted with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, North Country Garden Club, The Nature Conservancy, Three Harbors Garden Club and St. John’s Church (Cold Spring Harbor). It was a wonderful evening addressing an important topic with 225 people in attendance.

The evening began with the big question, how do we feed 9 billion people in a changing climate without destroying the planet? Agriculture, forestry and other land use is responsible for 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Greenhouse gases are contributing to climate change. Climate change affects crop health and production, making it more difficult to produce food. What are the solutions and approaches to this intricately complex issue?

Dr. Bruce Stillman, President and CEO of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and Lisa Ott, President and CEO of the Land Alliance, kicked off the evening with an introduction. Katy Kinsolving, food writer, cooking teacher working in climate change education and co-founder of C-Change Conversations provided a general overview of the impacts of climate change to food production and food’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. A panel discussion followed featuring experts Rebecca Benner, New York Director of Conservation and Science at The Nature Conservancy; Peter Lehner, Director of the Sustainable Food and Farming Program at Earthjustice; and Doreen Ware from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and adjunct professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Benner discussed the importance of soil health and how tilling, a longtime farming practice, releases carbon and is detrimental to soil health. Farmers may replenish soil by reducing tilling practices, planting cover crops, rotating different crops through their farming systems and using better manure management strategies like composting. She also addressed water and how too much and too little water impact farming. Ware is an expert on plant genomics and bioinformatics, the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data such as genetic codes. She explained how changing the genes of plants, such as accelerating breeding cycles, may help with food production. Lehner, who was the final panelist of the evening, discussed the challenges of federal policies and how the country needs more agricultural research – agricultural research is half what it was 20 years ago. He also addressed the inadequacies of the current Farm Bill and said, “We need to stop incentivizing stupid practices,” which got a chuckle out of the crowd.

The takeaway from the evening was that we need to change our approach to food production to help curb climate change and to help sustain the growing population on Earth. We also need to rethink how the decisions we make in our lives today are going to determine what our future will be. Better education results in better choices.

Our panelists have offered the following suggestions for how we can help improve the future of our world.

Peter Lehner, Earth Justice

1) Vote and get everyone you know to vote. Do everything you can to talk to younger people about the importance of voting. Younger people vote at half the rate of those over 55. I’ve been amazed how many young people who claim to care don’t vote. Don’t take voting by others for granted.

2) Talk about the reality of the imminence of climate change to those friends that we know are dubious or don’t care. Don’t pick fights with the hard-core deniers, but many of our friends vaguely know and vaguely care but don’t incorporate climate change into their thinking. Those are the people we need to talk with.

3) Walk the talk. Reduce meat, especially beef and lamb, consumption (yes, unless you are sure it is raised in a regenerative fashion, which is not the same as merely grassfed); reduce discretionary air travel; examine all other aspects of your life and think how they affect the climate. Then talk the walk — advocate for policies that make the changes you are making easier, such as better produce in supermarkets, more plant-based options in restaurants, better and safer bike lanes. The personal and the political work best together.


Katy Kinsolving, C-Change Conversations

1) Vote, Vote, Vote, and Call, Call, Call current legislators — both at the state and federal level — to let them know that this issue is important to you and that you will be looking at their voting record (see League of Conservation Voters for guidelines) when you go to vote. Much work is being done at the state level so check in with your state’s renewable energy targets. Research the renewable energy targets of your state, or states where you own property.

2) Get involved with your local town or community; is there a climate action plan? A wetland or waterfront commission? Has your town conducted an energy audit? If you live on or near the water, talk to your local leaders about the implications of sea level rise. Check out The New York Times article on new calculations for sea level rise by Climate Central.

3) In terms of diet, yes, reduce your beef intake, but if you do eat beef, make sure that it has been raised using managed or rotational grazing principles. Luckily there are several small cattle farms in New York state that are doing this. In your own kitchen, look at where your food comes from – are you buying blueberries in January that have been flown in from Chile? Maybe you want to buy a large number of blueberries from your local farmer in August and freeze them, which brings me to appliances.

4) If you have old appliances upgrade to energy efficient models. There is a device called a Killawatt that can tell you how much electricity each appliance in your house is using, helping you to pinpoint the energy vampires. In my community the Energy and Environment Commission is donating three of these devices to the local library so that people can check them out and do this research. People who check them out and fill out a small report on the energy vampire in their house will receive a free batch of LED light bulbs.

5) In your own yard: eliminate fertilizer, use compost, create a compost bin, plant trees, plant trees, plant trees. Work with your local community to plant trees.

6) Depending on the state you live in — and New York happens to be ahead of the curve on this one — buy an electric car. Talk to your employer about the new NYS program that encourages companies to install electric car chargers at work so that employees can charge while they work.

7) Support non-profits that preserve land, wetlands and farmland. Support non-profits that provide research in ecosystems, soil, botany, oceans and agricultural systems and local, state (especially state!) and national advocacy groups that are trying to change the rules to address climate change.


Rebecca Benner, The Nature Conservancy

1) Commit to zero waste – eat all leftovers or freeze them. Make stock from your vegetable scraps. Then compost any non-edible waste:

2) Only buy organic and focus on local items when you shop for groceries

3) Buy things in bulk and limit packaging whenever possible with what you buy.

4) Do not use any plastic bags at the store. Use reusable shopping bags and for produce use reusable produce bags: (there are many, many kinds)

Stay engaged, stay involved and do your part to save our planet.