Food & climate change

Rebecca Robinson, M.A.

This article was originally published in January 2018

withered vineyard tree drought
Changing rainfall patterns due to climate change cause droughts that can damage crops.

The increased frequency of extreme weather events over the past several years is gaining more and more attention as the key marker of climate change. The Pacific Northwest is no exception.

Pacific Northwesterners feel the sting of climate change as our home becomes increasingly foreign when it comes to weather. Our region has earned fame for its mild winters and comfortable summers. As climate change impacts grow stronger, however, we’re experiencing hotter summers, more heatwaves, less frequent or heavier rain, and an increased risk of wildfires across the state. Overall, it’s getting windier, hotter and drier here.

Here’s some good news. In November PCC joined a group of more than 100 other concerned businesses called the Climate Collaborative. The Climate Collaborative was developed from a shared vision by leaders in the natural foods industry who saw the potential to act together on climate by leveraging the resources and power of influential companies. These visionaries saw opportunities for positive change and the need for a unified and organized platform to help direct that change.

The Climate Collaborative manifesto defines the group as, “A community of businesses joining forces to create pathways to action, connecting companies to resources and working together to create solutions.”

Erin Callahan, Climate Collaborative’s director, explains, “We are trying to foster unprecedented collaboration in the natural products industry around climate action, inspire companies to take that action, and provide them with concrete tools that can support them in moving from inspiration to action to impact.” The Climate Collaborative provides educational resources, tracking and implementation tools, and networking opportunities that support and guide businesses as they establish climate mitigation goals, track their progress and implement practical solutions.

There are nine core initiatives of the Climate Collaborative, ranging from energy efficiency to transportation, and PCC has signed on to all of them. By committing to these initiatives, we are declaring our intention to act on climate change, reduce our own emissions, and help our suppliers do the same. Climate change is one of the major health and environmental challenges of our generation, and we are ready to get to work.

Climate change in the PNW

Climate change in this region is reflected in our water systems, and the health of our water is linked inextricably to the health of our people, economies, cultures and ecosystems. Water has a special place in the Pacific Northwest. Healthy ecosystems here require consistent rainfall, healthy deciduous forests, clean flowing rivers, mild summers, and a full snowpack in the mountains.

We look forward with the changing seasons to kayaking on Lake Washington or to skiing at Stevens Pass. We’re surrounded by snowcapped mountains and we notice when there is less white on those distant peaks.

Rising average temperatures, coupled with local ecologically destructive activity, significantly weakens our region’s water health and contributes to reduced rainfall, increased pollution and warming seas. Higher average temperatures result in a diminished snowpack, negatively affecting our ability to produce hydropower and grow food. Warm, polluted water is harmful to human health and aquatic species. With a smaller snowpack and heavier, less frequent rains, farmers face both water shortages and increased flooding. This shift results in crop losses, threatening the sustainability and viability of farms and weakening our food security and resiliency.

Climate change and food

The food industry, including agriculture, is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Deep tilling, monocrop farming, pesticides and fertilizers contribute to soil degradation, CO2 emissions and water pollution, and reduce essential ecosystem biodiversity. In addition, the transportation, processing and packing of food is highly energy intensive and relies heavily on fossil fuels, plastics and toxic chemicals.

The Climate Collaborative’s nine core initiatives represent the most significant ways that the food industry can mitigate climate change. Some examples are:

1) Sequestering carbon using regenerative agriculture: Most agricultural soils are extremely depleted of ground carbon and have significant capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Experts estimate that carbon-storing farming methods have the potential to capture 10 to 12 percent of human-created emissions globally, and that soil could be a valuable carbon sink for the next 30 to 50 years. No-till farming helps keep nutrients and carbon in the ground.

2) Reducing fossil fuel use along supply chains: Our U.S. food system accounts for an estimated 17 percent of global fossil fuel use. Fossil fuels are used to operate farm machinery, manufacture fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, and transport food products around the globe. Organic farms use much less fossil fuel energy than their conventional counterparts, often using as much as one-third less. Strategies such as electrifying vehicles used to farm and distribute food, using less energy in food storage, and deploying renewable energy sources would also help us to significantly reduce carbon across the food chain.

3) Supporting the health of our forests: Forests are the lungs of our planet that sequester carbon, and global deforestation results in roughly 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Preserving healthy forests and conservation areas along rivers and lakes is essential to mitigating the water resource issues that accompany climate change. Purchasing sustainably harvested timber and paper products, and advocating for policies that protect our forests are easy ways to take action.

4) Reducing food waste: Roughly 40 percent of all food produced in the United States is wasted and winds up generating greenhouse gasses in a landfill. Food waste contributes to about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, almost equal to the emissions produced by road transportation. Reducing food waste in the United States by 20 percent over the next decade could prevent up to 18 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

What’s next?

The American Academy for the Advancement of Science tells us that climate change is real, it’s happening and it’s urgent, but also that there’s a lot we can do about it. At PCC, we’ve chosen to take action to protect future generations by pledging to continue to actively fight climate change. Joining with partners in the Climate Collaborative is a natural step for us given our values, mission and triple bottom line. We look forward to reporting our achievements related to these climate initiatives in the coming years.

“Policymakers need to hear from companies that they aren’t just okay with regulations that put us on a pathway to reducing emissions,” says Callahan, “but from that companies actively support these policies and are taking action on their own to reduce their footprint. In doing so you can create a positive feedback loop where ambitious business action leads to more ambitious policy frameworks, which then push the business community farther and the cycle continues.”

At PCC, we will continue to collaborate with our shoppers, suppliers and staff to act on climate change to create a truly sustainable world.

Will you join us?

Climate Collaborative’s nine core initiatives:

  • Agriculture
  • Energy efficiency
  • Food-waste
  • Forests
  • Packaging
  • Policy
  • Renewable energy
  • Short lived climate pollutants
  • Transportation

Rebecca Robinson, M.A., is PCC’s Social and Environmental Responsibility Program Manager.

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PCC went through some significant changes in the last year, but what hasn't changed is our commitment to supporting and connecting with our community. As we enter 2018, we reflect on some highlights of the last year.

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