Using Food to Teach About the Environment -- and Vice Versa

10/01/2013 07:27 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

For someone like me, who thinks and reads about food all the time, it is hard, if not impossible, to ignore the prevalence of news reports about the detrimental effects of our food choices on the environment. Recently the buzz centered on food waste, methane release, and the impact on global climate. Last spring it was dead pigs in Chinese rivers. As any reader of Michael Pollan knows, there are dozens of ways that our food system and our environment are deeply intertwined. Most estimates conclude that approximately 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions stem from activities related to growing, processing, and consuming food. Nearly half of all groundwater withdrawals are used to irrigate our crops. So, why does my interest in this relationship leave my friends and students so perplexed?

For reasons that are obvious only to me I followed up my PhD in Earth Science with a Masters of Public Health in Nutrition. My professional interests lie at the intersection of environmental science and public health. To me that intersection is a large, interesting, and critically important place. Yet, whenever I say those words I invariably get a lame attempt at a joke about helping rocks to lose weight. Or wondering if breastfeeding is best for Mother Earth.

In my course entitled Human Impact on the Environment, I begin with the argument that nothing has impacted people's relationship with the environment more than agriculture and our food systems. College students often look at me like I am from another planet; this relationship is not something that comes up in any standard high school science course. Or their state-mandated health education. How can we engage young adults in a deeper understanding about the food system and their role in it if we never give them the opportunity to think about it? They need to know that there is no greater way that humans are impacting our environment than by the growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, and disposing of food.

In my, admittedly completely unscientific, polling I have been stunned to realize that exactly zero of my students consider the environment when making food and beverage choices. (Gotta love as a way of engaging students while allowing them that thrill of legally using their phones in class!). I ask students what is important to them when deciding what to eat, and offer the usual suspects as choices: taste, price, nutrition, quantity, and convenience. And I include "impact on the environment" and "animal rights" as well. (Note to self: next time add worker's rights). Taste and convenience typically score the highest marks; not a single student in a recent class of 60 answered that impact on the environment is an important consideration when making food choices. Vegetarians with knowledge about, and concern for, how animals are treated will add an occasional vote for animal rights, yet even these students show no understanding that poor conditions for the animals impact not only the animal, but also the local, regional, and global environment.

Another telling first-day activity is to have students think of ways that eating a piece of pepperoni pizza negatively impacts the environment. With some prodding most students can come up with a few responses that focus specifically on the act of eating the pizza (e.g., cardboard boxes becoming litter or using electricity to heat the oven). General panic ensues when I tell them that no one leaves the classroom until we get fifty examples on the board. Eventually they realize that their pepperoni pizza also requires growing wheat and tomatoes (at least), raising livestock, transporting ingredients, and energy and water demands in factories, restaurants, and stores. Of course there are the requisite giggles over cow farts, human waste, and landfill gas, but once the giggles stop, the recognition of their role in the food system begins and our class is underway.

It shouldn't be this hard. College students love food. They love thinking about food, learning about food, and talking about food. They watch cooking shows. But if they learn anything about food in high school it focuses on nutrition and health impacts. They struggle to understand the difference between negative health effects and negative environmental effects. Several weeks into this term I am still getting examples focused on cholesterol and saturated fat when we talk about the negative environmental effects of livestock farming. I suppose this is a win for public health and nutrition education, but I see only an enormous neglected opportunity to add environmental impact to the conversation about nutrition and food choices.

What can we do about it? I, for one, am tackling this issue one class at a time. I have had students come back and tell me that they curse me whenever they walk through the grocery store because they can never look at food in the same way again. Those are the kinds of comments teachers live for! But we need more than the occasional class on this topic; we need to increase the conversation about food and its impacts among the very age group that is just about to start making all of their own food decisions. One of these years I'd like to tell a class that we will be talking about food in our Environmental Science course and have them look back at me with looks that say "well, duh, of course we are."