Use these resources to educate yourself on this year’s UN Sunday theme, All in for Climate Justice: Food Equity and Sustainability. Included in this section are details about Climate and Food Justice at the UN, Climate and Food Justice and Unitarian Universalism, and suggested congregational actions to further climate and food justice. It’s an enormous topic and cannot be covered entirely in this packet, so further research is encouraged if you are interested in learning more about any one particular aspect of these causes.
The Connection Between Climate and Food Justice
Agriculture, out of any industry, covers the largest amount of our planet's land surface area. A primary way that we as a species interact with the physical land of our planet is through our agricultural practices and through our food distribution and consumption systems.
Food systems and the Earth's climate are deeply intertwined. The changing climate is negatively affecting farmlands through unpredictable weather patterns that can cause floods, drought, contamination, and unseasonable temperatures. Meanwhile, unsustainable food systems are accelerating the rate of climate destruction through methane emissions from cows and other livestock, deforestation to expand grazing and croplands, and polluting distribution channels. The solutions that lead us to sustainable farmland—land that is healthier and more biodiverse—are also healing for our planet and building resilience for our food crops and our communities.
Critical in all of this is the role that systems of oppression have historically played and continue to play in how food is grown and distributed. Capitalism has created a system that prioritizes profit, leading to the exploitation of land and farm workers. In a similar strain, this obsession with profit has made it so that the food that’s easiest and cheapest to get is ultra-processed and low in nutrients. Lack of access to fresh and nutritious foods is especially prominent in Black, Indigenous, and other people of color communities, where centuries of oppression have created environmental and economic harm.
It is important to educate communities about the ways in which our food is grown and the impact those farming practices have on our planet. We must ensure that all people have access to delicious, nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods. On a larger scale, food systems must be informed by traditional farming techniques that honor the sacredness of the land itself and that center the interdependent web of all existence.
Here we define some terms that will help in understanding the complexities of food equity and sustainability.
Agroecology: A sustainable approach to farming that emphasizes working with nature. Agroecology Fund describes: “Farming thrives when it works with local ecosystems, for example, improving soil and plant quality through available biomass and biodiversity, rather than battling nature with chemical inputs. Agroecological farmers seek to improve food yields for balanced nutrition, strengthen fair markets for their produce, enhance healthy ecosystems, and build on ancestral knowledge and customs.”
Food Apartheid: Describes a system in which, due to historic and current policies of systemic racism and oppression, neighborhoods disproportionately inhabited by people of color do not have access to nutritious, healthy food that is affordable and culturally appropriate.
- A term you may have heard that misses the mark: Food Desert. This term is inaccurate, because often communities under food apartheid do have food, but what is affordable and most accessible is food that’s heavily processed and low in nutrients such as from convenience stores and fast food. The term “food desert” also obscures the root causes of lack of access to healthy foods in these communities by implying that these areas are naturally occurring rather than the result of systems of oppression.
- Learn more about food apartheid: Food Apartheid: Racialized Access to Healthy Affordable Food (an Expert Blog from the NRDC, written by Nina Sevilla)
Food Sovereignty: Communities have the right to agency over what food they eat, where that food comes from, and how it is grown and prepared. La Via Campesina defines food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”
Drawdown: Project Drawdown defines drawdown as “the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline. This is the point when we begin the process of stopping further climate change and averting potentially catastrophic warming.” Reforming food systems and land use is a huge way to move toward drawdown by both reducing emissions sources and supporting carbon sinks.
- Carbon Sinks: Biological and chemical processes that capture greenhouse gases from the air and trap and store that carbon in plants, soil, or the sea. Photosynthesis is especially significant as a natural process plants use to convert carbon into oxygen.
- Learn more about the Drawdown framework and climate solutions from Project Drawdown.
Delving Deeper: Understanding Food Equity and Sustainability
Changing food systems can be a solution to climate change and can bring us closer to social justice and prosperity for all people.
Food Systems and Social Justice
Globally, there is a disconnect between those who own the land and those who work the land. In the United States, more than 98% of privately-owned farmland is white-owned, meanwhile a National Agriculture Workers Survey (pdf) in 2015-16 reported that 83% of farm workers identified as Hispanic. A 2020 report from the International Land Coalition called “Uneven Ground” highlights global concerns about land inequality:
“Smallholders and family farms, indigenous peoples, rural women, youth, and landless rural communities are being squeezed into smaller parcels of land or forced off the land altogether, while more and more land is concentrated in fewer hands, mainly serving the interests of corporate agribusiness and distant investors, utilising industrial models of production that employ fewer and fewer people.
That report notes that more than two-thirds of the world’s fields, ranches, and orchards are owned by one percent of its farmers. Agriculture globally is dominated by large-scale monocropping that is industrialized and environmentally damaging, meanwhile small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples that practice more sustainable land use are threatened by deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and encroachment on their land by settlements and industry.
From Soul Fire Farm, an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm in Grafton, NY who gave the keynote address at the UU@UN’s 2021 Seminar:
“Racism and injustice are built into the DNA of the U.S. food system. Beginning with the genocidal land theft from indigenous people, continuing with the kidnapping of Black people from the shores of West Africa for forced agricultural labor, morphing into convict leasing, expanding to the migrant guestworker program, and maturing into its current state where farm management is among the whitest professions, farm labor is predominantly brown and exploited, and people of color disproportionately live in “food apartheid” neighborhoods and suffer from diet-related illnesses – the system is built on stolen land and stolen labor. It is working as designed.”
Food systems need a revolution towards food sovereignty, to put control of the land and what and how food is grown on that land back in the hands of people and communities with connection to the land and deep knowledge about how to grow food, rather than the hands of corporations. Appreciation for biodiversity and caring for the whole food cycle, not just singular cops, is critical in the move toward equity and sustainability.
Food Systems and Climate Change
Sustainable Farming Techniques
Small-scale, biodynamic, sustainable farming is highly preferable to the prevalent industrial monocropping approaches that are depleting soil and biodiversity around the world. Project Drawdown has a series of proposed food, agriculture, and land use solutions for addressing climate change that include addressing waste and diets, protecting ecosystems, and shifting agriculture practices. They note that “Solutions in this sector are significant for improving food security and agricultural resilience as well, because many of them contribute to a more robust food system, better able to withstand climate impacts.”
- Learn more about Soul Fire Farm’s farming practices that include ancestral techniques to increase topsoil depth, sequester soil carbon, and increase biodiversity.
Plant-Rich Diets as a Solution to Climate Change
It is important to clarify that not everyone can or should adopt an entirely plant-based diet. Many cultures around the world, notably indigenous communities, do have ways of sustainably raising livestock for food and should not be forced to give up those cultural traditions and heritages. Rather, the rest of the world should learn from them. Individuals may have dietary restrictions, sensitivities, or eating disorders that would make a plant-based diet inadvisable for maintaining their health. Lack of access to nutritious plant-based options is yet another barrier faced by many.
And yet, for those who can, decreasing regular consumption of meat, dairy, and other animal products is one essential move towards ensuring a sustainable future for the planet. A special report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2019 points to reduced meat consumption and increased plant-based diets as a solution to mitigate climate change. According to Project Drawdown: “business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs.”
In many places, forests are burned down to make way for cattle and other livestock to graze. This practice is enormously harmful for the planet both a) because it destroys the lush carbon-capturing forests and their essential biodiversity and b) because cows emit methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Project Drawdown notes: “If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.”
Because of the carbon emissions caused by animal agriculture, it is clear that transitioning to more plant-rich diets is essential in the fight against climate change.
Personal Change and Systems Change
From Hans-Otto Pörtner, an ecologist and member of the IPCC who contributed to the 2019 report:
“We don’t want to tell people what to eat… But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”
The second half of that point is critical. Systemic change (which requires political action) is needed to make transitions to a more plant-rich food system possible on a large scale. Governments must create incentives for businesses and consumers so that plant-based options are healthy, affordable, easily accessible, and delicious.
To quote from a Yes! Magazine guide on How to Get Rid of Throwaway Culture:
“We need equitable policies and systems change. But everyone is a consumer, and taking steps to consume wisely is still very important: Individual actions empower us to demand more from corporations and governments and ultimately change social norms.”
This is true for consumption of food, as well as plastics, clothing, and so much more that makes capitalist society unsustainable.