The Environmental and Social Dimensions of Food (Loo)

The Food-Water-Life exhibition by Lucy + Jorge Orta addresses a number of topics that have received far less consideration than they deserve.  Of these, I believe that the relationship between food, environment, and social justice is one that warrants particular attention.

There has been a growing awareness of how harming the environment has effects on our quality of life as well as recognition of the environmental costs of consumer choices.  Most of us know now that poor stewardship of nature has negative consequences to our well-being.  We realize that it’s better to recycle, reuse, or compost.  We know we should not waste water or energy and that over-consumption is something that comes with a price.

Yet, despite this we still often ignore the relationship between the environment and one of the most central facets of our lives.  We don’t tend to consider how the health of the environment has an effect on our food, how our dietary choices may have widespread environmental effects, or how those environmental effects in turn have social effects.  We don’t often worry that much on the carbon footprints of the things we choose to eat.  We don’t think enough about how our dietary choices can have effects on the climate that will contribute to greater food insecurity.

This is worrisome for a number of reasons.  First, our dietary choices have a much bigger effect on the climate than most of our other consumer choices.  We tend to focus on improving the fuel efficiency of our cars and the energy efficiency of our homes as ways to mitigate climate change.  However, the sort of agriculture that has become the norm in the United States, which emphasizes industrial livestock operations, produces far more greenhouse gas emissions (equivalent to more than 490 million metric tons of CO2 per year according to the USDA) than either passenger vehicles or residential sources.  The great irony is that to be able to eat the way that we have become accustomed to we are in fact undermining global food security.

Unless there is a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, by mid-century the average global temperature will increase by as much as 6° C (11°F).  While this doesn’t sound like much, it’s sufficient to result in a disruption in global rainfall patterns that will likely result in crop failures in warmer and more arid regions.  Such crop failure may result in the cost of food as much as doubling.  While this spike in food prices would be bearable for most of us lucky enough to live in more affluent countries, in many places families already spend upwards of 80% of their income on food.  Many of these families will starve unless steps are taken towards climate change mitigation and adaptation.

It is of utmost importance then that artists, such as the Ortas, bring the relationship between food, environment, and social justice into the public conversation. We as members of a global community are faced with a ticking clock and many important decisions regarding how we should address the impending potential for a food crisis and, for the most part, we haven’t even begun talking about those decisions.  I hope that those who come and see this exhibition bring some of it home with them and help to enliven a broader discourse about food, the environment, and their social implications.


Clement Loo is the Mellon Fellow in the College of the Environment at Wesleyan University.