The Impacts of Climate Change on Food Security with Elizabeth Grossman

October 24, 2014

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JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good. We’re so excited to have with us today our friend, Elizabeth Grossman. She’s been on Green is Good before. She’s a freelance journalist and writer. Welcome back to Green is Good, Elizabeth. ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: Thanks so much for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, listen. You’re a great friend of the show. You came on years ago when we were just starting off, and we’re so thrilled to have you back on because you’re such an important thought leader, doing great work. Last time you came on, we talked about High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxins, and Human Health, a very important book. Before we get talking about some of the more current events of today, Elizabeth, can you share with our listeners some of your history? Because you are a prolific writer, both as a freelance journalist and as an author, and I want you to share with our listeners out there all the great stuff you’ve been doing previously to all the current work you’re doing. ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: OK. Well, let me see how I can sum this up. I live here in Portland, Oregon, which happens to sit on the banks of the Willamette River, which is just a couple of blocks from my house. Back around 2002-2003, I was doing some research into water quality in the Willamette River, and discovered that at that point, the majority of the toxic waste that was going from industry into the river, and this was all legal and permitted — it’s the kind of thing that industry can, with local and EPA permits, discard — was coming from high-tech manufacturing one way or another, from semiconductors and from silicone waste from manufacturing. I, like everybody else who learned this information, was really surprised that this information age industry, that the impression was that it was going to move us away from all sorts of natural resource extraction and big environmental impacts, was indeed having a huge environmental impact. So, I started looking around and trying to learn more about the story, and that led me to write High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxins, and Human Health, which looks at the environmental and health impacts of the entire life cycle of high-tech electronics, from raw materials to manufacturing to what happens when these devices are used, and then a big part of the story is what happens when these devices are no longer useful and they get discarded or put into recycling. It was working on that book that introduced me to the huge issue and universe of synthetic chemicals that go into making almost everything that surrounds us on a daily basis these days, and I got absolutely fascinated by what I was learning from scientists about how these chemicals came to be made, how they behave in the environment, and their health effects. I ended up writing not only a lot of articles about the things such as what I’ve been doing an awful lot of for the past 10 years, but I also ended up writing my last book about these kind of chemicals issues, and it was called Chasing Molecules. A big of that story that I looked into was trying to figure out how we go about solving these problems, and that led me to learn about the work of a lot of people in the field of what’s called green chemistry, scientists who are trying to design new materials, new chemicals, that are safe for human health and the environment throughout their life cycles, so you don’t have to worry about whether these things are going to have adverse impacts on the environment or on human health while they’re being used or are in products. That’s a lot of what I’ve been looking at in my work in articles and also in books. One of the things that I learned while working on doing research about all of these chemicals is that the vast majority of these synthetic materials that we’ve been using for almost 100 years now come from petroleum, from oil and gas, and they are part of this big petrochemical enterprise that has really been the engine of so much industry and manufacturing materials, almost since the beginning of the 20th century. So, in a lot of ways, climate change is really closely linked to all of these stories about materials and all of the things that these materials make possible. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Climate change is in the news almost every day now, Elizabeth, but one of the things that’s also becoming a very hot topic in cities across America goes to the issue of composting and also our food supply. Food is also a hot topic with regards to sustainability. Can you talk about the convergence of climate change and the impact it has on our food supply, and what our listeners should be thinking about when sourcing their own food for their family and for their friends and loved ones? ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: I will give that a try. I’m always a little hesitant to say this is what you should do, because the answers are never quite that easy. I also think one of the reasons food has become such a focus or one of the reasons that I have been finding it so interesting to write about food and agriculture, is because it affects us all directly. Everybody eats food. We all cook for our families. We all share food with friends. It’s something we look forward to. It’s really direct, and when something external starts to affect our food, it really matters to us. It’s something that people can really relate to. It means something to us on a daily basis, and you can’t say, “I don’t care if that food is safe. I don’t care if it’s not there.” It’s very immediate. One of the things that has already started to happen with climate change-related extreme weather events, the heat that’s exacerbating the drought in California, for example, odd shifts in seasons or torrential rains that are starting to impact successful harvest, is that what we’re going to start seeing, and what we’re already seeing and what’s happening in California right now is a big example, is that some things that have always been grown in certain places may not be available. Whether this happens over the long-term or the short-term, we don’t know yet, but this is something people are keeping an eye on. That’s kind of what’s happening, and there are lots more details, but that’s kind of the big picture of what people are watching as we have hotter seasons, these torrential rains, changes in when things flower and when frost comes, that’s all going to affect what’s growing. It’s already starting to affect what’s growing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that just joined us, we have Elizabeth Grossman. She’s a thought leader, journalist, author, book writer. To learn more about Elizabeth and her amazing and important work, it’s Elizabeth, when you put the two words together, food security, what does that mean for our listeners? What should they be keen to learn about when it comes to their own food security and this nation’s food security? How is climate change impacting that right now? ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: Well, right now, things are starting to change, so that farmers, ranchers, people who raise dairy cattle, are starting to look really carefully at how changes in weather, how extreme weather events, are starting to affect their harvest. These things may not happen dramatically all at once, but again, as I was mentioning, California is a really good example. The heat is exacerbating the drought. The lack of water is causing some farmers to decide not to even try to plant certain crops, and what this may mean is that we may see spikes in prices for certain produce. You may not find melons from California in a market where you might have a year or two ago, so these kind of short-term shortages may happen over the long term. Scientists are really concerned if we don’t make big changes in how we grow things or where we grow things, that in the next 20-30 years we could start to see some really big shortages. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you’re saying everything is being affected; not only the crops, but meat and dairy production and everything is being affected. ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: It is, and again, we’re not going to necessarily see dramatic changes immediately, but these are things people are keeping a really close eye on as the temperatures warm up, and we have to think differently about water use and about how we grow things on availability of water and temperature and things like that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You framed the problem, and what we love talking about, especially with great thought leaders like you on the show, are solutions. What has the response been? What has industry response been by farmers and other harvesters of both seafood and also just farming products and meat and dairy and produce? What are some of the business opportunities that exist because of climate change that people can jump in and become part of the sustainability revolution and help push back on these effects and create solutions that can then benefit all of our listeners out there, not only in the United States, but around the world? ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: I think, again, it’s sort of early in the solution piece, but I think one of the things that I’ve been learning that people are starting to do is to think about sourcing. It’s a little bit tricky to quantify really quickly, but one of the things that people are starting to ask more about is where you buy your food from, and ask questions about the benefits of buying things that are grown in ways that are more sustainable or making food choices that have a lower carbon footprint. There are a whole bunch of interesting little carbon footprint calculators out there that will give you an idea of whether or not a food choice is going to have a bigger greenhouse gas impact. A lot of people are suggesting that eating some things that are lower on the food chain, or that require less intensive energy and water input to grow, will eventually help lessen the environmental burden of what we eat. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Are you referring to, then, people becoming vegetarians or vegans, in terms of going to plant-based diets versus meat-based diets and things of that such? ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: Well, I don’t think anybody is saying you must become a vegetarian or vegan, but to maybe think a little more carefully about whether having so many meals based on beef is the best choice. These are hard questions for people to ask. These are hard solutions to ask people to take on personally, but I think a lot of people who are making the food buying choices are already starting to make some shifts in where they’re sourcing food. I’m just at the beginning of some of this research, but I understand that the retailers, the people who buy food that we then buy in the store, are already starting to make some choices that may help accommodate some of these changes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Elizabeth, has transparency become one of the key landmarks of good food sourcing now, and understanding backwards where the food came from? I understand there’s even some fish markets in the Pacific Northwest where you can buy fish and learn not only where did the fish come from in the world, but what boat it was on, when it was caught. Is transparency becoming one of the real key landmarks of buying food and buying it right? ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: I think for a lot of people, it is, and I’m really lucky I live here in the Pacific Northwest, so I am really close to a lot of my food sources. That’s why I hesitate to say this is what you should do, because what works if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere on the West Coast and close to California, Washington, Oregon, where so much produce is grown, you may have some options that you don’t have if you live somewhere else in the country. When it comes to seafood, we’re completely spoiled. Yes, I can go to my local supermarket and find out where the fish comes from, and sometimes I can even find out the name of the person who caught the fish. I do think that transparency and a sense of understanding where your food came from and where it was grown does really help people think about these issues of sustainability and how the food was grown, because once you’re connected to it in some way, it helps make those kind of choices and think about it for the long-term. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last four minutes or so, Elizabeth. What other things can you share with our listeners out there, both our listeners who want to become part of the solution, and our listeners who obviously are consumers? How do they go about their day-to-day life now with regards to thinking about food security, but not over-worrying about it, but also helping change to happen in terms of our political structure in the United States and other opportunities in terms of voting with their pocketbook? ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: That is a very, very big question. One of the things I was thinking about was what we can all do. I’m a journalist; I’m not an activist and I don’t make political recommendations and such, but one of the things that I think about a lot, and it goes from the high-tech trash side of things to the food side of things, are what are the things you can do every day that are actually really, really simple, but help shift the burden? One of the big problems in terms of the whole climate change scenario is greenhouse gas emissions, what comes out of our tailpipes. As we all saw a couple of years ago when gas prices got so terribly high, and this is a consideration for people who live in places where driving is a daily habit rather than a big city like New York, where most people walk or take public transportation, is think about driving less. Think about being more efficient in your daily errand habits or your weekly errand habits, so that you end up emitting less greenhouse gases. If you have the opportunity to shop once in a while at a farmers’ market, where you can buy things locally and you can help support the people who are growing things closer to where you live, do that. It’s fun. It doesn’t have to be more expensive. It might be a little bit more expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Think about making some of those choices so that you don’t have to get in your car and you can do something that’s more local that ends up being an energy-conserving event. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great advice for our listeners out there. That’s wonderful. I appreciate it. We’re down to the last two minutes or so. Talk a little bit about High Tech Trash. How did that go? We were just talking last about the launch of the book. How did that turn out? Were you happy with the results you got and the feedback you got once it became more popular out there after you got it published? ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: I’ve been absolutely astonished at how that book has continued to sell. People just keep on buying it, so in terms of the book, I’ve been absolutely delighted about it. In terms of the problem, however, I have to say it’s rather distressing that despite all of the great strides forward we’ve made in this country with making electronics recycling so much easier than it was when I wrote the book — I mean it was kind of a mystery; almost nobody knew how to do it or where to take your stuff — but now it’s a whole lot easier. But internationally, this problem still persists, and I wish we could figure out how we could stop exporting high-tech trash, as it is, overseas, and I really wish we could get even better than we are now at making sure that everything gets properly reused or recycled. On the one hand, a huge amount of progress is made, and on the other, a lot more for us to do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yep, you’re right, a lot more for us to do. Thank you, Elizabeth, for coming back on Green is Good. You’re a great friend of the show, and we so appreciate all the important work that you’re doing. For our listeners out there, to learn more about Elizabeth and her great work, go to For our listeners also that want to buy Chasing Molecules or High Tech Trash, go to or or a fine bookstore close to you. Thank you, Elizabeth, for being an inspiring environmental thought leader and evangelist. You are truly living proof that green is good. ELIZABETH GROSSMAN: Thank you so much.

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