Q&A: Climavores cohosts Tamar Haspel and Mike Grunwald on ‘unconfusing’ food and climate

Each month, Covering Climate Now speaks with different journalists about their experiences on the climate beat and their ideas for pushing our craft forward. This month, as part of CCNow’s “Food & Water” coverage week, we speak with Tamar Haspel and Michael Grunwald, cohosts of the new podcast Climavores. Haspel writes about food and science for the Washington Post and is the author of To Boldly Grow (2022). Grunwald is a longtime climate and politics reporter currently writing a book about “how to feed the world without frying it” and a column on food and climate for Canary Media. Follow Haspel and Grunwald on Twitter.

 

Why zero in on the intersection of food and climate?

Grunwald: Well, I’ve been writing about climate for more than a decade. In 2018, I wrote this piece for Politico Magazine about my life in the new green economy. I had put solar panels on my roof and gotten an electric car. I also had this list of all the things I didn’t do because I’m lazy or selfish. I didn’t unplug my computer at night, I didn’t line-dry my laundry, and I hadn’t gone vegan. I was looking at that, and I thought, “Is going vegan actually even good for the climate?” I knew that everyone was saying meat is bad, but I realized I didn’t really know why it was bad.

We know we’re frying the planet with fossil fuels, but food and farming are just as much a part of our daily lives. Yet, even as an alleged expert on climate, I realized food was foreign territory to me. It made me think others would probably want to know more about food and climate, too.

 

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Haspel: I came at food and climate from the opposite direction. I’ve been writing about food basically since the Pliocene era. Over the decades, of course, the ideas and priorities people have around food have changed a lot. And, increasingly, one of the biggest stories in food has become how our food affects the climate. The real question, though, is do people care about climate enough to factor it in at the grocery store? In America I think we’re not fully there yet, though I will say younger people tend to care much more.

 

Grunwald: What we’ve found is that a lot of people do want to make better decisions, but they’re confused about how. They don’t know if that means eating local, if it means eating organic, if it means eating less beef. As journalists I think we can help unconfuse people a little bit.

 

Tamar, at the beginning of the first episode of Climavores, you say, “This show is definitely not about ‘perfect.’” What do you mean by that?

Haspel: We don’t ever say “Do this” or “Don’t do that.” All of us have an impact on the climate. But as Mike is fond of saying, “Better is better than worse.” So we want to share with people things they can eat less of. I think that’s kinder and more realistic than saying, you know, “Go vegan today.”

The thing about climate and food is there are always going to be trade-offs. Eating beef isn’t like cheating on your taxes. When it comes to cheating on your taxes, there’s a clear moral line. You don’t do it. But with climate, there are always going to be judgment calls people need to make for themselves. I eat hardly any beef; a lot of my protein comes from fish that I catch, for example. But I catch the fish from a boat with a diesel engine, and I pull the boat with a truck that has another diesel engine.

 

Grunwald: I compare it to religion, in that we all have to find the level of hypocrisy we’re willing to live with. I think going vegan is better for the climate, and I admire people who do it, but I haven’t been able to myself. I get on my high horse about my solar panels and my electric car—

 

Haspel: And then you drive your electric car to the airport and get on a transcontinental flight.

 

Grunwald: Exactly! I mean, look, we’re all human. We’re not here to order people’s lunches for them. What Tamar and I can do, hopefully, is give people more information about the choices they’re making.

 

You dedicate significant time in early episodes to unpacking and breaking down conventional ideas around food, such as that eating local is necessarily good for the climate, which you find—although it might be more ethical and good for a lot of other reasons—it isn’t really.

Grunwald: I think, often, people have these ideological visions of what farming ought to look like. Some of these are totally legitimate, but they don’t always line up with what’s actually best for the climate. On our show, we’re going to bore people to tears about efficiency. I think people assume, you know, “efficiency”—that’s Monsanto, that’s Cargill, that’s “Big Ag,” and it means treating animals, the soil, and workers all like shit. But from a climate perspective, we’re going to need some efficiency to feed the world without frying it.

 

Haspel: Every journalist should read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which really challenges how good you think you are at making evidence-based decisions. If you’re human, basically, you suck at it. We all do. So if you’re going to be a journalist, I think you have to know that you suck and understand that your job is to figure out what the evidence actually says.

A lot of us have this vision of small, local, biodiverse farms as the counterpoint and the antidote to that “Big Ag” that Mike was riffing on a second ago. If you’re convinced that this kind of agriculture is the right way forward, you will find ways to believe that it’s also better for the climate, because confirmation bias rules the human psyche. As a journalist, though, it’s our job to not fall victim to that confirmation bias. That said, I don’t think people who are dug in on visions of agriculture that aren’t supported by the facts should be dismissed. These are people who care about our food system, and I want to be able to reach them. I want them to be able to reach me, too, if I get something wrong.

 

Beyond some of these articles of faith, though, feeding the world while also protecting the climate is an enormous and difficult question on which well-informed and well-meaning people are bound to disagree. How do you think about helping audiences navigate this uncertainty?

Haspel: I think we lead with it. We lead with the idea that food is all trade-offs, all the time. There’s no kind of food that’s better in every regard, and typically the foods that you or I would hang our hats on as “better foods” are in fact reflections of our culture and values as much as they are reflections of some truth. Our job as journalists is to meet people there and talk about the other true things that may change people’s minds. The last thing we want to do is make things more cut-and-dry than they actually are. So our show is really about delving into the complexities and the trade-offs.

 

So, broadly speaking, how are journalists doing on covering the intersections of food and climate?

Haspel: I think there’s some genuine confusion out there, in addition to this issue of bringing our own visions of what good food is to our reporting—which, I will add, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of also. Food kind of lends itself to people thinking they know more about it than they do, because everybody eats and food is so personal to us. I’ve written a lot about nutrition, though, and I do think in some ways journalists have a better shot at covering climate and food than nutrition and food, because nutrition and food is extremely difficult to study. The whole field is filled with science that’s not certain and can be downright unreliable.

 

Grunwald: Everybody thinks they know their body—like, “I know what’s best for me,” right? But most people probably don’t think they know what’s best for the atmosphere. Granted, people hate journalists, but maybe they trust us a little more to explain about climate than they do most things.

 

Do you have advice for journalists covering climate and food?

Haspel: One thing that’s been incredibly useful to me in getting my arms around our enormous food system is I always try to put big, abstruse issues into context, where you can understand the scale. Journalists should know how many crop acres there are in the United States, for example, and they should know what’s grown on them.

 

Grunwald: Is it 400 million?

 

Haspel: Very good, yes, 400 million. And we should know every person needs about a million calories each year, which comes down basically to one half acre of cropland per person. People think we should only ever eat wild salmon and not farmed salmon. Okay, well, you know how many servings each person gets in a year if we do that? Everybody gets one serving. Just one.

Our stories are almost always micro-level, but we should try to understand on a macro level what happens when we do this or that type of farming.

 

Grunwald: Macro” is exactly the word I was going to use. Agriculture takes up 40 percent of the earth. The numbers involved here are so gigantic that specificity often becomes difficult. But basically the problem is we need to use less resources, right? We can’t just keep having and using more. But [because the Earth’s population is growing] we’re also going to need a lot more food. How much more? Are we actually going to need [as some say] two more Indias’ worth of deforestation? I don’t know. We might argue around the edges, but if so, that’s bad for the climate. So, in agriculture stories, we can apply some truth tests. Directionally, on a macro level, is a solution making the problem better or worse?

One thing that does make it harder to really do nuanced reporting here is that the good guys and bad guys aren’t always obvious. When you write about energy, you know, you’ve got clear arguments for [fossil fuel] abundance, and then you’ve got the climate people saying no, which is fairly straightforward. With food and climate, though, it’s a lot more complicated.

Let’s take beef again, for example, since that’s the big hot-button issue. The two things Tamar and I have said about beef are: A, it really is the food that’s worst for the climate and, B, that means making beef better is one of the biggest opportunities for reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment. But it’s hard to report on that because you’ve mostly got people who are either pro-beef or anti-beef. There isn’t a natural constituency to ask how we grapple with beef and make it in less damaging ways for the climate.

 

Haspel: If you had a Venn diagram of the things that are true about food and the things for which there’s a natural constituency, there would be no overlap at all. That’s the difficulty in writing about food. You wind up pissing off everybody, because as a journalist you’re not on a side.

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Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration co-founded by CJR and The Nation, in partnership with The Guardian, strengthening coverage of the climate story. Follow CCNow on Twitter and visit coveringclimatenow.org.

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