Scott Brinton

Nutrition 101, or how to save the planet

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In my two and a half decades of writing on the environment and pondering solutions to the pressing sustainability issues that our planet — and civilization — face, I never imagined that the answer to reversing our destructive course might lie in nutrition education.

Yup, nutrition education. When I heard the case for it laid out in simple terms, though, I could only think, Duh?

My son, Andrew, and I recently attended Academic Festival X at Columbia University’s Teachers College, from which I earned a master’s degree in 1990. Andrew had to attend a seminar for the Advanced Science Research class he takes at Kennedy High School in Bellmore. He’s studying climate change, a.k.a. global warming.

“A Climate for Change,” about exactly that topic, happened to be one of the seminars offered. I thought, perfect. Andrew can learn about how to protect the Earth. I can check out my old school, whose worn wooden floors still creak with every step you take, and whose halls are still hot as heck.

“We are facing an urgent need for effective ways to engage diverse audiences about global climate change,” read the seminar description. “In this session, we will ask the big question: Who will save our planet and how?”

One of the four panelists was Dr. Pamela Koch, executive director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy at Teachers College. She smartly showed how nutrition education could — and should — play a key role in saving the planet. Here’s why: So much of human activity revolves around food production, which often drastically alters the natural world –– and by drastically alters, I mean destroys. Resolve that issue and you’re a long way toward fixing the climate crisis.

Case in point from my own research: the Amazon rainforest. It’s the world’s largest intact forest, according to the nonprofit environmental organization Greenpeace. It covers 2.6 million square miles, stretching across Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. It is home to 10 percent of the world’s known plant and animal life. It is where the term “biodiversity” was coined. Yet it’s disappearing, in part because of logging, but more so because of cattle ranching and soy farming.

Eighty-eight percent of cleared rainforest has been turned into pastureland, according to the Nutrition Ecology Center, an interdisciplinary scientific committee that studies the effects of food production and consumption on the environment. Farmers, many of them poor, slash and burn their way across the land. That single activity alone accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all human greenhouse-gas emissions, according to Greenpeace.

Greenhouse-gas emissions include carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor, which trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere rather than allowing it to radiate harmlessly into space. A hotter atmosphere brings with it warmer oceans, which produce stronger, more destructive hurricanes. That was clearly demonstrated by the 2017 hurricane season, which wreaked havoc in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

In the U.S., it’s easy to castigate the impoverished farmers who are steadily eradicating Amazonia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, American farmers marched across this nation, ripping up ancient grasslands to make way for their crops. That eventually led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s — and, in part, the Great Depression. Today, “monocropping” on so-called factory farms, which apply copious amounts of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers to their crops, is wreaking havoc on soil and water systems.

There are alternatives, however. Today’s organic farms, which are increasing in number and crop output, are proving that. Children need to understand that. They need to see that eating the foods that are better for them also helps to create a healthier planet.

Returning to Dr. Koch: “Everything I do is about food,” she told the audience of about 20 mostly Teachers College alumni and faculty. “. . . When people get connected to really good food, it makes them feel passionate.”

That connection must begin early. That’s why Teachers College, which created the field of nutrition education, is on a mission to bring nutritional ecology to schools across New York City, the college’s home base, Koch said.

A little more than half of the city’s 1,840 schools offer nutrition education programs, according to Koch. The programs, like so many educational initiatives, exist on a spectrum. Some teachers simply take children on a field trip to a farmers market and call that nutrition education. Others create lavish vegetable gardens where kids can learn to tend to the soil and grow their own food, and in doing so, better understand the complex natural processes that gardening — and farming — involve.

If children come to appreciate natural methods of food production such as organic farming, which protect and even enhance the environment, then perhaps humankind stands a chance of reversing — or at least halting — the worst effects of climate change.

Yes, believe it or not, Nutrition 101 is surely one of the most important classes that anyone might take in the 21st century.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.