What does it take to feed the globe? Events through the Berkeley Food Institute and San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club highlight food and climate

This post was originally published in The Berkeley Graduate.

How will the world feed a planet of seven billion people during drought, disaster, and rising temperatures? The climate change’s effects on the food system are a growing concern.

Commonwealth Club Vice President Greg Dalton’s project, “Climate One,” brought together the “New Food Revolution” panel, featuring specialists in business, government, and the environment in San Francisco last week. Though not always in agreement, the panelists were amicable, and joked that California Academy of Sciences Executive Director Jonathan Foley seemed to receive all the tough questions. Discussion ranged from water security to the impact of climate change on agriculture, and GMOs to food waste. Serving as moderator, Dalton began by asking, “do we need to grow more food?”

Foley thought not: “it’s kind of the food equivalent to ‘drill baby drill,’” opting for a more thoughtful approach to growing food focusing as much on the demand as on the supply.

Are local, organic vegetables more sustainable?

California Secretary of Food and Agriculture and former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross disagreed. Ross emphasized the importance of resources and figuring out what she calls the “best crop per drop” for smart water usage, adding that it is not only about calories, but also about nutrition.

Helene York, Director of Google global accounts at Bon Appetit Management Company, produces 150,000 meals per week for universities and work places. As York related, many producers need to “get smarter about what they do” in order to meet demands amidst climate change.

The initial answers reflected many panelists’ opinions on many of the issues. Foley took a comprehensive, ecological approach; Ross diplomatically represented the California government; while York emphasized the business side.

Focusing on climate change, Foley reported that increasing droughts and severe rainstorms have made it difficult to grow food globally, while Ross added that climate change has altered more than just water, citing higher day temperatures and lower night temperatures leading to decreased crop yields. On the business side, York hears suppliers every week claim they can’t deliver due to problems from the drought. Yet Foley is hopeful: “there are huge opportunities to be more efficient.” For example, water use on Israeli farms is ten times more effective than U.S. farms, he revealed.

With the climate in mind, what does a sustainable food system look like? It is one that combines nutrition, economics, and the environment, according to Foley. To turn a workplace into a sustainable food system, York described how Google is using a smaller plate and serving three different kinds of vegetables before consumers reach the protein part of the buffet, moving towards what York calls “great tasting plant-centric food.”


Concerns over climate change’s effect on the food system lead to questions regarding the U.S. corn industry’s power. Foley asked, “why do we grow 100 million acres of corn in this country?” The question elicited a brief flurry of claps from the audience, but none of the panelists gave a clear answer as to why the corn lobby continues to secure subsidies for the corn industry.

To end the event, Dalton asked the panelists to identify their favorite climate-smart foods. York immediately answered oysters. For Foley, it is the fruits and vegetables he grows with his children in the back yard. Ross took a moment to think, then answered diplomatically, “I love all California commodities equally.” If she had to choose, it would be Brussels sprouts, though she wasn’t quite sure how climate-smart they are.

The Berkeley Food Institute sponsors many events related to food and the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco offers discounted tickets for students to attend the Climate One series.­­

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s