Climate change is impacting our food and drinking supply. Here's how corporate broadcast TV networks can better report on these issues
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land found with high confidence that “climate change is already affecting food security.” Increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events and shifting seasons are already starting to threaten our food systems. It is also affecting drinking supply in a number of ways, including the quality of drinking water and access to water as well as impacting crops that are used to produce popular beverages like coffee and wine. When corporate broadcast TV networks report on climate change, it is important that they give food production and water quality and access the coverage they deserve as these staples of life are becoming increasingly stressed due to our increasingly warming world.
Here is how corporate broadcast TV news reported on the ways climate change is impacting our food and drink (broadly meaning water quality and other beverages) in 2021 and how they can improve coverage going forward.
There was a massive increase in climate segments featuring food and drink issues from 2020 to 2021
In 2020, corporate broadcast TV morning news, evening news, and Sunday political news shows aired only 9 segments on climate change’s relationship to food and drink issues. In 2021, they aired 49 segments, amounting to an over 400% increase. This increase in food and drink coverage mimicked the overall increase in the volume of climate coverage in these years: Coverage jumped from just over 6 hours in 2020 to nearly 22 hours in 2021.
The breadth of coverage also increased as well. Of 2020’s climate-related food and drink segments, 5 were on solutions including how sustainable methods used in the production of food and beverages can contribute positively to the environment and climate (with 2 segments on the very fringe idea of carbon-sucking vodka), and just 4 were on the ways climate is impacting food and drinks. Coverage was much more varied in 2021 — in addition to solutions and impacts, there were segments addressing environmental justice issues related to food and drinks, scientific research, corporate action, and how certain non-governmental organizations are handling food and drink issues.
In 2021, corporate broadcast TV news shows did a good job discussing climate change’s impacts on food and water insecurity
Corporate broadcast TV news shows featured 49 climate segments that included discussion of how climate change is impacting food and drink.
Of these 49 segments, 7 dealt with how climate change is affecting agriculture, particularly crops. A good example came from the November 1, 2021, edition of ABC’s World News Tonight, where host David Muir discussed how climate change is contributing to a horrific drought in southern Madagascar that is decimating farming lands and leading to a prolonged famine.
There were also 5 segments on how climate change is contributing to food insecurity in Central America, which is in turn driving climate migration toward the U.S.
Climate’s impact on food security is also felt unequally, with much of the Global South being the most affected. It’s important for TV news programs to keep shining a light on this fact.
There were also 12 segments on how climate change impacts water insecurity. Many of these segments came in the context of reporting on the western U.S. megadrought, which has been exacerbated by climate change. This is shrinking the water supply and many cities are starting to place restrictions on water usage. This is also affecting farmers out west, making it difficult for them to grow crops.
In addition to discussing impacts on food and water insecurity, broadcast TV news shows also discussed how climate change is impacting popular beverages and seasonal items. For example, the November 3, 2021, edition of NBC’s Today looked at how climate change is impacting coffee production around the world. The December 23, 2021, edition of CBS Mornings and the December 24, 2021 edition of NBC Nightly News looked at how climate change is impacting vineyards. There were also segments on climate’s impact on maple syrup and pumpkins.
Connecting climate change to people’s favorite foods and drinks is a good way to get people more engaged in the issue -- yet it is important that even these human interest segments acknowledge how widespread climate impacts are and how mitigating them requires systemic changes including to industrial agriculture.
Climate is impacting our food and water — but how we produce and what we consume is also impacting our climate. A 2019 IPCC report found that nearly a quarter of global carbon emissions cuts needed to avoid the worst climate change impacts can come from agricultural-related sectors, including changing diets. There were 9 segments that featured discussion on climate solutions through more sustainable production practices. The December 30, 2021, edition of CBS Evening News looked at how a nonprofit is helping to tackle food waste, which has a significant carbon footprint. The March 23 edition of CBS Mornings looked at how farming is being reimagined in Appalachia, with one greenhouse growing more produce while using less water. In February, Today interviewed billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates about climate solutions where he talked about a number of different things, including plant-based meat.
Media Matters has previously shown how important it is for reporters to talk about climate solutions in order for TV viewers to be more motivated to help fight it. They need to keep following the same pattern when talking about climate’s impact on food and drink.
There are still areas of improvement when it comes to talking about climate issues related to food and drink
The 49 climate segments that mentioned food and drink issues in 2021 made up only 8% of overall climate coverage (604 segments). This is far too small of a number for an issue so important.
Corporate Broadcast TV news needs to report more on the agriculture industry’s contributions to climate change. For example, meat accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production. Methane emissions in agriculture production actually increased more than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions from 1990 to 2019 as well. Despite these facts, there were only a few mentions of methane emissions caused by meat consumption, options available to switch to plant-based meat (or a vegetarian diet), and overall animal livestock contributions to climate change.
Some scientists believe that there needs to be a bigger emphasis on methane reduction in the food industry, rather than just focusing on carbon dioxide emissions.
A good example of reporting here came from the December 18, 2021, edition of CBS Saturday Morning. The segment focused on how feeding cows seaweed can greatly reduce the amount of methane that they emit. This has huge implications for the agriculture industry.
Similarly, while good work has been done to expose the tactics of Big Oil in delaying climate action, far more work needs to be done to expose and report on how the meat industry is also blocking climate policy.
Besides the aforementioned food waste segment, there was no other discussion of addressing food waste on broadcast TV news shows in 2021. Food waste is a huge problem in the U.S. — one-third of food gets wasted in the country, and food waste accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the U.S. airline industry. There should be more reporting on this undercovered aspect that has direct implications to climate change.
Corporate broadcast TV news shows are also silent when it comes to discussing indigenous practices for farming, even though a recent IPCC report lent credence to indigenous methods of farming, noting that allowing more indigenous communities access to land is essential to adopting systemic change in the agriculture industry. Additionally, Native American farming methods have been tried and tested here for 5,000 years. Given how worsening extreme weather in the U.S. and the world is stressing food and crop production, it’s important to shed light on these best Native and indigenous farming practices.
As climate reporting increases on these networks, so too should discussions about climate’s impact on food and drinks
There’s been some decent headway into reporting on the relationship between climate change and food and drinking issues in 2022. The January 12 edition of Good Morning America referenced climate change’s effect on crop yields throughout the entire world, while the January 22 edition of CBS Saturday Morning (similar to the December 30 CBS Evening News edition example above) discussed food waste in depth and the problem of methane in the farming industry.
As we get into the summer months of worsening extreme weather, there will be ample opportunities for these news shows to show how climate-fueled events like worsening drought, heat, hurricanes, and wildfires affect food supply and water quality. Let’s hope they make this connection.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Nexis database for ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, Saturday Morning, Weekend News and Face the Nation; NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press; and Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday for any of the terms or any derivations of any of the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” “changing climate,” “climate warms,” “climate warming,” “warming climate,” “warmer climate,” “warming planet,” “warmer planet,” “warming globe,” “warmer globe,” “global temperatures,” “rising temperatures,” “hotter temperatures,” “climate science,” “climate scientist,” “Paris climate,” “climate accord,” “Paris accord,” “climate agreement,” “Paris agreement,” “climate deal,” “climate crisis,” “green new deal,” “climate conference,” “climate plan,” “COP 26,” “carbon emissions,” “greenhouse gases,” or “net zero” from January 1, 2020, through December 31, 2021.
We included segments, which we defined as instances when climate change was the stated topic of discussion, and substantial mentions, which we defined as instances when a segment on any topic included at least one paragraph or a block of uninterrupted speech by a host, anchor, or correspondent about climate change. We also included passing mentions, which we defined as instances when a speaker mentioned climate change in a network correspondent segment if the context of the segment was clearly about a climate, energy, or an environmental issue.
We then reviewed the identified climate segments, substantial mentions, and passing mentions for whether they included discussion or statements about climate change’s impacts on food, water, or other drinks.