Interview with Dr. Joe Bozeman III, Climate and Food Expert

by Charles Platkin

Joe Bozeman III holds a PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) where he now does research on energy and environmental sustainability as a member of the Institute for Environmental Science and Policy, exploring climate change and social identity in relation to race, food, energy, water and global environmental change. The goal of his research is to facilitate more impactful climate change and food policy measures in the United States (U.S.) and around the world.

How did you become a climate and food-policy advocate? Was it an early passion? What do you think it was in your background growing up that pushed you towards advocacy?

My interest in climate and food policy started as a child. My first memories of being aware of advocacy are associated with the TV cartoon show Captain Planet. Some of my close family members used to joke with me when I imitated Captain Planet’s statements and gestures. I was known for ”griping” at folks who threw trash out of the car window or the like, something I tend to do to this day. My interest was further emboldened when my immediate family started a small plot and began urban farming in our backyard.

My food-policy advocacy wasn’t honed until later, but I have distinct memories of experiencing periods of food insecurity during too many of my pre-teen and teenage years in the United States . During that phase of my life, I shifted between lower- and middle-socioeconomic status (SES) environments, which allowed me to see the differences in food access and availability. Lower-SES environments seemed to have fewer healthy and accessible food options compared to the middle-SES environments I frequented. These experiences were made even clearer when I utilized the food stamp program in my early college years. As I matriculated towards commencing my PhD, it became apparent that the effects of climate change would likely exacerbate food insecurity, especially for lower-SES communities. It was about this time that I began to hone my food-policy knowledge and advocacy.   

You’ve written or said the following: “The food pipeline – which includes its production, distribution, and waste – contributes significantly to climate change through the production of greenhouse gases and requires significant amounts of water and land, which also has environmental effects,” Can we start off by discussing the link between food and climate change? What is unique about that connection in an urban setting? 

The interactions between the effects of climate change, food systems, and various dwelling environments — such as urban and peri-urban settings — are complex. There are various ways to explain these interactions. One way is to examine things from a more macro-perspective by describing planetary boundaries. Planetary boundaries are science-based thresholds — such as land use, fresh water use, stratospheric ozone depletion, and climate change. Breaching these thresholds would destabilize the earth’s ecosystem, potentially causing irreparable damage to vital ecosystem services upon which the food system directly relies. Furthermore, the implications of destabilization could include climate migration events that might overwhelm civil and environmental systems as well as healthy social operations, especially within urban settings. Current trends suggest that the Earth’s overall population will increase through the year 2050, from about 7.8 billion to 10 billion. We also anticipate that a greater percentage of this growing population will dwell in urban centers. I like to call the interplay between this growing, urbanizing population interplaying with acute social and policy challenges “Social Densification.” This is further explained in Bozeman et al. (2020a). I believe social densification phenomena will impact us all and already have in various ways. However, I posit that these social densification dynamics will manifest most acutely in urban settings, with effects on the food system being one of the more apparent  ways to demonstrate how deleterious these disruptions actually are (Bozeman et al. [2020b]).   

Another way to help explain these complex relationships is through more specific — or micro-perspective — examples. For instance, climate change is anticipated to increase extreme weather events, including increased flooding and drought in regions across the world. In the U.S., studies indicate that these sorts of weather events may adversely affect maize production in regions of the midwest to the point where animal feed would be significantly reduced. That alone would likely impact various aspects of the food system, specifically food markets and accessibility, particularly among marginalized groups. The impact among various aspects of the food system is most apparent in Bozeman et al. (2020c), where we find that U.S. whites’ eating habits have the greatest impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and water per capita, whereas Blacks have the greatest impact on land compared to their Latinx counterparts. These findings are vital when it comes to developing and effectively administering food policy in urban and peri-urban settings; given that many communities within the U.S. have dominant clusters of Black, Latinx, or white racial/ethnic subgroups, and socioeconomic analyses ON the matter performed in Bozeman et al. (2019), suggest that food and policy interventions might need to differ based on race/ethnicity and SES.     

One of your studies takes an “in-depth look at what different demographic populations eat, how much greenhouse gas those foods are responsible for, and how much land and water they require.” Can you talk about your findings and their implications? What were the reactions to your study? 

The top-level findings from Bozeman et al. (2020c) are that, based on the way they tend to eat, U.S. whites affect GHG and water resources the most per capita whereas Blacks affect land the most compared to their Latinx counterparts. Reactions to these findings varied widely, from praise to profanity. On the one hand, many media outlets — such as Popular Science, Geographical magazine, and NPR — interviewed me and reported our findings with nuance and effective contextualization. Others, however, bastardized the results and findings and seemed to solely impugn whites in their headlines and content. This led to the proliferation of salacious and aggressive replies, ranging from blatantly racist — and even antisemitic (I’m not Jewish, by the way) — threats against me and others to unflattering coverage in right-wing outlets and radio.  

Can you please talk a bit more about the intersection of climate, food, and race?   

Bozeman et al. (2020c) and (2019) take two different approaches to show how climate, food, and race interact: one from a food-consumption impact perspective and the other from a socioeconomic, food-consumption impact rate perspective. However, Bozeman et al. (2020b) adds yet another perspective, showing how much land, GHG, and water resources could be saved if the U.S. adhered to key global dietary recommendations called EAT-Lancet. World-wide adherence to these EAT-Lancet dietary recommendations would not only help keep us within planetary boundaries but could also facilitate the production of enough sustenance to feed the roughly 10 billion people we expect to populate the earth by the year 2050. Results show that 28 percent to 38 percent of U.S. environmental resources (land, GHG, and water) would be saved if the U.S. population overall, and across racial/ethnic subgroups, adhered to EAT-Lancet recommendations. Furthermore, findings show that this shift, if accompanied by well-developed food interventions, could help to address racial/ethnic disparities in food access and health outcomes, considering that black-and-brown populations have been shown to develop relatively high concentrations of food-related diseases.    

I believe the City of Milan has reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with the meals served in its public schools by 20 percent by doing food swaps on school menus. The city of Oslo has a “climate budget” and budgets its emissions as it would its finances. Are other major cities around the world taking climate change seriously? 

My current research focus has been centered on the U.S. food system and its incorporation of sensible climate change activities. This has led to findings and examples of positive activities in other countries and regions including Europe and Asia. What I can say is that, based on my findings thus far, many other countries seem to be making progress towards implementation and management of food and climate change policies, whereas the U.S. — given its unique influence on international trade and its diversity of populations and economic products — seems largely to be stuck in the planning phase (more on climate change adaptation phases can be found in Bozeman et al. [2020c]). There are exceptions in the U.S., but I’ve not seen enough coalesced action around climate change that suggests we as a society have taken food and climate change seriously.  

What cities are doing it right in terms of fighting climate change by making changes in their food systems? What policies around the globe do you think are impactful and should and be replicated elsewhere? 

Based on the data I’ve seen thus far, I would argue that no U.S. city is doing it “right” in terms of fighting climate change through food. There are certainly cities that are farther along than others, but I don’t believe that the food system can be effectively viewed city-by-city or from a strictly urban point of view, because aspects of the system rely on interconnected parts of rural, peri-urban, and urban environments. For example, urban dwellers need rural and peri-urban food activities to address the needs of their populations, and vice-versa. Furthermore, surrounding countries need the U.S. to purchase and trade food items in a sustainable way in order to avert the worst effects of climate change in the future. This may include redesigning commodity trading metrics as well as other economic indicators to encourage appropriate market behavior. I, therefore, posit that the only way to truly address climate change from a food perspective in the U.S. is at the country or federal level through various education and policy measures. Doing that could, in turn, yield more complementary state and local activities manifesting in effective city-by-city adaptations. Nonetheless, I believe that adherence to the EAT-Lancet global dietary recommendations could play a significant role in transforming our food system, along with ecological, and human health activities, to more salubrious and sustainable ones (please see Bozeman et al. [2020b] for more on this). 

Are there any current federal, state, or local policies or legislation in effect to minimize urban emissions related to food production? What policies or legislation are lacking?

I would love to answer that question; however, I have not run into enough comprehensive and recent studies or info on this matter, to respond with specificity at a high level of scientific rigor. I can say that, in this regard, I’ve recently come across some good studies — such as Zenk et al. (2011) and Odoms-Young (2019). Moreover, I am currently working with several scholars on a federal-level study on this matter. My hope is to find a home to publish this work in the coming months.

What are some strategies cities can take to combat climate change?

I believe many U.S. cities would benefit from establishing a comprehensive climate change adaptation framework. This would involve interconnected planning, implementation, and management phase activities (please see Bozeman et al. [2020c] for more on this). On its surface, that may seem like an ambiguous response, but I would argue that a framework such as this is needed before we move aggressively on policy measures and robust education activities. Not doing so could lead to mis-steps and setbacks that we no longer have the time or resources to make. We are nearing the breach of our planetary thresholds by the season.

When following the climate change adaptation framework used in Bozeman et al. (2020c), various signals can be systematically identified to address city-level issues on climate change. The signal could be food access, food supply, or social unrest due to equity dynamics, or any other signal/indicator that is chosen. The signal triggers the planning phase, which, if done well, would include an assessment of local, state, and federal impediments to any city-level initiative. These aspects would be an explicit part of whatever measure(s) comes out of the planning activities. Once the planning is completed and implemented, the management phase would ensue, allowing for measure evaluations and continuous improvement activities. Taken together, this approach would allow for several cities to “signal” state and federal systems of their need for support and facilitation, which I think is vital to climate change adaptation/mitigation efforts from a food perspective. Cities can make gains without fervent state or federal support. However, we are at a time when we need systemic change towards achieving more equitable and sustainable food systems in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change, and that is unlikely to occur without coalesced support from the federal level down.  

In your opinion, what is the number-one thing governments get wrong about climate and food?   

I think U.S. governments past and present have politicized climate change and food issues by using false narratives. Changing our eating habits to be healthier and more sustainable is not a choice between continued economic growth and financial ruin. It is a choice between systemic degradation and the long-term survival of our species. Still, too many government institutions have approached the issues of climate change and food security as some kind of political preference instead of framing them as the existential crisis they truly are.

What was your proudest food advocacy moment? 

My proudest food-advocacy moment was talking about a few of my studies on NPR-Chicago/WBEZ on a live broadcast. It was a dream of mine to produce work worthy enough to be recognized by NPR. It was an other-worldly experience to be invited to personally speak on my work by NPR. Since then, there have been many other proud moments — including another live NPR spot, but with NPR-Wisconsin. Yet, the NPR-Chicago experience stands out to me because it was my first time in that particular setting. 

As a child, you wanted to be? 

An NBA basketball player or an engineer.

Your worst summer job?

Packing skids full of groceries inside a warehouse full of freezers.

You call home?

Chicago, IL

You grew up? 

Dayton, OH

Job title: 

Research Associate for UIC’s Institute for Environmental Science and Policy (IESP)

Background and education: 

B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, Wright State University

M.S. in Engineering (Renewable and Clean Energy), Wright State University

Ph.D. in Civil Engineering (Energy and Environmental Sustainability), UIC

One word you would use to describe the food/climate integration:  

Myopic

Food & climate policy hero:  

Dr. Thomas L. Theis (my former PhD Advisor and Committee Head, UIC’s IESP): Dr. Theis facilitated my work and supported me even when, just a few years ago, various factions of the media — and some segments of academe for that matter– attempted to undermine my research findings on climate, food, and race at a time when publishing on these issues was even more precarious than they are today. I don’t take that kind of support for granted and deeply admire him for it.

Your breakfast this morning: 

A semi-ripened banana

Favorite food: 

Whole Red Snapper

Favorite last meal on Earth:  

Chilaquiles with the “green sauce” (verdes) from one of my fave Chicago spots, Mas Alla del Sol

Favorite food hangout: 

I would have to say a place called Tweet is my fave food hangout spot. It’s also in Chicago, IL.

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