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September 22, 2008

News Media Overlook Food System and Climate Change Connection

A study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows the nation’s top newspapers have largely overlooked the food system as one of the more important contributors to global climate change. The two-year study, available online in advance of publication in Public Health Nutrition, analyzed coverage by 16 of the nation’s largest circulation newspapers. According to the study, the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions from food production and agriculture was mentioned in only 2.4 percent of climate change articles.  In contrast, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2007 that 31 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and forestry (with much of the latter representing deforestation for food production).

The study also found that 0.5 percent of climate change articles made any mention of the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and meat production. In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported that livestock production alone accounted for nearly 18 percent of world anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions—a greater contribution than from transportation.  Top impacts of the food system on climate include cattle emissions of methane (a highly potent greenhouse gas); and loss of trapped carbon from soil and plants following land clearing for crops or pasture. 

“Greater public awareness could lead to consumer demand for food with lower greenhouse gas emissions. Greater awareness could also spur action from policy makers and the food and agriculture sectors toward reducing food and agriculture-related emissions,” said Roni Neff, PhD, research director for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and principal investigator of the study. “The more we know about climate change news coverage, the more effectively we can help to ensure the important facts regarding the food systems’ contribution receive the attention they deserve.”

For the study, Neff and colleagues analyzed climate change coverage in 16 leading U.S. newspapers based on circulation between September 2005 and January 2008. The newspapers analyzed were: The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Rocky Mountain News, Houston Chronicle, New York Post, Detroit Free Press, Dallas Morning News, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Boston Globe, Newark Star-Ledger, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Arizona Republic, Long Island Newsday and San Francisco Chronicle. Newspapers were selected over other media because of their influence and broad readership. The combined daily circulation of the reviewed newspapers exceeded 10.5 million, with an expected readership of over 20 million.

In conducting the research, Neff’s team compared all articles in the 16 selected newspapers that mentioned “climate change” or “global warming” in the headline or first paragraph, against the subset that also mentioned “food,” “farm” or “agriculture” anywhere in the text. The team found 4,582 “climate change” articles. Of these, 109 connected climate change to the contributions of food systems. Only 20 (0.4 percent) devoted three or more paragraphs to food and climate change, while 45 spent less than a paragraph on the subject, often with a single word mention, such as including “agriculture” in a list of relevant industries.  The contributions of the meat or dairy industries were mentioned in 22 articles (0.5 percent).

Coverage varied widely by newspaper, ranging from a maximum of 22 articles over the study period (New York Times) to a minimum of 0 (Dallas Morning News, New York Post). Coverage increased slightly across time.

Neff and her colleagues attribute the lack of news coverage t the origins of the climate change field; relative lack of quantifiable information on the food system contributions; the framing of food-related issues as individual rather than a social concern; initial lack of advocate interest. In addition, the U.S. food industry has not been involved in the climate change discussion until recently, while other climate-affecting industries have taken oppositional stances that led to media interest in tensions between them and advocates. 

Additional authors of“Yesterday’s dinner, tomorrow’s weather, today’s news? U.S. newspaper coverage of food system contributions to climate change” are Iris L. Chan and Katherine Clegg Smith, PhD. The research was supported by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

Contact for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future: Chris Stevens at 410-502-7578 or dcstevens@jhsph.edu.
Public Affairs media contact: Tim Parsons at 410-955-7629 or tmparson@jhsph.edu.