Michigan State University poll reveals a majority of Americans are concerned about climate change, but unclear on sources and solutions

The latest MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll measures understanding and attitudes of food issues related to climate change.

A majority of Americans are concerned about climate change, but confused about what contributes to the problem and how to address it, according to the latest Michigan State University (MSU) Food Literacy and Engagement Poll.

The sixth wave of the poll surveyed 2,125 Americans on their attitudes and knowledge of food issues related to climate change. Sixty-one percent reported they were significantly concerned about this challenge, while just 10% were not concerned at all. 

“Climate change is inherently tied to the food system through production, distribution, and waste,” said Sheril Kirshenbaum, co-director of the biannual survey. “Our results reveal popular misconceptions about where emissions come from and how we can best address climate change.”

U.S. sentiment on climate change (numbers reflect percentage of respondents who gave indicated answer)

Significant concern 37
Above average concern 24
Average concern 22
Below average concern 7
No concern 10

A 2018 meta-analysis published in the journal Science found that the food system is responsible for about 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Two of the most significant sources come from farm emissions (fertilizers, animals and machinery) and changes to land and soil. The poll revealed that although 28% of Americans correctly identified farm emissions as a top contributor, just 9% recognized land and soil changes matter.

“The way we alter landscapes and soil has direct effects on the environment, especially when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions,” said Doug Buhler, co-director of the poll and director of MSU AgBioResearch. “Unfortunately, this source of emissions may be underappreciated and represent an important route to decrease emissions while storing carbon and improving soil quality”

The steps in food production Americans think produce the most greenhouse gas emissions 

 * indicates top greenhouse gas producers. Numbers are in percentages.

Emissions on the farm* 28
Transportation 28
Processing 15
Production of food for livestock 9
Changes to land/soil* 9
Retail 6
Packaging 5

More findings:

  • 28% of respondents thought transportation in the food system was a top emissions producer, even though it accounts for just 6%.
  • 15% chose processing (converting raw products into food), which contributes only 4% of total emissions.

The survey, conducted in February 2020, also demonstrated that Americans are not well informed about which actions could make a real difference toward combatting climate change. For example, 59% of Americans thought reducing pesticide use would limit the food system’s impact on climate change. Despite environmental challenges, the use of pesticides is not a climate issue.

More than half of respondents said that supporting local agriculture (58%) or producing more organic food (53%) would reduce the contribution of the food system to climate change. Both of these actions can have benefits such as supporting local businesses and helping pollinators, but neither will necessarily have an impact on the climate.

“Buying local food is a great way to support your community, but whether or not it’s better from a climate standpoint is all in the details,” said Kirshenbaum. “Emissions and energy use are dependent on the animal or crop, region, season and what kind of resources are available or brought in.”

One area where consumers are aware they can have a substantial impact is in addressing food waste. Fifty-nine percent recognize that reducing food waste would make a significant difference for the climate. This compliments the results of MSU’s 2019 Food Literacy and Engagement Poll, which found 88% of Americans say they take steps to reduce food waste at home.

Additional survey highlights include:

  • 56% said developing crops more resistant to heat, drought, and flooding through traditional breeding would have a positive impact, but just 50% think it can be done with the use of biotechnology.
  • Over a quarter of Americans (27%) said that their diet and food choices have a significant impact on their carbon footprint, while 32% disagree.

The 2020 Food Literacy and Engagement Poll reveals that while a majority of Americans would like to address climate challenges, many still have a limited awareness of the sources and solutions to have impact.

For more information about the MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll, including past results, click here

Data from the MSU Food Literacy and Engagement Poll were weighted using U.S. Census Bureau figures, to ensure the sample's composition reflects the actual U.S. population. Launched in 2017, the poll is supported by MSU AgBioResearch. The survey, conducted twice per year, is intended to provide an objective, authoritative look at consumer attitudes and perspectives on key food issues, and is designed to help inform national discussion, business planning and policy development.

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