Climate Change, Food Sovereignty & Biocultural Diversity

Janis K. Steele, Ph.D.


Island Reach is a community-scale, grassroots project, based in the US and working in Vanuatu, Melanesia. Island Reach is devoted to helping build local and replicable solutions to climate change from ridge to reef, founded on the principles of biocultural diversity.

There are few more revealing ways to study the arc of civilization and the relationships between people and the environment than through foods and their pathways. The industrial food systems of our era have a double barrel impact on Earth's climate. The first shot comes from extraction: replacing forests with commodity crops, overworking soils, and depleting the seas of fish. The second shot is a redistribution of global chemistry causing excesses of carbon and nitrogen in the atmosphere and ocean where they do no good: burning fossil fuels to grow foods, turning natural gas into nitrogen-based fertilizers for overworked soils, causing ocean dead-zones from nutrient-based runoff, and acidifying our oceans with as yet to be fully determined consequences.

But there is a third factor that underscores the relentless capacity of the industrial food system to cause climate change: this is the joint eradication of biological and cultural diversity. It is precisely within the Earth's incredible biological diversity that carbon and nitrogen are best distributed and cycled planet-wide. It is with the collaboration between traditional cultural/ecological knowledge and best science that sustainable management of ecosystems is possible and local food sovereignty is secured. The causal links between harvester, processor, and consumer of foods is a core climate mitigator, sometimes missed in the important focus on energy extraction. Change the ways that food is procured, and you can begin to change the world! The effort to stabilize and rebuild biocultural diversity is fundamental to stabilizing climate change.

Island Reach works at the community level to provide a no-cost, mobile work platform aboard Research Vessel Llyr, along with skilled support services, to local projects in Vanuatu, Melanesia.The archipelago of Vanuatu is a region with over 80 inhabited islands and many remote villages, widely recognized for its great biological and cultural diversity that is increasingly under threat. Our aim in Vanuatu is to help protect and revitalize coastal communities while building capacity for environmental stewardship. Island Reach is a targeted vision taking the long term view. By providing support to local projects that promote biocultural diversity, we foster sustainable food  pathways that also help to mitigate climate change.  We believe that our efforts in Vanuatu can propagate similar work around the world.

As human ecologists and social scientists trained in the life of the mind and of culture, one of our strengths as directors of Island Reach is our understanding that positive change is an intimate process that begins at the local level, but scales via inspiration.  Promoting and sustaining biocultural diversity is one important pathway back from the edge of climate change.