The Delicious Way to Take on Climate Change: Anna Lappé Talks Diet for a Hot Planet

Anna Lappé’s latest book, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, investigates the intersection between the environmental crisis and the food system in more detail than any book that has come before it. Lappé’s rendering makes us realize the imperative of addressing these issues, and empowers us to do so by demystifying corporate spin, giving thorough examples of people making change, debunking the myths for maintaining the status quo, and more. Lappé talked to me last week about climate friendly farming, policy and the state of the food movement.

CIVIL EATS: Why do you think these issues, food and the environment, have remained separated for so long?

ANNA LAPPÉ: We already did know a lot about the impact food does have on the environment, but to learn what a key driver food and agriculture are in terms of deforestation, in terms of nitrous oxide and methane emissions, and overall that the food sector is contributing a third of greenhouse gas emissions — and yet we never hear about it. As we’ve seen agriculture become much more of an industrialized process, I think there has been a real consciousness shift where for many of us there isn’t a connection anymore between food and nature. I think its made sense politically that the biggest sectors contributing to climate change — energy and transport — have gotten most of the focus in terms of our understanding about climate change. But now that there’s even more understanding about how much we absolutely need to get emissions down, we are starting to realize that we need to widen the focus to all sectors that are contributing.

CE: Do you see environmental organizations coming around and starting to take food on as a cause?

AL: Food and agriculture use 70% of all the earth’s clean water sources, and when you look at the fact that its largely agricultural-chemical runoff that is contributing to dead zones in the gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and all around the world, you could go down a long list of the environmental impacts of food, and you could say to yourself, shouldn’t all environmental groups have food as one of their key platforms? So I still don’t think we’re at a place where food is as central as I think it could and should be, but I do think its interesting to see how in the past couple of years many groups that have historically just focused on more traditional environmental issues are starting to develop campaigns that focus on food.

CE: When most people think about the environmental impact of food they often start talking about food miles. How does transportation of food rank in the overall picture of the impact of the food system on the environment?

AL: Food miles, the hundred mile diet, and the locavore movement have gotten a lot of press. Of course greenhouse gas emissions are just one piece of environmental impact, but if you look at those related to the food on our plate what you find is that transportation is actually a tiny percentage. What matters more is the production practices the farmer chose to use, whether synthetic fertilizers or agricultural chemicals were involved, and how well the soil was managed. What I’ve heard a lot of people say then is, “oh then local doesn’t matter.” But I think what is important is for us to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what we mean by local. The locavores that I know, they don’t just care about how many miles away their food is, but they are making that choice for local food because of a whole set of values.

CE: There seemed to be a real shift in the debate when the UN report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow” came out in 2006. Now they are considering revising the report. How you think this report could be improved upon or expanded?

AL: What I noticed when I was reading Livestock’s Long Shadow is a real honesty in the presentation of the data. I think its a very sophisticated report, but I think that they were also very clear [in saying] more research needs to be done. This is really trying to pin a flag on the board to say we need to be looking at the livestock sector. These are highly complicated systems that we are talking about, and they are also moving systems in the sense that things are constantly changing. I think that we shouldn’t get too focused on bickering over the percentages. To the extent that [Livestock’s Long Shadow and] the other studies that my book is based on put food and agriculture on the map is really important and the more we study them the more we’ll learn about what is causing this crisis and what we can do to address it.

CE: The healthcare bill has passed, and the Senate is pushing the climate change bill forward, but agriculture is largely left out. Is there is an obvious place for us to begin this debate again?

AL: Waxman-Markey [shows us] how agribusiness could lobby in the future in terms of the climate bill and the farm bill. They lobbied [House Agriculture Chairman] Collin Peterson to get into Waxman-Markey provisions that would have made it possible to get carbon offsets for chemical no-till farming, [and] would have [boosted] corn-based ethanol. I’m worried about are two things: first, that agriculture will be left out of the climate bill, and second, that it will be put in, but put in in the wrong way, that it will look like subsidizing more of the same agriculture that we already know is causing so much of the [climate] crisis and not helping us solve it.

CE: How do we convince farmers that climate-friendly farming is good for them, too — including their bottom line?

AL: Unfortunately, a lot of farmers are locked into a certain way of farming that relies heavily on fossil fuels because of policies that have been put in place over the years that have created a certain kind of infrastructure that caters to and benefits large-scale commodity and livestock factory farms, and really shuts out more diverse crop farming, smaller-scale farming and a more regionalized system. So I think that its not fair to say, farmers, you should just wake up all of a sudden and change your practices. In the same way that we think about the infrastructure changes that need to happen in the transportation and the energy sectors, we need to think about the same revolution in the food sector. I don’t think anyone would expect somebody living in a town without a bus system, subway system or high speed rail to take public transportation to work, and we certainly wouldn’t expect them to be digging the subway tunnel themselves, or putting in a high-speed rail line themselves. With bold changes to the food sector, you create opportunities for farmers who want to be farming in ways that are better for the environment, because you’ve actually built the infrastructure that they can tap into.

CE: You spend a large part of your book discussing the ‘spin’ in the debate around environmental issues in agriculture. Why was it important to you to deconstruct these ideas?

AL: I felt that it was so important to talk about greenwashing, because we’re seeing an incredible number of examples of companies rebranding themselves as a caretaker of the environment, without really actually substantively changing their practices. I think there’s two things that we can learn from that: First, if a company like BP is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to rebrand itself as green, they’re only doing that because they actually think people care, and that to me in an odd way is kind of reassuring and positive. And second, we have to be more savvy about really assessing when companies are substantively changing their practices, and when they are just coming up with a logo and a new campaign slogan. And part of that savviness is understanding that there are some companies and there are some practices that by their very nature are not good for the environment.

CE: One of the questions you tackle head on in this book is whether sustainable agriculture has what it takes to feed the world. Why do you think the arguments about yield are not telling the whole story?

AL: Yield is this really crude figure that doesn’t tell us that much at all. For instance with chemical agriculture, it doesn’t express the cost of agricultural chemicals in terms of the price the farmers had to pay, or the costs of synthetic fertilizer in terms of the deterioration of the soil, or the impact of the chemical runoff from the fields as far as local water quality and public health. And yield is only just a snapshot of the moment. It doesn’t help us understand what the yield might be next year, the year after, or the year after that. There’s been some really good studies in some of the areas in India, farmers that were suppose to be the sort of proving ground of the high yield of chemical farming and the so-called green revolution, and what you find is that, if you look over time, and when I went to the Punjab I saw this first hand, is yes you had a spike in yield in the beginning of the introduction of these agricultural chemicals and these water-intensive industrial agricultural practices, but over the years you saw yield fall not just back to the levels before chemicals were introduced, but actually fall far below these levels. At the same time, you saw a total devastation of the local economy as farmers became indebted to the banks because they had to buy these chemicals. The second thing about yield is that I think there is some pretty compelling evidence, which I write about in the book, that if you look at organic agriculture that is done in a very knowledge-intensive way — by organic agriculture I don’t mean just take away the chemicals, I mean developing, honing, advancing practices working with nature for soil fertility, pest resistance, weed management — what you see is that yields can actually be comparable. Not to mention all the other benefits of the added soil health and the added human health of not being exposed to toxic chemicals, and of course the added benefit of farmers not having to pay for inputs.

CE: Some say that we should embrace the risks of biotechnology because we don’t have a choice. Why do you disagree?

AL: I think this idea that we have to embrace risk is total scaremongering on the part of the biotech industry. I mentioned studies in the book that are showing that we have these agro-ecological, natural ways to create farms and soils that are healthier, able to withstand drought [and] flooding that we know [are] going to become more extreme. I think we can look back historically at all the promises the biotech industry has made about what their crops are going to do and see that each one of those promises has fallen flat, and at the same time there’s been a lot of unintended consequences because of the release of these crops into the environment. I tend to take a precautionary principle approach, [which] tells us that if there is a potential of risk, that we should move forward cautiously.

CE: I was curious what your definition of climate-friendly farming is.

AL: There is so much contrast in what farming looks like. And I think similarly, climate friendly farming can apply to a lot of different practices, a lot of different scales. I think primarily I try to emphasize is the importance of farming practices that reduce the amount of fossil fuels used, reduce if not eliminate the reliance on synthetic fertilizers, reduce if not eliminate the use of petroleum based agricultural chemicals, and that is thinking about farming as part of a natural cycle — how to create a healthy water cycle, a healthy carbon cycle, a healthy nitrogen cycle. How do we do that with a farm? I think there are many, many examples around the world of farms that are providing abundant sources of food and doing it in a way that is creating a more healthy ecosystem without depleting it, creating healthier soil as opposed to depleting the soil. I was just reading Vandana Shiva’s book Soil Not Oil, and she gave this example of when a twig on a tree breaks, the tree can grow back that limb, but when a part in a car breaks, you’ve got to bring that car to the mechanic. Climate-friendly farming is about creating a kind of farm that can heal itself, can provide its own fertility and its own sources of pest resistance and weed management.

CE: You’ve managed to write a book that is about heavy subjects but is not depressing! What are some of the things that give you hope?

AL: Since my first book, Hope’s Edge, I’ve tried to redefine my own sense of hope. I’ve embraced the definition of hope that is not necessarily based on evidence of, say, whether we’re decreasing the amount of greenhouse gases or not. Hope really comes from an internal, endogenous energy source. You feel hope when you are taking action, [or] when you align yourself with ways of being in the world that you think really reflect your values. So I think that when you talk about food and climate change, it is hopeful in a sense that, first of all, connecting yourself with a sustainable food system is increasingly becoming something that more and more of us in this country can do. And the second thing that gives me hope is, as I researched the book, finding out about so many under-reported stories of people who are up against the huge power of agribusiness and yet are still able to create healthy farms, or work to bring healthy food into their communities and their schools.

CE: What are some of the best ways to engage people on these issues? What are the specific things that they can do that can be empowering?

AL: I think this question of what we can do, it really is about each of us tapping into what gets us most excited. When it comes to changing the food system, what is particularly exciting is that there are so many different entry points. Food is a public health issue, food is a family health issue. As a new mom, when I think about food that is good for the climate I also know that its food that is going to be good for my daughter. Food is also a social issue, its a human rights issue, and people can get engaged with it that way, asking the question why is it that certain communities in this country have no ability to access food that is both good for the climate and good for their bodies? I think that what is exciting to see is that as there has been essentially a stalemate on the international level in terms of binding agreements about how to reduce emissions and how to turn around the climate crisis, what we are seeing is communities and cities stepping up to take real leadership and say, look, we’re not going to wait for something to come down to us from the international level. What can we do right here, right now, in our own communities?

4 thoughts on “The Delicious Way to Take on Climate Change: Anna Lappé Talks Diet for a Hot Planet

  1. great interview, i look forward to reading the book. i agree with so much that was said here especially about what hope looks like today. it is not about something in the future that we dream of, but what inspires us to act today the issues around food intersect so many other critical issues today, health care, the environment, education that we just need to jump in and take action.
    smartlifeways seeks to be one of the voices that is sharing more of the positive action that is happening and sharing information about why this is so important today.

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  4. I know she encouraged us not to get hung up on the various estimates of the contribution of the livestock sector to global warming but one recent essay by 2 former World Bank staff suggested that the livestock sector contributes more than 50% of global greenhouse gases, which is much more than the 18% suggested by the UN FAO report. Reading the essay in the World Watch Institute magazine made me think that encouraging vegetarianism should be considered a top priority by green groups.