Organic Author and Advocate
In this interview, author Anna Lappé explains how our current food system is contributing to global warming, and why organic agriculture offers hope for a healthier and more sustainable solution to climate change.
Q: Most people associate global warming with pollution caused by large factories and gas-guzzling cars. In your book, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork, you argue that our current food system is also contributing to the global warming problem. How would you define this food system, and why do you feel it is having a negative impact on our environment?
A: In less than one century, we’ve radically transformed how we grow food and what we eat.
Increasingly around the globe, farming is dependent on fossil fuels, from synthetic fertilizer used on the soil to the petroleum-based agrochemicals used to protect against weeds and pests. Livestock are raised in close confinement, in operations that resemble brutal assembly lines not bucolic pasture.
Today, our food system is the single largest user of land and freshwater, depleting vital natural resources and biodiversity. And this drive toward industrial agriculture has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from fertilizer runoff that swells to the size of New Jersey every year and causes 300,000 deaths annually from pesticide poisoning.
Perhaps most damaging, our global food system—from seed to plate to food waste in landfills—is indirectly and directly responsible for thirty two percent of the global warming effect, largely because vital sources of carbon sequestration—rainforests and peatlands—are being slashed, drained, or burned to make way for energy-intensive industrial agriculture.
This food system that’s been so damaging to our planet isn’t so good for people either: In the United States, the cost of diet-related illness and death has nearly surpassed tobacco-related ones.
We’re a pretty smart species yet we’ve managed to make ourselves sick—even threaten our very survival—with our food.
Q: In your book, you make the case that individuals can help combat global warming through their food choices. You state, for example, that there is "power in our food." Can you explain what you mean by this?
A: Yes, I believe that there is real power in our forks. We feel it as we see ourselves choosing a diet that connects us to people creating food systems that are nourishing—nourishing for us and the earth. Our real muscle as eaters can be felt, though, when we amplify our voices, when we speak up together for organic farming, for instance. Or, when we come together in community to grow our own food, teach our kids where carrots come from, or advocate for real food in school cafeterias.
Q: You are a proponent of organic food and agriculture. From your perspective, what advantages does organic have when it comes to tackling global warming?
A: You hear a lot of doom-and-gloom about global warming: Polar ice caps melting fifty years ahead of schedule, the tropics expanding as much in the past two decades as scientists predicted for the entire century, small island nations preparing to disappear under rising waters.
I find talking about food and global warming hopeful. As we do, we discover the potential of sustainable food systems, including organic production methods, to help us feed ourselves in face of climate instability and help us reduce global emissions.
Organic farming methods foster exactly the kind of biodiverse, robust farms that are resilient in the face of droughts and floods. Organic farmers’ cover crops – grasses, cereal grains, and legumes – help build healthy soil and soils rich in organic matter drain better during floods and retain water better during drought. Healthy soil also supports beneficial microbes and insects and helps sustain plant growth with little or no synthetic fertilizer. By building healthy soil and reducing the reliance on fossil fuels, organic farms release between one-half and two-thirds less carbon dioxide for every acre of production compared with industrial farms.
Organic farms also help rebalance the carbon cycle. By adding carbon-rich organic matter such as compost or manure to the soil, organic farmers help store carbon in the ground, locking up carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere. The Rodale Institute estimates that converting 10,000 medium-sized farms in the United States to organic production could store as much carbon in the soil as we would save in emissions if we took one million cars off the road.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, recently put it clearly: “With more than a billion hungry people on the planet, and the climate disruptions ahead of us, we must rapidly scale up… sustainable techniques.”
Q: In your book, you offer "Seven Principles for a Climate-Friendly Diet." What are these principles, and which do you think is most important?
A: You might already be embracing these seven principles. You just might not have thought them as climate-friendly choices:
1: Reach for Real Food –
Choose healthy whole foods, not highly processed products and you’ll reduce the emissions associated with processing and additives and preservatives. Stuff that’s not so good for your health, either.
2: Put Plants on Your Plate –
Meat and dairy, especially beef, is often the most energy intensive food choice, choosing to put plants at the center of your plate is a wise choice for your health and the climate.
3: Don’t Panic, Go Organic –
Making the right choice about how your food was produced is as important as what you’re choosing to eat. Go for organic, or sustainably raised foods, and reduce your carbon foodprint.
4: Lean towards Local –
By supporting your local farmers, you’re reducing the distance your food travels but even more importantly you’re helping to build a regional food system that protects green space and builds biodiversity. .
5: Finish Your Peas… the Ice Caps Are Melting –
Food waste contributes to the methane emissions from landfills; decrease food waste and save money, too.
6: Send Packaging Packing –
Cutting back on processed foods is one way to cut back on packaging emissions. We can also consider how to reduce our reliance on takeout packaging and other non-renewables in our diet.
7: DIY Food –
We’ve got to ourselves back into the kitchen. All these principles require that we cook for ourselves, our families, and our communities. A principle that can help you save money and eat better.
The most important one? I think it’s really what I call the eighth principle in the book, the meta-principle, the beyond-your-fork message: That in order to ensure we all can follow these principles, we’ve got to speak up for a food system that aligns with our values of health, community, and a cool planet.
About Anna Lappé
Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, widely respected for her work on sustainability and food systems. Her most recent book, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About it, has been called “impeccable, informative and inspiring” by Booklist. She is also the co-author of Hope’s Edge, with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen with eco-chef Bryant Terry. A founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund, Anna can be seen as the host of MSN’s Practical Guide to Healthier Living and The Endless Feast, a public television series about the connection between food and community. An active board member of Rainforest Action Network, Anna has been named one of Time’s “Eco” Who’s Who, and has been featured in The New York Times, Gourmet, O-The Oprah Magazine, and Food & Wine among many other outlets. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. Learn more at www.takeabite.cc.
In Diet for a Hot Planet, Anna Lappé deftly explains the links between our global food system and climate change and offers ideas and inspiration for making sustainable food choices that can provide a catalyst for transforming the environment.
In this engaging and controversial new book, Anna argues that if we are serious about addressing climate change, we have to talk about food. She exposes the interests resisting this conversation and the spin-tactics employed to avoid it. Lappé also presents a vision of a future in which our food system is a key part of healing the planet—and the climate.
Nearly forty years ago, Anna Lappé's mother, Frances Moore Lappé, wrote Diet for a Small Planet—a book that sparked a revolution in the way we eat and see the world. Today, Anna picks up the conversation, educating and inspiring a new generation.