If the children of ‘30s radicals were dubbed “red-diaper babies,” Anna Lappé might be the first green-bib baby. Her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, brought out the seminal Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, two years before Anna’s birth–and has been agitating for a just, sustainable food system ever since. Her father, the late toxicologist Marc Lappé, was an early, important and persistent critic of the agribusiness industry.
Lappé fille has emerged as a leading voice of the sustainable food movement in her own right. In her work, she focuses not only on the depredations of highly processed, chemical-intensive food, but also on the myriad alternatives to it that are bubbling up on the ground in all corners of the globe–from her Brooklyn neighborhood to the smallholder farms of Ethiopia. In Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen (2006) (co-written with Bryant Terry), she helped make ethical eating relevant to urban youth. In her new book, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It, she turns her attention to the connection between food and climate change. In this interview, we conversed about how the two relate.
The Nation: You’ve been writing about the politics of food from a variety of different angles for years now. What made you think choose climate change as a lens for this book?
Anna Lappé: In 2006, when the U.N’s Food and Agriculture Organization put out “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” it was the first time researchers on that level tried to take a holistic approach to estimating greenhouse gas emissions related to livestock production. What they did, which was groundbreaking, was looking at all the emissions that can be attributed to livestock production all along the chain of production. A lot of people had looked at how much methane is coming off manure from livestock factory farms, something very narrow like that.
But the FAO looked at everything from the deforestation directly caused by the pressures on land for feed crops to the incredible amount of emissions that come out of energy-intensive synthetic fertilizer production and use. They looked at a whole range of different steps along the livestock production chain. And what they came up with at the time was that if you add this all together, about 18% of global emissions can be tied back to livestock production. That was more than the estimates of emissions from global transportation.
Up until that point and even after that report came out, very little connection [had been made] between food and climate in the mainstream coverage of climate change. And that was one of the first moments that I thought, Hmm, I want to look into this more. The book really evolved out of my own curiosity and wanting to understand the issues. If the way we’re eating is literally causing climate instability, why aren’t we hearing about it? And if we are hearing about it, who’s shaping what we’re hearing about it? The book really is a chain of my own curiosity.
The Nation: You show in the book that the media generally ignore food’s role in climate change. Has that changed at all since you were researching the book?
AL: In a 2008 paper, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public looked at newspaper coverage of climate change over the previous two years. It found that of the sixteen leading newspapers in the country, about 4,500 articles were written about climate change during that period, less than 2 percent even mentioned food and agriculture, less than 1 percent mentioned livestock. And of those that did mention food, the majority of them were actually letters to the editor, or op-eds. In other words, the reader would perceive them as opinion, not as statement of fact.