Hot Plate: An Interview With Anna Lappé

Hot Plate: An Interview With Anna Lappé

Hot Plate: An Interview With Anna Lappé

Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet, dishes on connections between what we eat and our warming planet.


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.

I started working on my book in early 2008, I feel like I’ve seen a dramatic increase [in coverage of food in the context of climate]. Just in the time that I was writing the book, in the last green issue of O magazine, one of the things that they said you could do to help the climate is to think about what you eat—and eat less meat. I got a write up of my book in, of all places, Etihad magazine, which is the in-flight magazine for the United Arab Emirates, which I thought was an unlikely place to see an article about climate change, let alone climate change and food. So I think there’s more coverage, there’s been some good coverage in the New York Times really for the first time. In 2008, a front-page article about food and climate that was one of the most e-mailed of the week.

Of course, I still think we have a long way to go. But what I’m even more encouraged by is what I’ve seen in the last two years of citizen groups and environmental groups that are making this connection clear for people. Rainforest Action Network has historically focused on protecting rainforests and the communities that live in them. In the last couple of years, they’ve been uncovering the connection between agribusiness and rainforest destruction. Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth and a number of citizens groups and environmental groups are actually starting to forge this connection that I think was really missing on the activist side.

And then third, what we’re seeing are cities and states starting to explore these question on the ground in terms of what this means for local and city policy, what this means for state policy, what this even means for federal policy. In New York City, a bunch of environmental and civic groups, along with the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, hosted a food-and-climate summit in December of 2009, around the time of the Copenhagen climate talks. And they had, within thirty-six hours of announcing the summit, 1000 had signed up to attend the summit. Within two days, another 800 people were on the waiting list.

The Nation: Ironically, just as the sustainable food movement seized upon climate change as an important issue, the broader political culture has moved in the other direction. Since you started the book, we’ve seen the collapse of Copenhagen, a highly compromised climate bill languishing in the Senate and polls showing that belief in climate change as a problem is declining. What do you make of these reversals?

AL: I was naïve when I started working on this issue to think that the days of climate change denial were behind us. I have this whole section in the book that I wrote about how to defend yourself against attacks from climate-change deniers; initially, my editor said, “We need to cut down length, and this section can definitely go. Everybody gets climate change now and you don’t need to put this argument in there.”

And it’s been such a wake-up call for me putting this book out there how much the climate-change deniers are still going strong. These organizations that historically have been seeded by and funded by the dirty coal industry, by the energy sector, are still very alive and well and have kind of taken on a life of their own. Since the book came out, I have had personal attacks against me on these far, fringe websites that are totally anti-science and totally into climate-change denial.

So I think we still have a long way to go. What is clear to me from the food and agriculture side is that the food industry and agribusiness are building a bulwark against attack around these issues. We’re seeing the deployment of savvy spin campaigns that serve in the same way that the tobacco industry used pseudo-science to sow the seeds of doubt about the resistance to tobacco. The food industry is gearing up in the same way to sow the seeds of doubt about climate change.

The Nation: Starting with the opening quote from Susan Griffin about social movements and imagination, Diet for a Hot Planet strikes me as a social movement book: a kind of Rules for Radicals for climate activists. What do you see your role in the social movement around food?

AL: Like most people who are struggling to find their way in the world and struggling to try to figure out how to make a difference, I feel at times what I’m doing is not enough or what is it that I do is abstract. There’s a part of me that wants to do something really practical next, like start a farm and grow a lot of food. But at my book launch, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who introduced me, said that all social movements need a multitude and multiplicity of actors in them, and there is a role for people who are documenting the story, who are trying to develop a critique. I hope in some small way this book adds to this growing movement of the rejection of the failed model of industrial agriculture and this embrace of this much more economically, much more socially justice and environmentally rational food system.

The Nation: Please tell us the most alarming thing you found while researching the book, and also the most hopeful thing that you saw on the ground.

AL: I was surprised to see to the extent to which the agricultural biotech companies and industries claim to be developing genetically engineered crops that will help us adapt to climate change, and how these claims are swallowed whole by media institutions.

While researching the book, I went to the American Museum of Natural History’s exhibit on climate change. I was excited to see them taking on the issue, so excited to learn from their exhibit. And I was struck that the only panel they had about agriculture mentioned nothing about sustainable systems and instead talked about the promise for genetically engineered crops to, for instance, create more drought-resistant corn in Africa. 

I was so surprised that they presented this as a key solution and I ended up digging into the story and I found out that one of the big funders of the exhibit was the Rockefeller Foundation, which is historically being one of the biggest funders of environmentally backward molecular biology and generic engineering, especially in Africa. What I found when I interviewed experts on this issue was across the board a very deep concern about this investment in biotech as a solution to adaptation for climate change.

But there’s a flip side to that story. [We’re learning that] in Africa, sustainable techniques and organic farming methods have enabled small-scale farmers to create resilient farms that are able to withstand drought better by bringing back indigenous crop varieties, encouraging growing crops that are actually native to more drought-prone regions, that can handle droughts better than corn. An amazing British-born woman, Sue Edwards, who has worked in Ethiopia for most of her life, told me, “We here in Ethiopia are not holding out hope for some unproven technology from half the world away–we are seeing on the ground how we can improve farmers’ lives right now and produce abundance even in spite of the kind of climate conditions that we know will exist with climate change.”

The Nation: There is an impressive amount of information in the book about things that people can do to move towards a more climate-friendly food system. What can people do in their everyday lives to decrease their food-print?

AL: I worked out seven principles for a climate-friendly diet. Some readers might already be doing some of these things but not seeing them as necessarily climate-related. Number one, choosing organic or sustainably raised food is absolutely key. If you look at some of the biggest sources of emissions in the food chain it comes from the heavy use, especially in this country, of synthetic fertilizer and petroleum-based chemicals. Supporting organic farmers is one way to reduce our emissions—studies show that organic farms can emit as much as half of carbon dioxide as non-organic farms, and capture more carbon in soil. They are also good for farmers who aren’t expose to toxic chemicals and they are good for our bodies as we only expose ourselves to food that has been grown in sustainable ways.

Another way is to reduce the amount of meat and dairy we consume. A typical American eats more than half a pound of meat every single day—you can definitely cut that back. Switching to meat from pasture-raised animals is probably good, too, I think it’s really important for us to not forget that for most people who live in this country don’t have access to that kind of sustainably raised meat and dairy. Finally, I’ll mention processed food—I advise people to cut back on it as much as possible. A lot of emissions in the food chain come from packaging.

I have a total of seven in my book, but those are the big three—go organic, cut back on meat and skip the processed stuff.

The Nation: Funny how that works—things that are good for the planet tend to be also better for the human body.

AL: True. But it’s important to add that we also need to go beyond just voting with our forks. We can do a lot as individuals, but individual action can’t, say, build a new energy infrastructure based on green fuel and mass transit through individual action. We need policy change to do that, and that will take working together collectively as citizens.

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