April 02, 2010

Beating the Heat: An Interview with Anna Lappe

AnnaAnna Lappé is carrying on a legacy. Ever since she and her mother Francis Moore Lappé co-authored Hope’s Edge, a follow-up to Francis’ seminal Diet for a Small Planet, Anna has been working to deepen people’s understanding of the ways food and the environment intersect. As the title implies, Lappé’s new book Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It addresses one of the most pressing issues of our time. She spoke with CUESA recently about the book and the issues it raises.

How is this book different from what your mother was writing about in Diet for a Small Planet?

I see [Diet for a Hot Planet] as a continuation of a conversation that my mother and many of her colleagues and contemporaries started nearly 40 years ago. And I think that we are up against many of the same forces that she was writing about then. In 1971 she was trying to expose the social and ecological costs of industrial food. As part of this conversation, I hope to expose another hidden cost — the cost to the climate. 

Why do you think there has been so little in the media connecting food to climate change? 

There are a number of reasons that all work together to create a sort of perfect storm of media blackout. One is that we’ve had a primary focus on carbon dioxide – and for good reason. It currently accounts for the largest percentage of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But methane and nitrous oxide, two of the other [lesser known] greenhouse gases, have a much higher global warming potential. They are less discussed in the media, but they really jump to the forefront if you’re talking about agriculture and livestock, the biggest drivers of those emissions.

I think the second reason is that people have felt that talking about food is kind of untouchable, politically — that people are afraid of a public response if you start talking about putting caps on agriculture; some people worry that it will lead directly to hunger and no one wants to be seen as complicit in creating more hunger. I would argue, and I try to communicate this in my book, that its actually precisely the opposite — that in talking about a food and agriculture system that’s good for the climate we’re also talking about a system that’s better for people, and can more directly address hunger.

There’s also the politics of choice. People often believe they can’t tell people what to eat. But 10 to 20 years ago we were saying, “We can never tell people what kind of car to drive, or not to drive one at all; that’s too personal!” And look how that messaging has become completely accepted today.
 
As you point out, a number of the larger food companies have refused to acknowledge the climate crisis until recently, when they’ve taken to seeing it as a marketing opportunity. Can you say more about this type of greenwashing?    

Since researching the so-called green initiatives in the book, my radar has been up for similar schemes. So, I was curious when I heard about Sara Lee’s new line of EarthGrains® bread made with their proprietary Eco-Grain wheat (TM). In their press about the new eco-bread, Sara Lee emphasized how the “sustainably” the grains are raised. And when we inquired with Sara Lee, they quoted from their website where they explain that the grains are grown with “precision agriculture” that is supposed to help farmers reduce fertilizer use by 15 percent and “Eco-Grains” only make up one-fifth of the actual content of bread. Read more on Salon.com.

More and more companies now believe that consumers are basing their decisions — at least partly — on environmental claims. So if we can create a nation of conscious media consumers, I think that will go a long way to make companies feel like they have to do more than just claim to be doing something green.

Can you talk about the role small-scale sustainable farmers can play in mitigating climate change?

What I found really exciting was understanding how farming practices that don’t rely on fossil fuels and man-made chemicals — practices like crop rotation, composting, and creating your own fertilizers — are all ultimately focused on creating healthy soil, which also stores carbon.

The Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial compared organic farming practices with chemical-based farming practices, over multiple decades, and found that we capture more carbon on organic farms. Their research says that if organic agriculture were practiced on all the farmland on the planet, we could sequester nearly 40 percent of the carbon dioxide in the air.

Another thing I’ve found — on all the organic farms I’ve ever visited — is that these farms become much more resilient. They’re able to withstand periods of drought, as well as periods of deluge from rain and flooding — because of that healthy soil. In the case of flooding it can act as a sponge, and in the case of drought it can act as a time-release of water that’s been stored over time.

Can you talk a little about what you refer to as the “poverty myth” in your book?

There’s this idea that people living in poverty, say, in shacks in Rio de Janeiro, are not going to be able to see themselves as environmentalists, or as part of any social movement, until they have a roof over their head. But, as I say in the book, there are huge, widespread and very powerful social movements going on in places like Brazil, and they are led by people who are among the poorest in the world.

There’s a real danger in this myth. If you believe the only way to get people to care about the environment is to get them wealthy first, you miss out on seeing the existence of really effective social movements. Secondly, you miss out on seeing the potential of the many people who are currently economically poor, to be stewards of the environment — especially because many of those people on the planet who are the economically poorest are those who are still living on the land.

Going back to what I said earlier about the need for us to be creating all this soil that can store carbon — those who are living on the land are on the front lines. They will be most affected by climate change, but they are also in a position to help us heal the planet.

Want to hear more? CUESA is hosting a book talk and reception with Anna Lappé on April 10 in the Ferry Building. Tickets are $1-$10 and will be available at the door as well as online. Photo of Anna Lappé by Bart Nagel.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »