Top | The Culinate Interview

Anna Lappé

(article, Twilight Greenaway)

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p(blue). Anna Lappé — the daughter of Frances Moore Lappé, who wrote the seminal Diet for a Small Planet — is carrying on a legacy of food activism, working to deepen our understanding of the ways food and the environment intersect. With her mother, she co-wrote Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. 

p(blue). With Bryant Terry, she co-wrote Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen. And now her 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. This interview originally appeared in the CUESA newsletter.

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. 

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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. Carbon dioxide currently accounts for the largest percentage of manmade 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 it's 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.
A number of the larger food companies refused to acknowledge the climate crisis until recently; now 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 “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. "Eco-Grains" only make up one-fifth of the actual content of bread. (Read more about Sara Lee in an excerpt from Lappé's book on Salon.)

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.

What role can small-scale sustainable farmers play in mitigating climate change?
What I found really exciting was understanding how farming practices that don’t rely on fossil fuels and manmade 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 roofs over their heads. 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 economically the 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.

p(bio). Twilight Greenaway works for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), where she writes about efforts to create a more sustainable food system throughout the Bay Area.

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