Late last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most alarming report to date. It concluded that we have as few as 11 years to make massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions if we want to prevent all out climate catastrophe: even stronger storms, more erratic weather, dangerous heat waves, and rising seas that would devastate infrastructure and communities around the world. Of course, the climate crisis is already affecting our food and farming systems. This is where Anna Lappé started her research more than ten years ago when she set out to write Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It.
She discovered that yes, the climate is impacting our food, but the way we produce and consume food also has a huge impact on our climate. And, just as importantly, food can be a valuable climate solution. Diet for a Hot Planet is our featured Real Food Reads book of the month and Anna joined me on the podcast to talk about how the food and climate conversation has evolved over the past ten years.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Tanya Kerssen: When Diet for a Hot Planet came out almost a decade ago, there wasn’t a strong understanding about the food and climate connection the way there is now. What’s changed in the last ten years?
Anna Lappé: One of the big things that’s changed is that people increasingly understand that it’s not just that the food system is impacted by the crisis, it’s that the food system, and particularly agribusiness, is a huge driver of greenhouse gas emissions. Ten years ago you didn’t really hear that part of the narrative. You didn’t hear the biggest agribusiness companies talked about in the same breath as the biggest fossil fuel companies. And you didn’t see environmental groups that campaign around climate making the connection with food systems. That’s really changed.
Now when you look at the landscape of groups working on addressing the climate crisis or when you look at political leaders talking about solutions like the Green New Deal, you see that more and more people understand that you’ve got to talk about food. You’ve got to talk about how food is contributing to the crisis and how farming is a key part of the solution.
Tanya: We know that fossil fuel companies, scientists, and many others were aware of the climate emergency for decades. But what took us so long to understand that industrial agriculture was such a major contributor?
Anna: Well, I have a couple of theories about this. First, the industries in the food sector that are driving this crisis, like the fertilizer industry or agribusiness companies like Cargill, were perfectly happy to be out of the limelight. And in terms of the advocacy community, there are a lot of reasons why people didn’t focus on this. One is that historically advocates have shied away from talking about food because food is so personal. It’s about our culture, it’s about our spirituality. I think there’s been a fear that if you talk about food, you start getting into this finger wagging, “what should you eat” kind of conversation. But as I talk about in the book, that doesn’t have to be the case. If you want to talk about food and food change, you have to talk about systems that need to change. You have to talk about policies and corporate power that need to shift.
And I think there’s another reason, too, which has to do with how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) historically structured the breakdown of sectors that are contributing to the climate crisis. They would divvy up the pie of emissions based on categories like electricity, transport, or buildings. They had one pie slice on agriculture, yes, but they also had a pie slice called land use change. Food was almost invisible. But when you start looking at the food system-related causes of greenhouse emissions, you see that there are food-related emissions hidden in every single pie slice in that chart. As the IPCC has changed its reporting and its understanding of where emissions are coming from, we’re starting to see the food system lifted out much more clearly.
Finally, there’s just the nature of it: it’s not like when you look at your dinner plate, you see plumes of greenhouse gas emissions coming off of your food. It’s understandable why it’s taken so long for food to be part of the climate conversation.
Tanya: Also, we have so many vivid mythologies about where our food comes from, right? So when we think about how our food is produced, we might picture some bucolic, diverse homestead when that’s not the reality of the very polluting dominant food system.
Anna: Exactly. And the situation also looks different from an international perspective. For example, if you’re just looking at what the US Environmental Protection Agency tells us about US-based greenhouse gas emissions, the food system is a relatively small piece of that story because we have a huge transportation and fossil fuel sector. But if you look globally, you’re talking about a really different story where the food sector is responsible for about one third of all greenhouse gas emissions. It’s really when you start talking about the global food system — which of course we are a part of — that you can really see the big picture.
Tanya: Right. So for example, if the United States is consuming large amounts of beef — which we are — and if a certain portion of that beef comes from, say Brazil, which country gets the blame for those emissions? Is it Brazil for all of the land use changes like deforestation and the methane produced by that livestock? Or is it the United States as the end consumer?
Anna: Another great example is palm oil. I remember reporting ten years ago that palm oil had become the most widely traded vegetable oil in the world — and it still is today — largely because it was relatively cheap to produce. Also, processed food companies were looking for alternatives to trans fats and producing a growing amount of processed foods for new markets. So palm oil was a helpful ingredient: it has a relatively long shelf life and it does things like keep your peanut butter smooth so you don’t have to stir it when you open your jar.
Unfortunately, this has had a huge climate impact. Indonesia and Malaysia, the two largest palm oil producers, have a huge climate impact because palm oil plantations are being established on formerly carbon-rich peatland. So again, who’s eating that bag of cookies or that granola bar or that jar of peanut butter? It’s not necessarily consumers in Indonesia. It’s all of us around the world.
Tanya: The palm oil example is so interesting because, of course, like so many of our industrial commodities, it is a food, but it’s also not a food. And what it goes into really depends on market conditions that are always fluctuating. So it can either make your peanut butter creamy or it might make your deodorant stick to your skin…
Anna: …or if you’re in Europe it might fuel your car as biofuels.
Tanya: Since we’re talking about the impact of the global food system, do you think that “eating local” is the solution to climate change?
Anna: I think it’s really important to support our local food economies, absolutely. I also think it’s really important to be building arguments for that based on evidence and sound science. In general, the biggest sources of food-related greenhouse gas emissions come from how your food was produced, not how far it travelled to get to your plate — for example, if the producer used copious amounts of synthetic fertilizers, which are energy intensive to produce and impact soil health. The percentage of emissions related to transport is actually a relatively small part of the greenhouse gas emissions of your typical food items.
With that said, I’m a huge fan of supporting your local food economy. Because when we’re talking about why we support the foods we support, we’re looking at the big picture. We’re not just narrowly looking at greenhouse gas emissions. We understand the complexity of supporting our local food economy. That includes, for instance, helping make sure farmland stays as farmland — that it isn’t lost to urban sprawl. You won’t see it in the life cycle analysis of that food item, but that has a huge climate impact. Supporting local, sustainable farms also means supporting practices that protect biodiverse ecosystems, clean water, and clean air. I think it’s important that we don’t make our food decisions or our food policy decisions based on only one metric, but that we look holistically.
Tanya: Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, is it a good use of our time — considering we have some 11 years according to the IPCC — to focus on changing the food system? Shouldn’t we be focusing on moving the energy sector away from fossil fuels towards alternative fuel sources? Or can policymakers, and we as climate activists, focus on these multiple priorities?
Anna: I think we’re at such a point of crisis that we actually don’t have a choice but to work on multiple fronts. We know that if our food-related emissions stay on the same course, by 2050, we’ll blow our carbon budget. In other words, even if we got it 100 percent right in the energy sector, if we did nothing to address the climate crisis in the food sector, we would fail at protecting climate stability. And that’s because what the trends are showing is that it’s not just population growth; it’s the changing demand. There’s a prediction that there will be more demand for meat and dairy, which have a huge climate impact. There will be more demand for processed food, which will also have a huge impact on land use change, including pressures on rainforest and peatland.
Yes, the food system is significant. And it’s only predicted to increase unless we make significant changes.
Tanya: So that’s due to the land use changes caused by the production of these industrial commodities and things like fossil fuel-based fertilizers?
Anna: Yes. For instance, the livestock sector is a huge user of land. And that’s in large part because industrial livestock relies on feed crops like corn and soy. And when it comes to cattle, there’s also a huge amount of land used to graze cattle before they get fattened on corn and soy. The Union of Concerned Scientists did an analysis of land use and found that beef production uses three fifths of all agricultural land in the world, but provides to the human population only 5 percent of our protein.
Tanya: Obviously, to achieve the kind of dramatic reduction in emissions that’s required, we need to change the way we produce food. So, how do we do that?
Anna: Well here’s the good news: we know that there are really effective ways to grow food abundantly that don’t rely on practices that are bad for the climate — that don’t rely on synthetic fertilizer and that actually build up soil carbon. Professor Rattan Lal, one of the leading experts on soil carbon, estimates that we could sequester up to one fifth of our current carbon emissions in agricultural soils by using ecological practices, including agroforestry and restoring forests and wetlands. There’s this huge solution at our fingertips by embracing ecological farming. It’s also great way to grow nutritious food.
Tanya: I’m wondering if you want to say a little bit about “agroecology” specifically.
Anna: The term agroecology, particularly outside the US, has real resonance as a way of talking about a food system that touches on both the science and practice of farming, as well as a social movement supporting a certain way of farming. In the US, we might not be so familiar with the term agroecology, but there are a lot of similarities between agroecological practices and “organic farming” or “sustainable farming.” It’s really a way of growing food that works with natural systems, that builds fertility on the farm using resources from the farm itself, that uses biodiversity to address pests instead of pesticides, for instance, and that really thinks holistically about how to build a healthy farm using natural systems.
Tanya: I do think it’s important to talk about agroecology and not because it should replace other concepts like organic or permaculture, because these concepts are also very rich. But agroecology has a political history rooted in social movements, especially in the Global South, that goes well beyond the farming system itself. It’s about producing food in a way that’s appropriate and supportive of local culture and taking on policies like trade agreements or seed laws that threaten local control over food and resources. I think that agroecology very actively — in a way that some concepts don’t do quite so explicitly — calls for policy change like, for example, land reform.
Tanya: We’re talking about organics and agroecology and supporting our local food economies as part of the solution to climate change, but it seems like the solutions that grab the headlines are the consumer fads or trendy technologies like lab-grown meat or drought-resistant GMO crops. Is sustainable agriculture just not sexy enough?
Anna: Is it not sexy enough or is it not profitable enough? I think a lot of what we hear is: we’re going to fix the world through some new technology that investors can get behind. And what we’ve seen again and again is a lot of promises. When I was writing ten years ago about these issues, we saw promises from the biotech industry claiming, “We’re on the brink of genetically engineering drought resistant corn!” I remember talking to colleagues in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, working in some of the most drought-stricken places on the continent who were saying, “We’re not sitting around waiting for genetically engineered seeds.” Their farmers were innovating using native seeds, building up healthy soils, and showing that they were able to withstand drought conditions using agroecological practices.
I think we’ve seen enough by now not to trust the spin coming from people pitching products. The kinds of farming solutions that are showing incredible potential are knowledge-intensive farming, not input-intensive.
Tanya: It’s pretty unlikely that agribusiness and Big Food corporations are going to provide the solution to our problems when they’re the cause of many of these problems to begin with — we really have to get organized, don’t we?
Anna: I always think when we talk about solutions, we’ve got to remember it’s going to come from organizing and movement building and from corporate campaigns that are going after some of the biggest drivers of the crisis.
Tanya: Clearly, it’s impossible to have a conversation about food and climate without addressing the meat question. So I can just hear people saying, we just need to go vegetarian or vegan and end the consumption of animal products once and for all. Would this solve the problem? And would it be enough?
Anna: You’ve got to put it into a political and systemic context. And you’ve got to talk about what system you’re for, not just what you’re against. One can imagine a dystopic future in which we’re replacing all our animal-based protein with, say, Cargill soy burgers produced from soy grown in former rainforest and processed with palm oil from formerly carbon-rich peatland. You see where I’m going here: we have to be clear about the values behind our food choices.
What I like about starting from our values is that our plates can then look very different. What you might choose to eat might be very different from what I choose to eat, and what our colleague in southern India might eat. It can still reflect that cultural diversity and that biodiversity of where we live. Certainly, the US consumer, who on average is way over-consuming meat and dairy, has to move closer to a plant-centered diet — where plants are at the center of your plate and your protein source comes from whatever is culturally aligned with your cuisine. For some people that might be animal-based protein and for others it might not be. But it’s not as if one has to shut the door on anybody who’s consuming animal-based protein because that’s the choice they’re making. What I’m more interested in is: How do we take on the industrial animal sector so that it’s not expanding globally and exploiting people, animals, and land? Whatever you choose as the source of protein on your plate, I think we can build solidarity around the agreement that the industrial animal agriculture sector has to be reformed if we’re going to address the climate crisis.
Tanya: It’s interesting to me how these questions so often revolve around consumer choice as opposed starting from: why are we eating more meat? It’s because we have this industrial meat production that actually drives the demand. And that’s not just in meat, right? The industrial production of all of these foods that are bad for us — and the climate — has driven their consumption around the world, not to mention an epidemic of diet-related illness.
Anna: Right. Like, why are we drinking the gallons of soda a year that we’re drinking? That wasn’t what we used to consume. Or even chicken. For Real Food Reads, we did an interview with Maryn Mckenna who wrote Big Chicken. She talked about how the introduction of antibiotics in chicken production sped up the growth of chickens in factory farms and, as a result, the supply of cheap chicken increased astronomically. All of a sudden the industry was saying, ok, now we’ve got to create demand because people aren’t eating chicken like this. Chicken used to be something you’d have on a Sunday; it wasn’t consumed daily. So they “innovated” things like chicken nuggets and chicken fingers and, all of a sudden, you have radically changed the US diet. But that didn’t come from our personal taste preferences or some sort of cultural relationship; it came from a really smart marketing campaign.
Tanya: I’m here in Minnesota so I can’t help but think of Spam, which was the result of Hormel having all of these meat byproducts and trying to figure out how they could get people to consume them.
Anna: Exactly! And this reminds me of some of the reaction I got to the seven principles of climate-friendly eating in Diet for a Hot Planet, which was: diets are fixed. People have these desires and they’re never going to change. Well then why does Coke spend $6 billion in marketing dollars every year to make sure Coca Cola stays in your diet? Diets are constructed.
Tanya: I wanted to come back to the title of your book, Diet for a Hot Planet, which is a riff off of your mother’s book Diet for a Small Planet from the 1970s. But you’re not saying that there is “one diet” that can save the world. You’re actually asking us to think beyond our plates.
Anna: That’s exactly right. There’s not one diet. It’s about following a set of values. I have seven principles in the book that are reflective of a climate-friendly approach to eating. But also, we absolutely have to go beyond our plate. And going beyond our plate will ultimately change what we have available to us to put on our plate.
One thing I would point to is something we’ve been supporting at Real Food Media: institutional food purchasing as a way to shift the supply chain and shift what’s on our plate for all of us. We’ve seen this reflected in the Good Food Purchasing Program, which is a program that inspires city governments and school districts to ask values-based questions about where their food is coming from. For example, does the food they’re purchasing reflect the values of health, animal welfare, workers, local economies, and the environment, which of course includes climate.
Friends of the Earth did a study looking at the Good Food Purchasing Program in Oakland Unified School District and found that in just two years with the Program in place, the district upped its fruit and vegetable purchases by 10 percent, decreased its meat and dairy purchases by 30 percent, and were able to use some of that cost saving to purchase higher quality meat raised with better environmental standards. As a result, they saw a 14 percent reduction in their carbon footprint as a district and a 6 percent reduction in water use, all while actually saving some money in their budget. That’s a really big deal! And it’s a great case study of what it looks like when people get organized in their community to pass a policy that can shift the system in ways that protect the climate and are also better for our health.
Originally published in Medium