What You're Eating Could Make or Break Our Planet -- 7 Principles of a Climate-Friendly Diet

Editor's Note: Join us for a live discussion on AlterNet with Anna Lappe and AlterNet contributor Kerry Trueman at 8pm EST/ 5pm PST on Monday, April 5.

Anna Lappe's new book, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, may just be the most important book published this year. This past month, rising oceans buried New Moore Island, a tiny island in the Bay of Bengal that India and Bangladesh fought over for nearly 30 years. Closer to home, Massachusetts has suffered "two 50-year storms in the course of two or three weeks," according to Governor Deval Patrick. That's a reality check that the climate crisis has already caused tangible effects on our planet, with much more to come. Lappe's book does not only expose how our current dominant methods of food production, processing, distribution and disposal significantly contribute to climate change; she also tells us how food production can actually mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil.

However, climate-friendly agriculture is a money-loser for currently powerful industries -- agrochemicals, oil and meatpackers to name a few. Lappe debunks their spin, putting the lie to claims that people on earth would starve without Big Ag and factory farms. Instead she reveals the truth, based on well-documented science, on how agriculture can be part of the solution.

What is perhaps most striking is that Lappe's book comes nearly 40 years after her mother's classic, Diet for a Small Planet, which tackled the problem of world hunger. Even though they wrote about how to solve different problems through food and agriculture, their proposed solutions are the same. Perhaps that is more than a coincidence (especially since, as Lappe notes below, their advice on eating a plant-centered diet of whole foods is similar to dietary advice for good health). 

Jill Richardson: What types of foods make up a "diet for a hot planet" -- a diet that is conscious of the climate crisis and works to mitigate and prevent it?

Anna Lappe: In Diet for a Hot Planet I lay out seven principles of a climate-friendly diet, principles that can help guide us in the low-carbon direction in the face of forces thwarting us.

It turns out the principles for reducing your carbon "foodprint" sound a lot like those to choose for your health: eat fresh foods, lots of fruits and veggies, go for organic and minimally processed fare. I like to stress what I'm talking about is a plant-centered diet, one that can be complemented with vegetarian or non-veggie sources of protein. After all, you could be chowing Gimme Lean for breakfast, a Twinkie and Fakin' Bacon for lunch, and French fries and other non-meat junk food and such a diet wouldn't be good for your body, your waistline, or the planet, either.

A key part of the core message is that it matters how your food was made. The less processed the foods are, of course, the less energy used to produce it. And meat, particularly that raised in factory farms is many times more carbon-intensive than produce and vegetarian sources of protein. A Cornell study, for instance, found that meeting the annual dietary needs of a typical meateater in New York State requires nearly five times as much farmland as that of a plant-centered eater.

Organic farming is also proving to dramatically reduce on-farm emissions as well as related emissions associated with producing food. Cut out synthetic fertilizer and on-farm petroleum-based chemicals and you're cutting back on significant greenhouse gases.

But knowing how your food was made is easier said than done. Many of the biggest players in our food system conspire to keep us in the dark about the sources of the ingredients in most of the food we eat. To truly know the provenance of most of our food can require Sherlock Holmes-esque sleuthing.

JR: Is it possible to eat meat and call yourself an environmentalist?

AL: Here in the United States, most of our meat would get a failing grade on the environmentally friendly test. That's because we've shifted support away from sustainable meat production, where animals are raised in relatively small numbers on land that also grows their feed and absorbs their waste. Today, industrial-scale meat production is the norm, eating up massive energy, producing 160 times the waste of the human population, and contributing directly to our nation's greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, ruminants, like cattle, emit methane during digestion. Never mind those jokes, people: It's cow burping, not the farts, that cause all the trouble. But remember it's not the cows' fault. It's the deliberate choices made by livestock producers to turn to highly wasteful and energy-intensive factory farming, feedlots where 2,500 or more hogs, 125,000 or more broilers, and thousands of cattle are contained in often inhumane and unsanitary conditions.

JR: What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching this book?

AL: Once I realized how much the food and agriculture sectors contribute to the climate crisis, I was most surprised by how little we were hearing about it.

The global system for producing and distributing food--from seed to plate to landfill--likely accounts for one third of the human-caused global warming effect. According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization's 2006 seminal report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," the livestock sector alone is responsible for 18 percent of the world's total emissions. Yet of the 4,582 articles, letters to the editors and op-eds on climate change published from September 2005 to January 2008 in 16 major newspapers, only 2.4 percent addressed food and agriculture contributions, researchers at Johns Hopkins found. The percentage that actually focused on meat and climate? Less than half of one percent.

That's all starting to change. While I was working on my book, more and more stories kept popping up from articles in O Magazine to a piece in, of all places, Etihad Magazine, the in-flight magazine of the United Arab Emirates airline. Yes, the irony of them publishing an article on climate change was not lost on me.

I also describe in the book the range of new campaigns that have been launched by NGOs, which are making the connection between more traditional enviro issues--like saving the rainforest--with agribusiness. I'm on the board of Rainforest Action Network, for example, and one of our recent campaigns is targeting agribusiness's impact on rainforest destruction, particularly in palm oil production in Malaysia and Indonesia.

JR: In your book, you uncover some pretty big lies and a dizzying amount of spin coming from carbon-emitting industries. What was the biggest whopper you found in your research, and how hard was it to decipher the truth from the lies?

AL: The biggest whopper has got to be the spin from the biotech and chemical agriculture industry that their products and practices are the key to feeding a hungry world, especially in the face of the climate crisis.

What's been so brilliant about this message is that it does a really good job of silencing people: No one wants to be the jerk who's endorsing more hungry people in the world.

You'll see time and time again journalists quoting industry reps on this point, saying things like: Eliminating chemical agriculture technologies would curtail "agriculture's efforts to meet future crop needs." Or, "We need to recognize that were agriculture to go organic again, we would have an enormous food deficit," as Michael Pragnell, CEO of Syngenta, one of the world's largest agricultural chemical manufacturers, said in the British paper, the Independent.

These kinds of comments are typically presented without any opposing arguments; and often come across as a statement of fact, not conjecture and opinion (and opinion, mind you, from a biased source).

In my book, I share some excellent research that shows the power of organic and agroecological practices to produce enough food to feed us all and--here's the key--protect our ecosystems, which are the very basis of food security.

JR: Besides eating the right foods, what can individuals do to transition our food system to one that doesn't spell doom for the global climate?

AL: While I certainly believe, of course, that there's power in our forks, don't get me wrong. I don't think we're going to transform the unsustainable food system solely by buying bunches of organic broccoli.

What we're talking about when we talk about the food and climate crisis is a system-wide failure. System-wide failures need collective actions to fix them.

Look at how we've come to see the need for an overhaul of our energy and transportation sectors: Many of us now fully get it that we need major investment in wind and solar power, in high-speed rails and other forms of public transportation. Similarly, we need a massive greening of our food infrastructure, giving support to the organic and sustainable practices we know produce healthier food with a much lower cost to the climate and offering subsidies to new distribution networks that would help communities get access to such food.

We wouldn't expect individuals to personally excavate subway tunnels, purchase a fleet of fuel-efficient buses, or lay down tracks for high-speed rail. Similarly, we shouldn't expect individuals to fix our broken food infrastructure on their own. We need public investment in climate-friendly food that makes choosing locally raised, organically grown, fresh whole foods as easy as grabbing a Big Mac, fries and shake at the drive-thru.


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