Anna Lappé, Food Choices That Combat Climate Change

28 Aug, 2009

Anna Lappé is a national best-selling author and sought-after public speaker, well known for her work on sustainability, food politics, globalization and social change. In addition to having been featured in the New York Times, Gourmet, O: The Oprah Magazine, Domino, Food & Wine, Body + Soul and many other publications, she is also a regular guest on nationally syndicated radio and appears frequently on television, from PBS to the CBC in Canada and Fox News. Anna currently hosts The Practical Guide to Healthier Living for MSN and is a co-host of the public television series The Endless Feast.

She has two published books—Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, written with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, co-authored with chef Bryant Terry.

Anna viewed the recent release of the breakthrough documentary Food, Inc. as a milestone. “I think it’s a fantastic film,” she told Organic Connections. “I just saw it recently in Brooklyn, and the audience was really captivated by it. I feel that what the movie accomplishes so well is exactly as [Food, Inc. co-producer] Eric Schlosser says early in the presentation: the work that he really sees himself doing is lifting the veil around our food systems. The film does a very powerful job of showing all of us the inner workings of where food comes from and who and what are being harmed in the process—workers and eaters, animals and the environment.”

Coincident with the release of Food, Inc., a companion book was published under the same title, containing interviews with and essays from film producers and other significant individuals bringing about changes in our food system. Anna Lappé contributed an excerpt from her forthcoming new book (due March 2010) in a chapter entitled “The Climate Crisis at the End of Our Fork.”

Food Production and Climate Change

If you haven’t heard of a connection between food production and climate change, it’s largely due to the fact that the bulk of public information on climate change came from Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Unfortunately, very little was contained in that film about the food industry.

It is only in the last few years that Anna herself made the connection between food production and climate change. “One of the triggering moments in my making these associations was reading a United Nations report called Livestock’s Long Shadow, published in 2006,” Anna said. “Based on their analysis and study, the authors of the report estimated that livestock production, both the intensive kind we see in Food, Inc. as well as livestock in developing countries, is responsible for about 18 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions. To give you some perspective, that’s more than all transportation—airplanes, cars and other methods—combined. That study was a big wake-up call for me, and I wanted to better understand the reasons for this and what we can do about it. That research developed into my upcoming book.”

For centuries, livestock have been a vital part of sustainable food systems, supplying both meat and farm labor. Throughout history they have provided many benefits, including aeration and fertilization of soil. Modern livestock production, however, has put an end to traditional practices, making way for the factory-like processes described in Food, Inc. Using such methods, there is simply too much waste to cycle back through the system. Not having sufficient oxygenation, this waste emits methane and nitrous oxide gases. Methane is also released by the animals themselves, and now that science has found methods of growing enormous numbers of livestock with shorter life spans, these giant populations heavily contribute to pollution.

Overall, climate-change factors from the food industry are many. There are the emissions created by industrial farming processes such as fertilizer production, as well as carbon emissions produced by trucks, ships and planes as they transport food around the world. Among the main sources of the food system’s impact on climate are changes in land use and effects caused by contemporary agricultural practices. Anna’s research has found that the entire food production system is responsible for over a third of the total global warming effect.

The Differences We Can Make

“We hear a lot about our ecological footprint,” Anna stated, “that is, the environmental impact of our choices, like what type of car we drive and what kind of house we live in and what choices we make on a daily basis that affect the environment. But there’s also what I call the ecological ‘foodprint’—in other words, the environmental impact of the food choices we make.”

Those choices are more important than one might think at first glance. If someone shops at the regular supermarket, cutting back on meat and dairy products is one way to bring about a change, simply because of the high environmental impact made by common meat and dairy production. Beyond that, buying food that has been locally and sustainably grown creates a tremendous effect: you are taking a big bite out of the polluting practices in the prevailing system of both growing and transporting food.
Choices in food purchasing not only affect climate change positively, they affect nutrition as well. “Our own government tells us to eat lots of fruits and vegetables,” said Anna. “The sources of this produce, however, are very important. I think there’s been growing public awareness for some time about the environmental and personal health costs of choosing chemically grown fruits and vegetables. There’s also greater awareness that the chemical pesticides used in unnatural farming are not good for the water, for ecosystems, for the workers that get poisoned every year, or for our bodies.”

As with the raising of livestock, there is also a substantial climate-change factor with the growing of produce. “Part of it has to do with the fact that so many chemicals on our farmland are petroleum based, so there’s that fossil fuel connection,” Anna explained. “Or they are grown on large-scale industrial farms that have very intensive irrigation facilities, and again there’s the fossil fuel connection. We are also shipping those fruits and vegetables great distances to get to us—again a fossil fuel connection. So it really isn’t a question of just choosing more fruits and vegetables, but also where they are coming from. For those of us for whom it is possible, it means making that conscious choice of local and organic as much as we can.”

Another way that all of us can make a difference is by speaking out and voting. “In addition to the effect we can create with our forks, we can also bring about a change with our mouths,” continued Anna. “Much of the reason that our food system takes such a heavy toll on our climate has to do with the policies that are in place, which are really resulting in an unsustainable system. Many of those policies were examined in Food, Inc. from the aspect of environmental and social welfare issues. I think we can layer on top of that an argument for climate change as well. The policies that are letting our large factory farms emit so much pollution are ones that we as involved citizens can be raising questions about. We should be getting active and really letting our officials know that there is a connection between food and global warming, and that the food policies we have in place need to reflect this understanding.”

Genetic Modification

One controversial trend in modern food production is that of genetically modifying crops. Interestingly, while food conglomerates are creating a substantial amount of climate change through their practices, one of their main defenses of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is that they will withstand that very climate change.

“There is a complete chapter about GMOs in my new book, intended to dispel the whole myth connected with them,” Anna said. “The main allegation we hear from the biotech industry is that genetically modified foods are going to be the key to a changing climate and a stable future because these foods are more drought resistant or more flood tolerant. I was really curious to explore the truth of these statements, and the more I dug into it, the more I realized that, first of all, they are just claims; there’s absolutely no evidence so far that we’re really seeing new crops deliver on those promises.

“Secondly, we’re noticing a lot of very negative consequences which aren’t theoretical that are actually happening today. We are seeing an expanding number of weeds that are herbicide resistant. Growth of GM crops has really spread the use of one particular brand of herbicide. Overspraying of this one product has led to overresistant weeds, which necessitates farmers spraying even more, creating a negative cycle of greater and greater use of herbicides on farmlands. Another concern is the contamination of non-biotech crops with biotech varieties, and yet another is the impact of GM crops on biodiversity; we need to have a broad variety of crops that can thrive in the face of climate change.

“I also discovered in my research that we have on Earth today organic agri-ecological systems that are really tapping into how nature works as opposed to coming up with new chemicals or engineered seed that’s going to attack nature. We can have highly adaptive, highly drought resistant crops within those systems. In my book I discuss studies that were done with skilled small-scale farmers in Ethiopia; within these agricultural communities, farmers were able to see incredible yield jumps in their crops, despite the fact that there is still very little rain. And this is occurring without the farmers having to pay astronomical amounts of money to a seed company or a chemical company half a world away. So to me the ‘logic’ of the biotech companies can be dismantled pretty swiftly by looking at the false promises from the industry, by looking at the negatives from the current use of biotech in agriculture, and finally by looking at the examples that we have around the world of the regenerative possibilities of agri-ecological farming, which don’t bind farmers to seed or chemical companies.”

Our Future

Despite the problems evident in today’s food systems, Anna is quite optimistic about the future.

“In my opinion, we have no choice now but to move toward sustainable production, get off our addiction to chemicals, stop our habitual use of fossil fuels in the farming system, and really shift away from the intensive animal factory farming that we see in Food, Inc.,” Anna concluded. “Many times when I say that, I get a response like, ‘Oh, but you’re so naive to think that we can move in that direction and still win or still feed the world.’ I believe what we’re really seeing now, especially with this understanding of climate change, is that essentially we can’t feed the world without moving in this direction. The FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] just came out with new numbers showing that as many as 1 billion people are going hungry on this planet—up about 150 million from only a year and a half ago. We know with the current system that we aren’t feeding the world, and I would argue this is further evidence that we really need to follow a different path.

“However, I think we are moving in this direction very fast. I’ve had the privilege of traveling to farms in South Korea, India, Brazil, Poland, Kenya and France, and all around the world I have seen for myself the emergence of this really inspiring environmentally sound way of raising food and of creating food systems. I’ve also seen it emerging across our own country. That is what is giving me hope.”

For more information, please visit, Anna Lappé’s website dedicated to the link between our diets and climate change. Also stop by, the organization Anna co-founded with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé.

About the author

  • detoxdietlady

    every food that we eat should come from Organic Farming. i really get scared about those toxins coming from chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides. I only eat foods which are certified that they are organically grown

  • George Alama

    Anna, you’re sharp and intelligent indeed.