Monday, May 31, 2010

A Little Bit of Gloom Between Two Slices of Hope: Diet for a Hot Planet Author, Anna Lappe

Reading books about changing the world can be inspiring, but they can also be overwhelming and depressing.

Not Anna Lappé's books.

After reading each of her books: Hope's Edge (that she co-authored with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé), Grub (that she co-authored with Bryant Terry), 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, I've felt hopeful and energized.

I talked with Anna about her new book via Skype for the Big Vision Podcast earlier in the month. You can listen to our conversation on the player below, or on iTunes, as well as read an edited transcript of the interview.

Britt Bravo: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Anna. I really loved your book because I read a lot of "social-changey" type books, and I often feel really discouraged when I finish them, but I didn't when I read yours. I felt completely inspired and happy, and have been telling everybody about it.

Anna Lappé: Thank you so much. I certainly didn't want my book to add to the gloom and doom literature that makes us feel so demoralized. In fact, one of my closest friends read the book and had the same reaction that you had. She's taken to calling it a "gloom sandwich." You've got the gloom on the inside with two pieces of hope as the bread on either side.

She said, "Just as I was reading it, and just when I had come to the point where I started feeling, 'Oh my God, how are we ever going to make our way out of this?' You would douse me with another dose of hope."

That's what I love about all of your books. You create a great balance: keeping folks informed, and bringing up things that are important and provocative, but also keeping us hopeful, which is so important, because otherwise, how do you have any energy to make change?

Going along with the sandwich metaphor, I liked how you divided the book into the sections: Crisis, the Spin that's put on the crisis, Hope, and Action.
I'd love to talk about it in those sections.

We'll start with the gloomy part, with the crisis. Can you talk a little bit about what the crisis is, and what the connection is between today's food system and climate change?

I think that more and more of us are aware that the climate crisis is real. It's serious. It's probably the biggest crisis to afflict, certainly our species. We've come to a degree of understanding about the root causes of the crisis: man-made greenhouse gases -- carbon dioxide, among them being the greatest. Yet, I think we're still in the dark about a lot of the drivers behind these greenhouse gas emissions, and certainly, we're in the dark when it comes to food.

What I write about in the book is the role of the food sector, which includes farming, but also includes all the processing that goes into making our food, the chemicals that go into growing our chemically-raised crops, as well as the waste end of the food cycle (what happens to our food after we throw it away, and how that contributes to landfills and methane emissions from landfills). If you add up the whole food system, the whole food sector, what you find is that it contributes to one-third of all of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions. One-third. In fact, that percentage is greater than all of the emissions associated with the transport sector. We've heard a lot about the role of cars and planes. We've heard a lot about the transport sector. I think we've heard a lot less about food.

What I argue in the book is that it's time for us to have a broader conversation about the crisis, and to really bring in a more sophisticated understanding of all of the sectors that are contributing to climate change, so that we have our eyes on what we need to do to get ourselves out of the crisis.

Moving onto the spin idea, why don't more people know about this? Why are we focusing on cars, and why isn't a lot of press, or news about the food and climate change connection?

I think there are a lot of reasons. In the book, I pinpoint five of the main ones, but I think part of it is an understandable reason, I would argue, which is that we've really prioritized, in the public conversation, a focus on the most emitting industry. So, dirty coal fire power plants, the oil industry: the sectors that are really contributing the most carbon dioxide emissions. What I try to stress is that, as we know the crisis is so serious, we really have to address all of the factors contributing to it. When you start expanding beyond carbon dioxide, and start looking at some of the other key greenhouse gases, like methane and nitrous oxide, what you realize instantly is that agriculture is one of the biggest contributors of those greenhouse gases. Part of it, I think, is that we've been so focused on carbon dioxide -- we've been sort of carbon-centric -- and we haven't seen the large role of food and agriculture, but I think some of the other reasons are a bit more complex than that.

I think another key reason is that, frankly, up until recently, we haven't really had a robust public understanding that food is part of a system, and it's a polluting system. We go into our grocery store, and our curiosity about food stops maybe at the ingredients label, if we're lucky. It's only been recently that people have started asking the question, "What's the story of our food? Where did it come from? What were the processes involved with getting it to us?" When you start having that curiosity, and start asking those questions, what reveals itself are all these ways in which food is, and has become, this highly industrial process that involves a lot of fossil fuels and a lot of deforestation. Those are the key forces behind the climate change.

When I hear that, I think, "Wow! That's such a huge problem. How could you possibly solve that?" Which, luckily, brings us out of the gloom and into the hope section. You have some examples of climate-friendly farming practices. Can you talk a little bit about some examples, and anecdotes about what is working, and some possible solutions for this problem?

Here's the part where the gloom sandwich is surrounded by the hope slices of bread. What I talk about in the book is that, in turning our sights to food and climate, part of the reason why I'm so excited about engaging people in this conversation, is that the very solutions that are going to move us toward a food system that is more resilient to the climate crisis (a food system where farmers and farms are better able to withstand what we know is going to occur with greater climate change, which means more droughts, more floods, more extreme weather patterns, shifting weather patterns) is also the kind of farming that actually helps us combat climate change.

We need to move toward more bio-diverse farms. We need to move toward farms that are really building healthy soil, soil that can act more like a sponge, and hold onto water during the drought periods, or absorb water during floods. We know we need to move in that direction, and what you find is that those kinds of farms (bio-diverse, sustainable, organic farms) that build up healthy soil, and grow a real diversity of crops, are going to help us feed the planet in a climate unstable future.

By building healthy soil, what you're essentially doing, what it's synonymous with, is you're increasing the carbon content in the soil; increasing carbon-rich soils. As a result, we are finding that sustainable farms, organic farms, are actually helping to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it in the soils. You may have heard about carbon sequestration; it's sometimes called "carbon sinks" that you often hear about in the form of forests. The reason why we have to really turn toward protecting the forests is because they provide that carbon sink, and that carbon sequestration. Well, soils can do that too.

On the inverse side, they can be part of contributing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere if soils are deteriorated. What I talk about in the book is that turning our eye to sustainable food and farming is so hopeful because it means that we are turning our eye to a way of orienting ourselves toward food; which is going to help us feed ourselves in a climate unstable future and help us mitigate, or reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

That leads us into the Action section. Since so many people are not farmers, what can just everyday folks do to help?

Many of us, especially in this country, are not farmers. Although, I'd like to stress to people, especially readers in the United States, that nearly the majority of the world's people are still farmers; mainly small-scale farmers who, ironically, in many ways, are the most hungry people around the globe, and are the poorest.

So again, where the hope piece comes in for me is realizing that as we start having a more sophisticated conversation about the role of sustainable farming in helping us address, and mitigate the climate crisis, we start to realize that these small scale farmers, who are still on the land, who are trying to grow food for their families, that they can be engaged in a process that actually could help them become some of our planet's biggest climate heroes.

In other words, we can think about investing in agricultural development, agricultural knowledge, and agricultural education where we are working with community based groups in developing countries to help support those groups' teaching farmers how to adopt some of the most sophisticated organic methods, and agri-ecological methods.

One thing we can do -- again, I'm talking about what can happen, and should be happening, and is happening, in some ways, outside of our borders -- one thing we certainly can do, as Americans, is to support the kinds of policies that are about investing in that kind of agri-ecological farming knowledge and development.

The other thing that we can do is to remember that, even though most of us, as you said, aren't farmers, we are eaters. We are really -- as the Slow Food International founder likes to call it -- essentially co-producers. What he means by that, what Carlo Petrini means when he talks about eaters as co-producers, or consumers as co-producers, is that you and I, in our choices that we make about what food we support with our food dollars, what we support with our tax dollars, that we are essentially making production choices. We are co-producers, then, in the food system.

In other words, every time I buy organic food, I'm essentially putting money toward a kind of food system that is moving us away from an addiction to toxic pesticides, fossil fuel based pesticides, and synthetic fertilizer. Every time I put my food dollars toward, say, organic dairy, I'm saying, "Look, I don't want to pay for, and put money into a system that's relying on antibiotics, pharmaceuticals, sewage sludge, and toxic chemicals. I want to put my money in a different direction."

We often talk about people in this country who eat food as, "consumers." I think that word really hides a lot of the impact that we have, and the inter-connectivity that we have with farmers, and with food producers here in the US and globally.

Are there any other books, websites, films, and other resources that you would recommend for people who want to learn more about this?

Well, thankfully, there has been an incredible flourishing in the past decade of resources and books, websites, films, you name it, that are really helping. There's a lot that I would recommend, and my website, has some resources. I would also give a shout-out specifically to a couple films that are really powerful. I would recommend a "gloom sandwich double feature," so to speak, where I would highly recommend watching the film, Food Inc, if you haven't seen it yet. It's an Academy Award nominated documentary. Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser are in it as some of the key thinkers and voices. Food Inc. really explains how our food system is so broken, and why.

I find that a lot of the audiences I talk to who have seen Food Inc. leave the film feeling really angry, but without a clear sense of where to take that anger, and they feel very demoralized, frankly. I would like to suggest that people watch Food Inc. alongside another documentary that just came out, also about food, called Fresh.

is also a fabulous documentary, but the filmmaker was really trying to showcase the people who are bringing to life a more positive story of food; a more positive way of relating to food. You hear from farmers and food activists who are really a part of bringing to life solutions. Marrying these two films together allows you to have that deep analysis I think we need to have about what's wrong, but also have inspiration about the solutions that are out there right now, and happening.

I'm so glad you offered that second solution, because I saw Food Inc., and I felt, like you said, like, "Wow! I feel paralyzed to do anything." Informed, eyes open, but not sure what to do. I haven't actually seen Fresh, so I'm excited to see it.

I highly recommend it.

As you know, I have a blog called Have Fun, Do Good. I'm always interested in asking the folks who I interview, "How are you having fun and doing good?"

Well, that's a really easy question to answer right now, because I am having fun by hanging out with my 10-month old daughter. I always knew I wanted to be a mother. I have an incredible mother, and I had incredible grandmothers, who I learned so much from about how to mother. I guess, I don't know why, I really underestimated just how much fun it is to be a mother. Pretty much from the minute she was born, it's just been a total joy; totally fun.

I like to think that by being a good mother, and by showering my daughter with unconditional love, making her feel welcome in the world, making her feel confident, and making her feel like she can be adventurous without being afraid, that I am doing good at the same time.

Absolutely. That's one of the best answers I've heard so far.

Is there anything else that you'd like to mention about your book, or your next project? Do you know what you're going to do next, or is there anything else about this issue that you didn't get to talk about?

I think you've really touched on a lot of the key points in the book. I would just also say I'm really interested in hearing from readers. I love getting feedback and hearing from readers about what they want to learn more about, what they didn't understand, what they love, what they were inspired by, and what they're doing around the country. I encourage people to get in touch with me at

One of the biggest joys of my work over the past 10 years has been meeting people all across the country who are part of what I've described as happening, and of what is documented in that film Fresh, part of this movement that is emerging. I love to hear from people, and the best way to get in touch with me is through my website.


Related blogs listed in the back of Diet for a Hot Planet:
For folks who listened to the podcast interview, the intro and outro music is excerpted from Kenya Masala's, "Mango Delight," and the song at the end is "Do Something Good" from Buckingham Solo (Live) by Tift Merritt.

Cross-posted from

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