In 1973, I read Frances Moore Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet. It helped me to understand the real costs of the food (particularly the meat) that I put on the table for myself and my family. It required me to completely rethink my family's diet. For me and for many others, it was nothing short of revolutionary.
Now, nearly forty years later, another Lappé—Anna Lappé—clearly her mother's daughter, has written another revolutionary book, measuring the planetary cost of the way we eat. It's not just a matter of our bulging waistlines, our rising diabetes and heart disease rate, or the obesity among our children. It's the health of our planet that's at stake now. Our current climate crisis, Lappé argues, is in large part created by the way we grow, process, package, and distribute the foods we choose to eat. If we keep on eating the way we eat (and encouraging people in developing countries to mimic us), there's no stopping global warming. If we keep on farming and subsidizing corporate farming to produce our animal and plant food as it's currently produced, we're in for it.
Lappé starts with a clear and convincing presentation of several pieces of important evidence. Example: the livestock sector, all by itself, is responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions—measurably more than the 13 percent caused by transportation. Surprised? I was. "Move over Hummer," Lappé says. "Say hello to the hamburger."
But transportation has its climate costs, too. Chilean grapes in California groceries, Australian dairy in Japan—these luxuries consume an astonishing amount of energy. Lappé reports: "To transport just one year's supply of out-of-state tomatoes to just one state, New Jersey, takes enough fossil fuel to drive an 18-wheeler around the world 249 times."
There's more, lots more. Compelling data, effectively presented, clearly showing that fossil-fuel-dependent agribusiness is pushing us over the climate cliff—except that we're not exactly being pushed, are we? We're jumping, with a Coke (high-fructose corn syrup) in one hand and a Big Mac (corn-fed beef) in the other. And we won't even know that we have made the leap until we hit bottom. We don't connect our food and the earth that produces it.
But why? What's the answer to this baffling disconnect? Here's one reason (among many others). Lappé, discussing these issues with a group of college students, asked how many had recently "experienced nature." The kids weren't exactly nature buffs: one admitted to kayaking over the weekend, another had strung up a hammock between a couple of trees. But when Lappé asked how many had eaten that day, all the hands went up. The students simply had not made the connection between what they ate for breakfast and nature. Lappé had to remind them, she says, that "food doesn't grow in Aisle 8."
But of course, what we're mostly eating (from Aisle 8, the dairy cooler, the meat market, the bakery shelves, and even the produce section) is a by-product of fossil fuels used in industrialized agriculture. One example: the U.S. is a net importer of nitrogen and potash fertilizers, mostly from Canada, Russia, Belarus, and Morocco. Another example: one Twinkies manufacturing plant (occupying one square mile) used enough coal-and-diesel-generated electricity to power 160,000 homes. And as long as we keep applying chemical fertilizers to our fields and indulging in highly processed foods, the planet will keep heating up.
What's the solution, if there is one, if it isn't too late already? "Cool food," Lappé tells us. The answer, she says, lies in farming as if the climate mattered. In "climate-friendly farming" that respects the laws of nature; actually regenerates soils and water; intentionally aims to mitigate climate change; thoughtfully adapts itself to changing conditions; and empowers the whole community as a partner in food production and consumption.
In a world that is dominated by big corporations and big government, it's too easy to feel helpless and vulnerable. But while there are many things we can't control, we can control what we put in our mouths. It may take some thought, some effort, and some planning, and even—heaven help us!—some manual labor in the garden. But we can choose foods that are healthy for us and for the planet. We can—whether we will or not is an open question. (If Lappé errs anywhere, in my opinion, it is in her cheery optimism. After the dire pictures she paints in her early chapters, I find it a little difficult to share that optimism.)
Like Diet for a Small Planet, Diet for a Hot Planet is crammed with facts. It's cleverer, though, and funnier: you're likely to smile and want to cry at the same time. And yes, this book can start a revolution.
But it has to begin with us, and with the food we choose to put on our forks.
Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author and a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund. Her most recent book is Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Our Fork (Bloomsbury 2010). She is also the co-author of Hope's Edge, with her mother Frances Moore Lappé and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen with Bryant Terry.
She can be seen as the host for MSN's Practical Guide to Healthier Living and as a featured expert on Sundance Channel's Ideas for a Small Planet. She is currently an Innovator at the Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming and a Senior Fellow with the Oakland Institute. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and daughter. Learn more on Take a Bite out of Climate Change and The Small Planet Institute.
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