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You recycle, you shop with reusable grocery bags, and you do your best to conserve water. But do you ever stop to think how what you eat affects the environment? Anna Lappé explores this issue in her latest book, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It. Lappé is the daughter of Frances Moore Lappé, whose seminal 1971 classic Diet for a Small Planet influenced the eating habits of an entire generation. In honor of Earth Day this year—April 22 is the 40th anniversary—Better Nutrition asked Anna Lappé about the carbon costs of the food we eat.
Q: What inspired you to write Diet for a Hot Planet?
A: The list of ills from industrial food is long—and I’ve long known it. But I was propelled to write the book when I learned about another, underdiscussed, impact: the climate. Eighteen percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock alone. Overall, the food sector, from seed to plate to landfill, is responsible for as much as one-third of global emissions.
Q: What is the correlation between the food we eat and global warming?
A: The correlation is complex; it’s also largely invisible to most of us. For example, agriculture is a direct contributor to one-third of global methane and two-thirds of global nitrous oxide emissions. Petroleum-based chemicals are the backbone of industrial farming, and fossil fuels are a required component of our long-distance, refrigerated, packaged, processed food chain.
Q: Why do you think this correlation has been largely ignored until recently?
A: I think we’ve been slow to talk about food and climate because of the false impression that talking about the connection would be political suicide; there’s a fear that making the agriculture sector account for its emissions would cripple industry, undercut productivity, and trigger more widespread hunger. But a food system that is better for the climate also can mean a food system that works better to address hunger—it means valuing food producers, especially small-scale farmers, and promoting biodiversity and organic farming, all of which make for a more resilient food system.
Q: What are some of the ways the food industry “spins” advertising to confuse us?
A: In the book, I talk about seven spin strategies industry deploys to confuse consumers. These include creating their own seals of approval through industry-sanctioned awards programs, policing their own practices with industry-approved certification schemes, and exaggerating the greenness of their transformation with messaging campaigns.
Q: How can consumers avoid being misled?
A: You can try to make your kitchen a “brand-free” zone: buying in bulk and buying fresh ingredients when you can.
Q: What are the “Seven Principles of a Climate-Friendly Diet” you discuss in your book?