Blinded by the Bite:
Five Reasons Why We’ve Missed the Food and Climate Change Connection
by Anna Lappé
Adapted from Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It (Bloomsbury, 2010), Anna Lappé
In 2006, Henning Steinfeld and colleagues at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published a dense 390-page report called Livestock’s Long Shadow. Get past the mind-numbing figures and you’d absorb the report’s startling conclusion: Livestock production—especially the pressure on forests for pasture and crop production and the immense waste of industrial feedlots—contributes more to global warming than every single car, truck and plane on the planet. Move over, Hummer; say hello to the hamburger.
The entire food system—from seed to plate to landfill—is responsible for an estimated one-third of the escalating greenhouse gas emissions leading us toward climate catastrophe. About half the sector’s impact comes indirectly as agribusiness giants and large-scale producers slash, burn and carve up the world’s last remaining rainforests, especially for grazing, livestock feed and palm oil production.
Despite the overwhelming evidence about the climate toll of global industrial agriculture, most of us are missing the story. When we think about climate-change bad guys, we would probably point to BP and ExxonMobil, before naming ADM and Cargill. Most of us are also largely unaware of the potential that sustainable, small-scale farming holds to both help us survive a climate-unstable future and mitigate global warming.
This lack of conversation and consciousness of industrial agriculture’s impact as well as the potential of a sustainable food system to heal the climate prompted me to pen my new book, Diet for a Hot Planet.
In part, I wanted to explore what had become a nagging question: If we are speeding along toward an ever more energy-dependent and energy-intensive food system, why aren’t more of us talking about its impact on climate? And, if supporting sustainable food systems, which require less fossil fuels, produce less waste and build healthier carbon-rich soils, can help us address the climate crisis and tap the potential of the billions living close to the land, why don’t we see these benefits, either?
For the more we learn about sustainable farming practices, the more we realize they’re climate-friendly practices. In other words, right beneath our noses is what they’d call in business school a “win- win”: Healthier farms equal healthier foods and a cooler climate.
Despite this good news, we’ve been missing the story.
Mind the Gap
Ask a roomful of people who care about the environment how many have seen An Inconvenient Truth and nearly everyone will raise their hand. That, at least, has been my experience as I’ve traveled the country speaking to audiences from a 600-person packed Seattle Town Hall to Solomon 001 at Brown University. Sure, this isn’t a representative sample of the population—let’s just say the climate skeptics haven’t been coming out in droves—but, still, the responses say much about the film’s influence. Yet, watch the film and you’ll be no wiser about food’s role in the climate crisis.
But times are a-changing. In the past two years, food finally has begun to get the attention it deserves.
Environmental action groups from Greenpeace to Rainforest Action Network have launched campaigns about food and climate change. The Center for Food Safety, Humane Society, Institute for Food and Agriculture Policy and other food-focused citizen groups have debuted initiatives on climate change. In the media, we’re seeing an uptick in coverage, too. From a 2008 Los Angeles Times op-ed on emissions and meat to a New York Times article that same year “As More Eat Meat, a Bid to Cut Emissions,” which landed on the grey lady’s front page.
While the conversation may be shifting, we are still a long way from the average Jill not being astonished when she learns her burger might be a bigger threat to global warming than her Buick. And that’s a shame, because food is not only a huge contributor to our ecological footprint, it’s also one thing we ourselves can actually do something about. The choice is clear: Either we continue to support—through our food dollars and our tax dollars—a food system that is undermining our health and the climate, or we start throwing our weight, and our wallets, behind one that’s good for our bodies and the planet.
If food holds such power why have the media, educational institutions and policy makers been so late to the food and climate-change story?
When you hear “greenhouse gas” what comes to mind first? If you answered, “carbon dioxide,” you’d be answering what most people do. It is, after all, the most prevalent human-made greenhouse gas, responsible for roughly three-quarters of the global warming effect. Yet, it’s not the only greenhouse gas we need to worry about. Methane and nitrous oxide, with 23 and 296 times more heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide respectively, are also significant.
While it makes sense that carbon dioxide has been the primary preoccupation of policy makers, it’s time to widen the focus. Turn the gaze to these other key gases and food jumps to the forefront: Globally, agriculture is responsible for 90 percent of nitrous oxide emissions—mainly from synthetic fertilizer use and soil deterioration on industrial farms—and two thirds of methane.
2. The Nature of Food
Walk into a modern-day supermarket and the forests of Frosted Flakes and rows of Doritos don’t conjure thoughts of nature. One challenge in getting people to see the connections between global warming and the food on their plate is that our Western diet is, by its very design, many steps removed from the farm. We’ve first got to get people to remember food doesn’t grow in Aisle 8. That can be the first step in helping people connect food to the climate.
3. Systems, Oh My! The Complexity of Food
When we pick up our fork, we don’t imagine greenhouse-gas emissions steaming off our plate. That’s in part because we’ve lost the connection between food and our environment, and in part because we rarely think about the chain of events that brings us the food on our plate. Even if we do, the emissions are still exceedingly difficult to parse out: The global food system is vast and complicated and much of the sector’s emissions are indirect.
“There is a clear line between stationary coal-combustion plants, carbon dioxide coming out of smokestacks and global warming,” said climate-change expert Thomas Damassa, of the World Resources Institute, when I asked him why he thought food was missing from the public conversation. “With food, there are so many different components; there are so many different source points to latch on to. It’s much more complicated to conceptualize, to explain and to create policy around it.”
4. Farmer vs. the Planet: The Ultimate Matchup?
The subject of food and climate change within environmental circles has also been far from center stage; it hasn’t even been in the dressing room. Part of the sidelining has had to do with a historic gulf between advocates of sustainable farming and mainstream environmentalists. “As recently as five or 10 years ago, the conservation community was sharply anti-agriculture,” explained Sara Scherr. A founder of Ecoagriculture Partners, Scherr has been working in international development and agriculture for more than three decades. “If anything, there was antagonism toward farmers and agriculture,” she said. “Certainly many environmentalists were supportive of sustainable agriculture, but still they would much rather farms simply not be there.”
Yet as Scherr has found through her own work, and as many sustainable agriculture proponents have long argued, farming can provide vital “ecosystem services”— all those resources we count on from Mo
ther Nature, including clean water and fresh air.
5. Food Is Off Limits
Finally, food may have been neglected as a strategy to combat climate change because policy makers perceived the sector as untouchable. An aversion to pushing for any change that might seem like it would make food more expensive is understandable. Who would want to feel they were pricing food out of reach for more people? Such a stance is seen as politically unpalatable and morally reprehensible.
But would a climate-friendly food system undermine our food security? To answer that question, we should first look at how well the current food system feeds the world. Despite more than enough calories to make us all chubby, more than 1.2 billion people are underfed. Here in the United States, more than 36 million people (one third of whom are children) are food-insecure, unsure where their next meal will come from. That’s a population roughly the size of Canada—but inside our borders—that is at risk of hunger any given week.
Will a stance that includes food in strategies to address climate change exacerbate the plight of the hungry? Not necessarily. In fact, such an approach might even help us address the roots of hunger. Acknowledging that farmers can play a role in providing vital ecosystem services, preserving biodiversity and protecting the land would give new honor and support to some of the poorest people on the planet, many of whom are among the world’s hungry.
We need not censor ourselves about the food and climate-change connection for fear we are being callous to the most vulnerable. The opposite is true.
A few years ago, I traveled to a food summit in Mali hosted by the international farmer movement, La Via Campesina. At the gathering, attended by more than 600 small-scale food producers from every corner of the globe, the movement’s banners waved in the wind declaring: “Small-scale farmers can feed the world and cool the planet.”
How true, and how hopeful, are those words.