Our Global Food System: Victim and Perpetrator of Climate Change

An Interview with Anna Lappé, Author of Diet for a Hot Planet.

Anna Lappé is a food writer and activist whose most recent book Diet for a Hot Planet examines the role of our food system in human-induced climate change. A few weeks ago, Corporations and Health Watch writer Monica Gagnon interviewed Lappé about her book and her work. An edited version follows.

CHW: What drew you to researching and writing this book about the food and climate connection?

AL: I’ve been thinking about food and food systems for many years, and I was drawn to write this book because I have become aware of the impact of our global food system on our lives.

For instance, agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water on the planet and it is the single largest land user – about 40% of all land is either in ranching or farming.  Agriculture is also the driving force behind the more than 400 dead zones in oceans around the world – places that become so polluted every year, mainly from agricultural runoff, that the aquatic life at the ocean floor is killed off by lack of oxygen.I was also starting to hear concern that our food yields would be affected by climate change. But what I wasn’t hearing was how agriculture is not just a victim but also a perpetrator of climate change: Our food system indirectly and directly is responsible for about one third of all greenhouse gas emissions. These facts were largely missing from the public conversation. So the book is my exploration of why it is that we haven’t heard more about the food system’s role in contributing to this crisis and how can our food system actually be transformed to become part of the solution to the climate crisis.

CHW: How is the climate crisis affecting public health?

AL: We typically don’t think about climate change as a public health problem, and yet we should. We know for instance that there are an increasing number of deaths around the world every year that can be tied, indirectly and directly, to the climate crisis, whether because of more extreme weather, more flooding, more drought, or the impact of climate change on food supply.

Farmers certainly are seeing that as our climate and weather patterns change, pests spread into regions where they were not as abundant, or were never found, before. As climates warm, more pests are able to survive through the winter and we’re seeing more pest pressures on farms.

CHW: What is the general response of food corporations to climate concerns?

AL: One of the things I found most interesting was exploring the corporate response to this crisis. I found a lot of parallels with the response from Big Oil and other industries that historically have been at the center of the crisis. I ultimately found myself frustrated that the responses weren’t more substantive. What we are seeing is that a lot of food companies are pushing to be their own police, not to have government regulation of the industry. For instance, in this country the livestock industry has been very successful in allowing producers who are raising livestock in concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs not to be regulated the way a factory would be around air emissions.

If we look at what companies are doing to reduce their carbon footprint, many aren’t taking the significant steps that they should. Instead, companies exaggerate how much they have transformed the bottom line, exaggerate how much of a difference they’re making, and underplay the real impact that they have.

In the book, I give the example of Tyson, one of the largest poultry producers in the country. In a recent sustainability report, Tyson devotes a whole section to boasting about how the company is providing resources for biodiversity conservation. They point to a 35-acre conservation area in Tennessee where Tyson protected ten bluebird nests. 35 acres? Ten bluebird nests? Counter that with the fact that Tyson, as a company, has had an enormous negative impact on biodiversity, whether it’s from the genetic uniformity of the birds raised in its factories, or the fact that the company has been found responsible for pollution from its poultry operations, paying millions of dollars in damages in various states. That’s just one example of what I saw throughout the food industry: exaggerating their environmental strides to deflect public outrage that would otherwise lead to stricter government regulation.

CHW: Do you think it’s accurate to say that, rather than denying there’s a problem, the industry is positioning itself as part of the solution?

AL: When we talk about the food industry we have to recognize it’s multi-faceted. Not every sector of the food industry has the same self-interest when it comes to addressing its environmental impact. For when we say “food industry,” we really mean the entire food chain:  agribusiness companies that produce commodities, the building blocks of processed foods that end up in our supermarkets; livestock producers, say Tyson that’s involved with the poultry factory farming; companies like Coca Cola or PepsiCo; and food retailers, including one of the fastest growing food in this country: Walmart.

These players don’t always have the same self-interest and use different strategies of denying or acknowledging their impact on climate. For instance, initially, the American Meat Institute, a trade association, did not publicly address climate change concerns at all; there was a policy of silence. After I released my book, I noticed AMI released a statement on meat and climate change, denying that there was a significant connection and trying to minimize the impact of industrial meat production on the climate and the environment. In other words, AMI shifted from a strategy of silence to a strategy of denial. Others have taken a strategy of, “Hey if we’re part of the problem that means we can get compensated for being part of the solution, even if our solutions are on paper only.”

CHW: How does corporate advertising exacerbate the problem?

AL: Like other sectors, the food sector has used “green advertising”. I give an example in the book of going to an advertising industry conference sponsored by Advertising Age that had signs posted around the conference center with different taglines, and one I thought was very telling was “Low-carbon is the new fat-free.” Companies are getting it that more and more people are concerned about climate change and trying to spin their message in a way that resonates.

At this conference, Mary Dillon, an executive at McDonalds, described how the company is presenting this image of social responsibility. She gave the example of a recent Happy Meal initiative in Europe whose theme was protecting endangered species. Customers could collect each of five endangered species. The concept was that kids would buy not one but five Happy Meals in order to collect all these endangered species, and then would go online to take eco-actions on the McDonalds website. Of course. of the ways you could reduced your environmental footprint, I’m sure none said, “Please do not buy heavily processed food at McDonalds that is helping to contribute to environmental crises around the world.” That they would claim that somehow by purchasing this Happy Meal they you’re helping protect endangered species was beyond ironic.

And just two years earlier McDonalds had a very different Happy Meal campaign in the United States when they partnered with General Motors to sell Hummer-themed happy meals. They ended up selling 42 million of these Hummer-themed meals, each one with a different style and color. I suppose two years later McDonalds decided that it would be better for the public image not to align itself with the Hummer, a vehicle that had become the symbol of consumer excess and environmental destruction, and instead align itself with this image of protecting the environment.

CHW: What do you think is the corporate social responsibility to climate change, and do you think it’s ever going to happen?

AL: There’s a school of thought that says that companies’ entire “social responsibility” is to make profit – to return the highest return to shareholders. I adhere to a different school of thought, one that believes all corporations have an inherent responsibility to community and the environment. What, after all, does every company need to make profit? Use, and often abuse, our common resources. These shared commons no one company owns; no one company should be able to either use free of charge or abuse without remediating or paying for the damage. In order to run factory farms, for instance, Tyson pollutes the water, land, and air where its factories are located, whether it’s through leaching from waste cesspits or through noxious emissions from its operations.

”Social responsibility” is not adding an extra burden onto the shoulders of companies and asking them to do us all a favor by being more socially or environmentally responsible. It’s simply asking companies to operate in line with our collective values, including the  belief that polluters should pay for polluting, that companies should give back to communities for those resources they use.

To me, the social-environmental responsibility question is just common sense; it’s expecting companies to simply do the bare minimum of what they should be doing.

CHW: How can consumers tell the difference between true corporate social responsibility and marketing ploys?

AL: Unfortunately, because we don’t have terribly strict regulations about claims that companies can and can’t make, it’s sometimes hard to know when you’re hearing the real deal. In the book I give examples of some green claims food companies are making and how to make sense of them. One of the resources I find very helpful is the Consumers Union program that evaluates green claims. It’s called greenerchoices.org and it helps you parse out, among all these claims, which are the ones you can trust.

If you are looking to reduce the carbon footprint of the food you eat, finding food that’s grown locally can be a choice that’s good for the climate. Also look for the USDA organic seal. Organic agriculture practices tend to reduce on-farm emissions, in some cases by as much as half. Organic production practices also for the most part don’t use synthetic chemicals.

So those are some of the things you can do, but since we live in a regulatory context where it’s easy for companies to greenwash their story and hard for consumers to detect misleading claims, a healthy dose of skepticism is always good.

CHW: What else can health advocates do to help change destructive corporate behavior?

AL: One of the things that health advocates can do is find ways to make their voices heard by coming together. A positive example of that kind of action has been the recent work by Corporate Accountability International and health advocates in every single state calling on McDonalds to discontinue the use of its Ronald McDonald character to lure children to their stores to consume foods that we know are highly problematic for public health.

CHW: What is the role of the EPA in providing information about food’s effect on climate change?

AL: In the book, I talk about how the meat industry quotes the EPA on food agriculture-related emissions to defend its claims that the food system isn’t a really big player in the crisis. It’s not that the data on this subject from the EPA is wrong, it’s that the data doesn’t describe the full spectrum of the food chain and the food system, so it doesn’t account for all the emissions associated with the food that we eat in this country. Food trade associations have taken those government statistics and misrepresented them as telling the full story of food to downplay the food-related emissions in the United States. In the book, for instance, I quote the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association using that EPA data to say that its producers are not really impacting the environment here and that environmentalists are exaggerating the impact.

CHW: What gives you hope that these unhealthy climate trends can be reversed?

AL: What gives me most hope is that there’s so much evidence now that sustainable or organic farming techniques, ways of growing food without relying on toxic chemicals or synthetic fertilizer or intensive animal operations, can produce high yields in some of the countries that are most hard hit by hunger. These production practices can also be relatively inexpensive to implement – they just require knowledge and training, not seeds, chemicals, or fertilizer. And these farming practices are showing that, on the farms that are implementing these practices, there’s higher carbon content in the soil. In other words we’re able to sequester carbon out of the atmosphere and into our farm soils if we implement these sustainable techniques. We’re finding that these farming practices greatly reduce on-farm energy use and overall on-farm emissions. And so we have this incredible potential for farming to help us mitigate the crisis, help us really reduce emissions in food production.

The other thing that gives me hope is we’re finding that these farming practices create more resilient farms that can handle droughts and floods better. I visited one organic farm in Wisconsin the summer the region was hit by floods that had devastated the many farmers there. But at New Forest Farms, the farmer Mark Shepard had lost only four percent of his crops; the rest were thriving because his soil was so healthy it acted as a sponge able to absorb the water. The biodiversity on his farm was a boon too: trees and shrubs lessened the impact of the pounding rain on the crops below. .

As I stood on his land, having just heard about the devastation of so many of the region’s farmers, I thought:  “If more farms could look like this we would be in a much better place to feed the world in a climate unstable future.”

CHW: How can environment and health advocates work together on this issue? Are you seeing any of this happen in your travels and your research?

Anna Lappé

AL: We’re starting to see people make these connections. Environmental and health advocates are beginning to see themselves as being in the same boat, not working across purposes. They’re also really seeing how their other big allies are farmers. The source of public health is good food, clean water, and clean air. Farms run well, farms run sustainably, can help to preserve pristine groundwater. Whereas farms run as industrial operations where synthetic fertilizer is overused and leaches into the groundwater, industrial animal operations that end up housing massive manure cesspits that have very little protection to ensure that it doesn’t affect the groundwater. So farmers need to be brought into the conversation. As stewards of the land, sustainable farmers are at the forefront of helping us adapt to climate change, mitigate emissions, and bringing us the healthy food that is the cornerstone of public health.


Image Credits:

1.     Take a Bite Out of Climate Change

2.     KidsMealToys

3.     Autoblog

4.     Corporate Accountability International

5.     Anna Lappé