The Interview – Anna Lappé of Diet for A Hot Planet: “The Real Power Comes From Collectivising Our Voice”

16 Mins Read

Anna Lappé and her mother Francis Moore Lappé were decades ahead of their time with their activism, research, books, grant funds and education-giving about sustainable food systems. Lappé (daughter)’s book Diet for a Hot Planet set the stage for the conversation about the link between the industrial livestock industry and global carbon emissions, the raison d’être of the alt protein industry. I can’t imagine anyone is more informed on the subject of sustainable food than she, and her dedication to building a fairer, safer and more ecological agro-food system is legendary at this point. She coined the infamous phrase ‘Vote With Your Dollar’, a conscious consumerism clarrion call she is not entirely thrilled about. Anna is one of my personal heroes and absolutely one of the reasons I started Green Queen so interviewing her is a career highlight. Below, the full conversation during which we discussed the plight of farmers today, why food is political and the real way consumers can vote for a better world.

SF: Your book “Diet for a Hot Planet” was way ahead of its time. For me, you were one of the first in the world to make the connection between what we eat and our carbon footprint – something that didn’t sink in until years later for the rest of us. When you wrote it, did you expect the message to take 10 years to get across to as mass audience ? 

AL: I’m someone who wants everything to have happened yesterday, so there’s a part of me that is very impatient. But I also recognise that to change hearts and minds takes a long time when we are up against messaging and communications from a deep pocketed industry, which in the case of climate messaging its the fossil fuels industry, and when it comes to food its the agribusiness industry and the many millions of dollars they have every year to shape public awareness about these issues. So it doesn’t surprise me that our thinking about the climate and food is so intractable and takes so long to shift. Here in the U.S., we’re still debating whether climate change is even human caused. There’s so much work to be done. No it doesn’t necessarily surprise me, but does it frustrate me? Yes. Does it frustrate me because decades ago we knew how serious the climate was and we should have taken action and we didn’t? Does it frustrate me that a little more recently, we knew about the incredible impacts from the food system side on the climate? Yes. It’s very frustrating, but I get why it’s slow moving. 

SF: We’re part of Covering Climate Now, a coalition of media outlets globally that started around a year ago. The idea was to put the climate at the top of journalists’ minds. They recently had a big chat with all of us members and I asked them why is there so little on the food system? There’s a lot on energy and emissions, but there’s a lack of reporting on the food system and the importance of reducing meat and dairy in our diets. What are your thoughts on this? 

AL: Again, it’s changing compared to when I was reporting more than 10 years ago. First, what we’ve seen is a progression of the conversation on climate from a sole focus on energy and just looking at that sector to drawing out the scope to forests. And I feel like we’re on the cusp of this next circle out to then talk about food systems too if we really care about the climate. A powerful new study just came out a few weeks ago that looked at the trajectory of sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and even if we got everything right in terms of capping fossil fuel emissions, if we don’t change our trajectory on food systems emissions, we will blow our carbon budget and will skyrocket past the Paris Agreement goals around temperature increase. So I do feel like again, the conversation is shifting. When I was writing Diet for a Hot Planet, my curiosity came from this United Nations study from 2008 and it was the first time researchers really tried to carve out the sector of livestock production and the emissions associated with getting meat and dairy on our plate. So much meat and dairy production since the 1970s has become industrialised, especially in the US and a number of key countries, and they looked at everything from the emissions to the energy used to grow crops to feed livestock to methane that are released by animals to the energy involved in production and processing side and they put all that together. At the time, they found that emissions associated with animal agriculture were greater than all the planes, trains and automobiles combined. And yet when you look at how the media was covering the issue, no one was talking about food and animal agriculture. Colleagues of mine at Johns Hopkins University did a study when they looked at more than 4,000 new articles from 18 different papers and looked at how many of them mentioned agriculture or food. Anecdotally, I knew that no one was talking about it, but this study showed that it was something like less than 2% talked about food systems, and less than 1% on animal agriculture. Flash forward to today, and you are seeing headlines about food and climate. I look at the advocacy sector and back then, there wasn’t a single large environmental NGO that also had an agriculture program, and it was one of the reasons why I joined the board of the Rainforest Action Network. Because it was one of the few who were talking about it. We had a big agribusiness campaign working on deforestation and we launched a campaign on palm oil and it showed how food companies were driving up the demand for palm oil, causing deforestation in Indonesia and [showing] the impact it was having on the planet. Today, it would be hard to list all the organisations talking about food and the climate. And even more excitingly to me, [the ones] who are talking about how we have to take on agribusiness and we have to expose that pesticides are essentially another branch of the fossil fuel tree, are also saying that farmers and ranchers are part of the solution. These are the stewards of our soils, and soil is one of the places where we can store carbon and where we need to protect carbon in the land. 

Source: Anna Lappé

SF: Yes, farmers are often not given their due. I read a lot about farmers who say how much they care about their animals and their land, but they also have to go where the demand is and where the subsidies are. It’s certainly complicated. Since we’re on the connection between animal agriculture and the climate, what is your view on the rise of this gigantic new industry that is alternative protein – almost all of them use as their mission the conclusion you draw in Diet for a Hot Planet. 

AL: One of the more bizarre experiences of late was going to an industry conference in San Francisco before Covid. It was billed as the future of food, and essentially it was a bunch of entrepreneurs of startup companies and some that were more established, and a bunch of investors in a room together. A lot of the day was spent hearing pitches from entrepreneurs about companies and a lot hearing about some of the really big consumer-facing food brands and how they are embracing sustainability. I was so struck that all of them were for cell-based meat and alternative meat products. Their first couple slides on their deck could have been what I was talking about – how factory farming was hurting the environment and how much these animal agriculture emissions are contributing to the crisis. They were noting the things that I was always talking about, how animal agriculture is a driver of soil degradation, water usage, toxic pesticides. And then they would present their ideas that would be the solution. There was one technologist who was pitching that they can create protein out of air, and what struck me was that in so many of the cases, again, it’s a complex field so I don’t want to brush it all with the same brush, but for the most part these are untested products that are not scaled up and haven’t had independent analysis that have looked at the whole lifecycle of these products in a holistic way to actually say, is this a product that will have less of an impact on our environment?

Not only that, but what is missing from all these pitches is the story that actually, right now today, we have the solution on how to grow food sustainably, without needing to come up with new technology, and that these technologies are not something that private equity will make billions out of. It’s not something that investors can retire at 40 out of. These are technologies that are ecologically based on sharing knowledge from farmer to farmer, it’s not about selling a new seed or process in a lab. They are very much nature-based. One of the people I saw at this convention at his display table, their tagline was “farms without fields”. It was all about bringing the food production into the lab, and again, it was this interesting conversation that I had with him and his solution was that we have to take farming out of the environment and put it in a sterile lab versus what I think the solution is, which is listening to indigenous wisdom and social movements around the world that are showing us that we can have farms that are not just working in concert with nature, but actively rebuilding biodiversity, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, and actually helping – not just not harming. That’s what I’m excited about, but again though, I don’t have a pitch on how you can make a billion dollars. But where I derive a lot of my hope is being connected to these networks that are supporting the emergence and strengthening of farmer to farmer projects. 

SF: Would this be what some call regenerative agriculture? A lot or what you said echoes the writings of Vandana Shiva. Is this all related?

AL: Yes, it’s all related and [there are] definitely different terms for it. In the work I do, the word I use is agro-ecology to describe this way of farming. For U.S. audiences, it’s not a word that resonates – it doesn’t sound pretty and doesn’t really resonate in the U.S. and that’s because the term typically used is organic, which people understand is a way of farming that uses natural systems instead of man made fertilisers and pesticides. For me, I use the term agro-ecology consciously because it is a term that doesn’t just describe the farming practice, as there is no one size fits all. Essentially, it’s a set of principles about how to work with what your farm has in terms of natural soil, how to get soil fertility, integrating animals on the farm for their labour or ability to fertilise soil. The term agro-ecology also talks about the science of it, how it is a scientific field. Third, it’s about the social movements. It’s inclusive and incorporates this political part of the story, which is that in order to see this kind of farming spread around the world, we have to engage in the politics of it. 

SF: That leads me to a joint question. What is standing in the way of sustainable food systems today? Is it big business interests and politicians essentially being in cahoots with them? Because one of the things that really shocks me is that most people seem to think the food they choose to buy and eat is actually their own choice whereas I believe we are actually being ‘fed’ this lobbying going on. A lot of times when I speak at events and when I talk about lobbying people are confused. Do you think people are aware of this giant food lobby telling them what to eat and buy?

AL: No they aren’t. One of the areas that I work in is trying to help people see that, to pull away the veil. I wrote this report a couple of years ago called “Spinning Food” to try and help people see that there’s actually hundreds of millions of dollars going every year to get you to think a  certain way and buy certain products. It’s not just our natural desires expressing themselves in the marketplace, but even more than that, think about it, even Coca-Cola, a product hasn’t changed in decades, they still spend billions of dollars in global marketing to get you to buy Coca-Cola instead of Pepsi. Not only is it that, there’s another way we don’t have choice. It’s not just this subtle way of being taught to desire certain things, another way is no real choice at the supermarket. Even if we enlighten ourselves about what we want and break free from that messaging, we can still find ourselves in a grocery store and not find a single product that reflects our values. In the U.S., there’s a lot of places you can’t find a single organic product. That’s changing, thankfully. Luckily where I live [in California], I can choose to go to a store and at the end of my shopping trip, 100% of what I buy is organic and I can feel like I am shopping with my values aligned. 

Source: Anna Lappé sketch by Mike Brennan for the Global Engagement Summit

SF: California is unique in terms of outstanding food. The only two places in the world that I have experienced that way about are California and Southern France. 

AL: That’s a great example. I have this cliché story of having a food awakening in France. I dated a French man for many years and lived in the centre of Paris, and everyday you’d get up and have a cappuccino and go to an outdoor produce market to see what looked fresh that day. And get a wine that would go with that produce, maybe you’d augment that with some fish from the fish market. 

SF: But I’m sad to say that even in France that is changing, unfortunately industrial agriculture is changing food culture there too. What do you think is standing in the way today? Two or three things to focus on. Removing the veil, getting people to see the lobbies are getting them to think a certain way. How do we get politicians and businesses to get on side?

AL: You touched on it exactly, which is why it is that we’re not seeing more shifts in how farmers are farming and food systems. One of the main reasons is industry influence, you think about how big the industries are that are profiting from a way of organising our food system that is bad for the climate. You have to put in that story all the profitable pesticide companies, energy companies that are invested in synthetic fertilisers making a huge fortune, you put into that story the concentrated market for meat globally where a handful of companies control around 80-85% of the marketplace for the meat sector, and so on. You have an incredible amount of vested interest, and that’s not even talking about the processed food companies. Those vested interests are influencing our regulators and what the insurance policies for farmers look like. In the U.S., you might ask, if this [reg is so great, why aren’t more farmers farming this way? Well if you’re a farmer in the U.S. and you want to break free and grow something unusual like food people eat instead of food for livestock, you can’t get insured. I’ve met organic farmers who couldn’t get a bank loan for their greenhouse to extend their organic farm. But if you went to the same bank and asked for a loan to start intensive poultry operation to be a contractor for Tyson, you’d get that deal. It’s not a system that is organised for farmers to shift, and so by no means do I fault farmers who are trying to make ends meet and are caught in the middle here. How do we protect our global institutions from influence? I’ve just hit send on a letter from a number of philanthropic organisations globally to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to share our concerns about a recent partnership they announced with a group called CropLife International, a trade association for the pesticide industry, and from the FAO side they say they want to be inclusive and have more voices on the table. From our side, it’s really important that there is no conflict of interest in who is at the table at the FAO. There’s been real precedent-setting at such institutions as a firewall between institutions who are making decisions that impact public good and the private sector that might want to influence the institutions. It’s an example of how we ensure insulation from these interests. We need stronger firewalls between industry voice and influence and these institutions that should be 100% about what is in the public good, not what will benefit private profit. 

SF: “Every time you spend money, you’re casting for a vote for the world you want.” That is your iconic phrase that’s on every millennial’s T-shirt in today’s world. Did you expect when you coined that term that it would be such a war-cry for green consumers, and do you still believe that’s the way out? 

AL: The funny backstory to that is that the line was from an Oprah magazine article about me written by a reporter. When he asked to interview me, I suggested the bar across the street. I was a couple drinks in when I said that [vote with your dollar]. I raise that only because I think that even then, it wasn’t my rallying cry exactly, and it still isn’t today. Yes, for us who have the privilege of having money to spend, if you can align those dollars with our values, absolutely that is a part of how we will get ourselves out of this mess. What I know where the real power comes from, from every single one of us whether you have 5 dollars in your pocket of 500,000, where the real power comes from is from organising and collectivising our voice. It’s one thing for you to go in one grocery store and get your organic milk, and it’s another to speak up as a unified voice to get pesticides off this planet and to speak up to industry officials. It’s a different kind of work, and more work sometimes. I know that phrase is easy to put on a T-shirt, but I do think that yes, I don’t disavow it, I think it’s a more complicated story and ultimately a more exciting one on how to think of ourselves as much more influential and impactful than how we spend our money. 

SF: I see behind you a poster that says no one is free until we are all free. I think that’s a really interesting poster because it speaks to what you’re saying. One of my questions is about how one of the big things to come out of 2020 is this raised awareness about climate justice and this acknowledgement of an unfair burden on marginalised communities. To go back to your previous answer, there has been an organising of people and of activism. Do you feel that there’s a change, that people are mobilising more as communities and there are voices at the table that were previously not heard?

AL: Yes, and I feel like it’s a continuation of organising. It’s not like we haven’t had this before, think about all the struggles in the history of the U.S., whether it’s the abolition of slavery or the women’s suffrage movement or the civil rights movement. What you’re seeing today is standing on the shoulders of all of that. I do feel like what I am seeing today is a deeper understanding among more people who are organising for change that it isn’t a distraction to talk about more than one thing at once. It’s not a distraction to say we need to ensure indigenous people’s rights are protected, as well as climate action. Naomi Klein said something like ‘to solve climate, it’s going to take all of us, we need all the solutions.’ To bring it back to food, I think this is my point – the science is clear, it’s not a theoretical or philosophical argument, if you only talk about one entry into climate change, you’re not going to solve it. You really need this multifaceted approach. Again, the way in which that is so positive is that there are so many more entry points to get involved. You may have been a feminist who was fully focused on women’s rights and now you see how we need to solve climate, we need to all be feminists, for example. In that sense, there are more people thinking this way and that to me is a source of real hope. But of course, we are also in a moment of the rise of fascism in the world too. 

SF: We always ask everyone we interview – team rice or team noodles? What’s your favourite?

AL: That’s like asking me which child I like better!

Keep up with Anna Lappé‘s writings, analysis, reports campaigns and more over at Real Food Media, her media platform dedicated to global food systems education with a mission to expose industry spin, bust food myths, and challenge corporate power.


Lead image courtesy of Anna Lappé.

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