June 28, 2010

‘Diet for a Hot Planet’ Explores Links between Diet and Climate Change

Center for a Livable Future

Center for a Livable Future

diet-for-a-hot-planet_cover1Anna Lappé’s new book Diet for a Hot Planet is critical. It is critical because it helps fill a significant gap in the literature that was previously identified by the Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future.

And thus, in an accessible and comprehensive manner, Diet for a Hot Planet is critical to understanding how inextricably linked food is with climate change. But to do so, Lappé conveys that we, as the reader, must understand: (1) the food-life-cycle, from its roots in the ground to going back to the ground as waste and (2) that “we are not bystanders.”

The food life-cycle and its connection with climate change

Diet for a Hot Planet emphasizes that the global food system is connected to climate change “within nearly every sector of our economy;” from waste and wastewater to our energy supply to transportation to industry to forestry to building structures to agriculture. Throughout the book, it becomes clear how “the entire global food chain may account for roughly one third of what’s heating our planet.”

Not all of the climate impact from food is related to livestock. Yet, with 70% of all agricultural land tied up in livestock production, red meat and dairy products may account for as much as 48% of the global warming effect. Lappé’s book underscores the importance of thinking about the journey from livestock to edible meat production, especially regarding methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions; that, she teaches us, has a much greater negative impact on global warming than carbon dioxide (CO2).

Here is a brief cartoon sketch of this journey:


When you look at the graphic, keep in mind that there are “nearly eight times as many animals slaughtered each year for food as there are humans on the planet.” And that it takes sixteen pounds of grain and soybeans (for use as animal feed) to produce one pound of beef. This disproportionate use of food to produce less food is something that Ms.Lappé’s mom, Francis Moore Lappé, eloquently addressed in her seminal book Diet for a Small Planet.

The consequences of intense livestock production include lost biodiversity (the importance of which I wish Lappé had expounded on) and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, sustainable organic agricultural practices, with respect to both livestock and crops, that require substantially less energy (as the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is eliminated), Lappé explains, build up soil rather than deplete it. Healthy soil increases carbon sequestration, which helps prevent further global warming.  In addition to soil depletion, industrial agriculture leads to both excess nitrogen (from nitrogen-based fertilizers) and phosphorus (that is not absorbed from crops in the ground) that often end up in the global water system; whereby causing rapid plant growth that is fed on by microorganisms. Consequently, the oxygen content in water decreases immensely and makes aquatic animal life nearly impossible.

A systematic review article in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition on the nutritional quality of organic foods that found, among other things, that conventionally-produced crops have significantly more nitrogen content, while organically-produced crops contain a significantly higher phosphorous content, corroborates Diet for a Hot Planet and the role that nitrogen plays in all aspects of food production. While the research is still inconclusive on intensive industrial agriculture practices and its impact on global warming, Diet for a Hot Planet is critical because it shows us the bigger picture that is hard to convey through research; that organic and sustainable agricultural practices are essential to ensuring that the global environment produces sound long-term global public health benefits rather than consequences.

In the chapter entitled “Cool Food: Five Ingredients of Climate-Friendly Farming,” Ms.Lappé reviews five ingredients of ‘climate-friendly farming’: nature-mentored, restorative, regenerative, resilient, and community-empowered .  She eloquently shows how these ingredients are not only necessary, but achievable and can feed the world in a sustainable manner. (A couple references for future reading that figure prominently here are: The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) reports.)

How you can help prevent further climate change just by changing the way you eat!

Ms.Lappé then moves from the field to the fork. She makes clear that all individuals are not bystanders in the causes and consequences regarding food and its relationship with climate change. And that despite the fact that more research is needed to determine the extent of the impact that agricultural practices have on climate change, all of us can work to remedy myriad aspects of the food system and thus, climate change. For the “data gap doesn’t have to mean an action gap,” she affirms.

Throughout her book, Ms.Lappé comes across as a teacher not a food pusher (in that she is not judgmental of people’s eating choices). And it is her thorough writing that either teaches or reminds us the inherent environmental value, let alone nutritional value, in eating real foods-“foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, that haven’t undergone energy intensive processing and don’t contain chemically laden ingredients ” Real food ” also means produce and grains that have not been genetically modified [GM] and meat and dairy that have not been raised on GM ingredients.”

Diet for a Hot Planet not only (gently) urges us all to reclaim our diet, but provides pointers to do so through “seven principles of a climate friendly diet.” These seven principles are as follows:

Principle 1: Reach for real food

Principle 2: Put plants on your plate

Principle 3: Don’t panic, go organic

Principle 4: Lean toward local

Principle 5: Finish your peas…the ice caps are melting

Principle 6: Send packaging packing

Principle 7: DIY [do it yourself] food

Participation in [two CLF-promoted activities] a Meatless Monday or a CSA (community-supported agriculture; a CSA distributed by CLF is here) will help one live by many of these principles. I say: reach for real food and reach for the book! Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It.


Lappé, A. (2010). Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It. New York: Bloomsbury.

[In full disclosure, the CLF’s Roni Neff, in addition to providing important evidence, reviewed the manuscript]

– Rebecca M. Kanter


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