The link between climate change and the food we eat is direct, critical, and must be acknowledged if we are to make progress in the global fight against climate change. In her groundbreaking book, Diet for a Hot Planet, Anna Lappé makes a convincing case that the entire global food chain may account for roughly one third of what’s heating our planet.

In 1971, Anna’s mother. Frances Moore Lappé, opened the dialogue about the social and environmental impacts of our food choices with her acclaimed book Diet for a Small Planet. Today, Anna continues the discussion by focusing on another hidden cost of our food system: the climate crisis.

While you may not think “global warming” when you sit down to dinner, our tangled web of global food—from Pop Tarts packaged in Tennessee and eaten in Texas to pork chops raised in Poland, with feed from Brazil, shipped to South Korea—contributes to as much as one-third of the global warming effect. Livestock alone is associated with more emissions than all of the world’s transportation combined.

If we’re serious about the climate crisis, says Lappé, we have to talk about food.

In Diet for a Hot Planet, Lappé exposes the interests which resist change in the food production system, and the spin-tactics companies employ to deflect criticism. She also offers a vision of a food system that can be part of healing the planet—and the climate. Lappé explores how food can be a powerful entry point for tackling our most pressing environmental problems. With seven principles for a climate-friendly diet and success stories from sustainable food advocates around the globe, Lappé offers strategies and inspiration to bring to life food that’s better for people and the planet.

Diet for a Hot Planet urges us all to reclaim our diet by following these seven principles of a climate friendly diet.

1. Reach for real food

Processed foods are designed for convenience, durability in transport, a long shelf-life and perfect appearance. In many cases, processed foods have been a real benefit to the consumer, but fall short in nutritional value when compared to raw, natural foods. Lappe points out the inherent environmental value, and 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 and meat and dairy that have not been raised on GM ingredients.”

2. Put plants on your plate

Eating more vegetables and less meat is one of Lappe’s prescriptions for positive change. With 70% of all agricultural land tied up in livestock production, red meat and dairy products may account for a large part of the global warming effect. And fossil fuel use can be from 2.5- to as much as 50-times higher to produce meat protein than vegetable-based proteins. Expecting long time meat eaters to quit eating meat entirely may be difficult, but reducing the amount of meat on our plates is a good start which anyone can try. For examples and ideas, see our pages on Low-Meat Alternatives, and Vegetarian Meals for Meat Lovers. Or try participating in a Meatless Monday.

3. Don’t panic, go organic

Organic and sustainable agricultural practices are essential to ensuring that the global environment produces sound long-term global public health benefits. Sustainable organic agricultural practices, with respect to both livestock and crops, require substantially less energy (as the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is eliminated), and 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 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; this causes rapid plant growth which consumes oxygen and makes aquatic animal life nearly impossible.

In the chapter entitled “Cool Food: Five Ingredients of Climate-Friendly Farming,” Lappé reviews five fundamentals of sustainable farming: nature-mentored, restorative, regenerative, resilient, and community-empowered . She shows how these ingredients are not only necessary, but achievable and can feed the world in a sustainable manner.

Consumers can contribute to the organic food movement by supporting local farmers who are developing sustainable farming practices. When in the supermarket, look for foods with the USDA organic seal. Better yet, look to ways you can your own organic produce in small backyard vegetable gardens.

4. Lean towards local

Supporting local organic food producers will help cut transport-related emissions, reduce pesticide and herbicide use, help build healthy soil and stimulate the economy in your area. Look for locally-produced food stocked in your supermarket, visit your local farmers markets, join a local CSA (community supported agriculture) or grow your own produce and fruit.

To learn how to develop your own local food network, through food buying clubs, CSAs, gleaning and garden sharing arrangements, visit our page Eating Better for Less.

5. Finish your peas – or send them to the compost

According to Lappé, nearly half of the food we could eat never makes it to our plate. It is plowed under in fields, lost in processing, or wasted at other stops along the food chain. A typical restaurant, for instance, wastes between 40 and 50 percent of its food. This food waste ends up in landfills, and is a net loss in the energy it took to grow, harvest, transport, sort and dispose.

Consumers can make a difference by looking for ways to reduce waste during food selection and preparation, and to make the best use of food waste by learning to compost. Backyard composting can convert food waste into valuable fertilizer, thereby reducing the dependence on chemical fertilizers which have a long-term negative influence on the soil. For more ideas, get inspired by the Love Food-Hate Waste campaign out of the UK.

6. Send packaging packing

The packaging related to our food and drink choices play a big role in the food system’s global warming impact, from the emissions related to producing the packaging, to collecting used packaging and transporting it to landfills. Much of this waste is unnecessary. For example, every year Americans toss out 30 to 40 billion plastic water bottles, approximately 130 bottles a year for every man, woman, and child in the country.

Fast food outlets produce billions of wrappers and boxes ending up in US garbage dumps annually. While some food packaging is unavoidable, consumers do have choices which can mitigate some of the environmental burden associated with packaging. Re-usable water bottles are readily available and will fit easily in most packs and handbags. Styrofoam trays can be replaced by butcher paper, which was the primary way of wrapping meat and fish products before the ubiquitous styrofoam trays were invented.

And buying food in bulk will save a great amount of packaging waste in comparison to buying food packed in small individual servings for ‘convenience’. For ideas on buying food in bulk, see our section on Food Buying Clubs. When buying packaged foods, look for those which use reusable or recyclable packaging.

Related: Zero Waste: A Beginner’s Guide

7. Got to get ourselves back in the kitchen

Developing a personal relationship with food preparation is key to reducing climate-related impacts associated with food. Learning to grow, cook, and create your own meals will save you money, provide healthier meals, and help you put the entire food “growth to waste” cycle in perspective. From the compost bin to the table, consumers can enjoy more control over their food production while reducing waste and the burden large-scale commercial food production places on the environment and our own future.

Lappé, Anna. (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

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