A Greener Diet Starts in Your Head
Choosing a climate-smart plate
Years ago I had one of those “light bulb” moments about food: Growing up as the daughter of Frances Moore Lappé—who penned the 3.5-million copy bestseller Diet for a Small Planet when she was 26—it was pretty much impossible not to think about where my food came from. For years, I’d been documenting—in books, articles and on television and radio—the stories of farmers and advocates bringing a greener diet to all of us by embracing farming practices that eschewed toxic chemicals and used nature to build fertility, not energy-intensive synthetic fertilizers. In a very different part of my life—the not-food part, you could call it—I was becoming increasingly obsessed with what seemed to be the defining cause of our time: the climate crisis. That light bulb moment arrived when I realized these two crises—the crisis of our climate and of our food system—were intimately interconnected in more ways than one.
First, there’s the obvious: You think we humans are rocked by climate disruption, by terrifying storms (think Superdome in Hurricane Katrina) and staggering firestorms (think the recent Valley Fire that wiped out 1,000 homes in one of California’s quickest moving fires)? How do you think our crops fare? Farmers are the canaries in this planet-wide coal mine, their crops are among the hardest hit.
But there’s another side to this story: Our choices about our food—how we produce food, where we grow it and what we do with it—are a huge part of what’s driving the crisis. The best estimate is that the global food system—that means everything from coal-fired power plants for fertilizer production in China to forests destroyed for soy plantations in Brazil—is the source of one third of all our greenhouse gas emissions. One third! In other words, not only is our food system, and farmers in particular, a fundamental casualty in this crisis; the food system is a central culprit in it, too.
But there’s a third lesson in this story: Our food system, I’d come to discover, holds a key part of the cure. You see, farmers around the world already know how to dramatically reduce on-farm emissions and lock in carbon in their soils: it’s called organic agriculture or agroecological practices. In one long-term study comparing organic and non-organic corn production, the Rodale Institute found that the energy inputs for the organic fields were on average 30 percent lower. A Canadian life-cycle study found that organic farmers typically use less than half of the energy of non-organic farms.
Farmers and food advocates are pointing to another relatively easy way to reduce food system emissions: food waste. Right now, today, from one third to half of all food that could be eaten gets wasted. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if food waste were a country it would represent the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the United States. We know that by addressing the food waste problem we can ensure no wasted greenhouse gas emissions, either.
There’s another piece of good news, too. Research is increasingly documenting that organic farms, which by design build healthy soil, are better able to weather extreme weather. Organic farms handle better those prolonged droughts and deluges of rain ever more common in the climate crisis. One University of Minnesota study found that organic farms reduced the amount of water lost on the farm by 41 percent. Another Rodale Institute study found that during drought years organic test plots yielded on average one third more.
And there’s one final piece of good news: the healthy soil at the heart of organic farms are also showing higher levels of carbon sequestration potential—that’s a wonky way of saying that soils can capture and hold onto carbon, essentially pulling it out of our atmosphere. It’s what’s called a “carbon sink.” On the planet, our carbon is stored in our oceans, our forests and in our soils. What new research is showing is that organic farming practices, and regenerative grazing, can increase carbon content in our soils. In fact, one study found that if managed well, the world’s soils could capture as much as 15 percent of global emissions of burning fossil fuels.
So what does this mean for a greener diet for you and me? It starts in your head. It starts with realizing that with every bite we’re taking we’re either making a choice for a more climate stable world or feeding into, literally, a climate-unstable one. Choosing foods from organic farmers, for instance, is a choice we can make – not just for our health and the health of farmworkers but for the health of the planet, too. Choosing foods that haven’t been produced with ingredients grown on formerly rainforest rich land is another greener choice we can all make.
Now, I know that my lunch isn’t going to solve the climate crisis. Don’t get me wrong. I am just delighted to learn that the kind of farming, and kind of food, I’ve been on the sidelines rooting for all these years is just what we need to protect and promote to help us address this climate crisis and foster a food system more resilient to it.
Anna Lappé is a bestselling author and founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and Fund and Real Food Media. This is adapted from her book Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It (Bloomsbury 2010).