Friday, April 16, 2010

Anna Lappé's Diet for a Hot Planet


I just finished Anna Lappé's new book, Diet for a Hot Planet. Perhaps the most interesting part comes toward the end, where the author acknowledges that much has changed about her subject during the course of her writing. Which led me to wonder: with so many many great minds and so many lightning fast new media outlets, why a book?

New data on climate change (which we should really be calling climate change for the worse) streams in constantly, as does info about the specific realm of how the way we eat heats up the planet. And I have to say, after reading countless blogs about the subject, it was a nice change of pace to sink my teeth into 336 pages sans hyperlinks.

Lappé has clearly spent more time thinking about how our forks poke holes in the ozone than bloggers such as myself who simply write about delicious meals we make and then slap a "sustainability" label onto the post as an afterthought. Lappé's quest takes her to multiple continents, to a gathering of Via Campesina and to meat industry conventions, and she combs through endless studies on precisely how much methane comes out of an organic cow vs a CAFO cow's butt.

While I'm glad for the publication of any book that looks at how our diets affect climate change, if you've read Pollan, Bittman or Kingsolver -- and you probably have -- you'll find much of Diet for a Hot Planet redundant. Then again, if you're not familiar with basic notions of how food production influences the (rising) temperature of the planet, this is an excellent resource for you. Though you'll still find some parts redundant, but then again, apparently this is an issue we need to be beat over the head with in order to fully grasp its severity. And like those who have come before, Lappé's central conclusion is this: eat less meat.

What the book does best is to debunk those studies and articles which seek to debunk those studies and articles that sought to debunk those studies and articles saying that industrially produced food is hunky-dory. In other words, industrial food came along, was championed, attacked, and then those who questioned its merits were in turn attacked.

Think of articles like Wired magazine's "Surprise! Conventional Agriculture Can be Easier on the Planet!" It's people like that article's author that Lappé now makes look stupid. She does an excellent job of revealing the biases of those critics of sustainable farming, be it funding from agribusiness giants or... well, it's pretty much always funding from agribusiness giants.

Her formula is familiar, which isn't to say that it's not effective, and most similar to the Omnivore's Dilemma: Pollan calls the ideal food producer a "good farm," she calls it a "cool farm." For an appetizer, she serves us depressing facts about the state of modern food production. For the entree, a glimpse at one of those magical, sustainable farms run by a quirky agricultural genius who just so happens to speak in one-liners, saying that the organisms in soil are "breathing, pooping, and peeing."

And for dessert, an empowering glimpse of the world that could be, topped with a list of urls for organizations dedicated to cooling the planet by popularizing cooler foods.

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3 comments:

Aariq said...

I hate to be picky, but your line about "how our forks poke holes in the ozone" caught my eye. The ozone layer protects us from UV-B, not from excessive heat. The hole in the ozone layer is caused by halocarbons like CFC's that don't have much to do with food production, or fossil fuel burning. I teach and many of my students have this misconception that the hole in the ozone layer and global warming are either the same or tightly linked, which is not the case. Don't get me wrong, both things are problems worthy of our attention, but they have very different solutions and should be kept separate in our minds.

Aaron Kagan said...

You're absolutely right, and Lappe even talks about that misconception in the book. Guess I just couldn't resist the metaphor, but I'll edit it out.

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