Food for Thought: An Interview with Anna Lappé

John Tarleton May 3, 2012

Check out all the Indy Food Coverage from Issue 176:

Agriculture can be part of what protects us” from climate change, says Anna Lappé. She should know. Daughter of Frances Moore Lappé, a legendary food writer, Anna Lappé has penned three books (including one with her mother) in the past decade on food and food politics. She does all this while traveling the world and meeting with farmers, scientists and citizen activists who are creating alternatives to industrial agriculture. A resident of Brooklyn, Lappé recently shared her thoughts with The Indypendent on why a sweeping change in our food system is both necessary and doable.


John Tarleton: Much of the food we consume is bad for us and also destructive to the environment. How did this come to be?

Anna Lappé: There’s a parallel between the industrialization of food and other sectors of our economy. We’re replacing naturally occurring elements of the food and farming systems with the fossil fuel or chemical, human made equivalents whether that’s synthetic fertilizer or toxic pesticides. When you alter the process so profoundly, you take what was a symbiotic way to grow food in concert with nature and turn it into a system that is highly polluting and has enormous planetary impacts. And at the end of the day, you produce food that isn’t good for us.


JT: In agriculture, can we really have both sustainability and abundance? Critics of alternative agriculture would say that’s a hippie daydream.

AL: If you actually look at the scientific literature, especially coming from countries outside of the United States, the growing global consensus on this question is clear. Four years ago, an important report came out that had been commissioned by the World Bank, the United Nations and a number of other international institutions that brought together 400 scientists and agronomists and experts in the field in dozens of countries to look at the question of how we feed the planet. The report, called the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development), concluded that business as usual is no longer an option. Industrial agriculture is undermining every resource the system needs to produce food: water, healthy soil, a stable climate, sources of fertility. A number of other organizations — that no one would consider the stomping ground of hippies — like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Environment Program have come to similar conclusions.


JT: What will your next project be about?

AL: I’m currently leading the Real Food Media Project, a Web-based video series debunking core myths of industrial agriculture, starting with the big one: that industrial agriculture is efficient and sustainable farming isn’t. Our companion website will include lots of great resources and action ideas for people to get involved with groups working around the country. For this project, I’ve been doing more research on the sustainability of ecological farming and the abundance that becomes inherent and integral in that system when you are actually working in concert with nature; it’s gotten me all the more motivated to spread this message.


JT: What are the key principles that need to be implemented to create the food system you would like to see?

AL: When you mention principles to be introduced in the food system, I think of the political changes needed: Why is it so difficult for farmers in this country to follow ecological principles of biodiversity and soil fertility, for instance? Why do industrial livestock operators get off the hook for polluting our waterways and air while organic farmers are underappreciated for all they do to protect the environment? Why is it easier to find Funyuns than onions, or Pringles than potatoes, in many communities?


JT: To what extent can we transform our food system through individual actions and actions in our local communities? And how much of this is a systemic problem that has to be confronted in a systemic manner?

AL: It’s all of the above. The choices we make for ourselves personally and for our families make a difference — so does what we can do in our communities and as citizens of this country and working in solidarity with movements in other countries. Even if you are not working on all these levels, it’s important to keep them in mind and understand that even your personal choices can ripple out to a global level.


JT: Is the desire to eat healthy elitist? What are people who don’t have a lot of extra money to drop on organics supposed to do?

AL: You can’t talk about the price of food without talking about the decline in real wages for most working Americans since the 1970s. Look at a company like Wal-Mart where one in four food dollars is not spent in this country. It’s the largest private employer in the country. It’s extremely anti-union and pays many of its workers barely enough to feed themselves. Many of the people who are working to remake the food system are framing it as a social justice question. If you look at who is most impacted by this broken food system and by diet-related illnesses, you see that communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected.


JT: How has becoming a parent affected your perspective?

AL: From the minute I found out I was pregnant with our first daughter, I knew everything I ate was feeding my daughter already. That simple realization made me that much more conscientious about what I was eating and that much more aware of how hard it is to make healthy choices in this food environment. One hundred percent organic food? Forget about it! One hundred percent confident I was never eating genetically engineered ingredients? Impossible. It made me that much more fired up about this work.


JT: Your daughters will come of age in a world where the climate could be dramatically altered.

AL: It can be scary. I’m passionate about the food-climate connection because so much research confirms that ecological methods create resilient farms better able to handle weather extremes and at the same time significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture can be a part of what helps protect us.


JT: Is that a part of what draws a lot of people into food activism — the sense of being able to affect change in a very real and tangible way?

AL: Yes, there are so many entry points. And it is so empowering. One of the food industry’s biggest lies about those of us who want to change the food system is that we’re trying to take all the fun out of eating and wag our finger at you. I’ve met thousands of people who are engaged in this work and have changed how they eat as a result. I have never met more energized, empowered, happy people. It feels great to be healthy. It feels great to eat good food and it feels great to take power into your own hands about what you put into your body.


JT: What is the significance of all the food activism going on here in New York?

AL: One of the things that gives me so much hope is the activism here in New York City and across the country. For example, thousands of New Yorkers, including my family, are members of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture programs), where you invest in a farm at the beginning of the season and benefit from the harvest throughout the year. My two-and-a-half-year-old daughter tasted her first peaches and blackberries, plums and tomatoes, spinach and kale, directly from our local CSA farmer. As a mom, the peace of mind I got knowing exactly where her food came from was pretty incredible.


For more on Anna Lappé, see

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