In the book Diet For a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It by Anna Lappe, the author argues that modern food production methods, especially for meat, are huge factors contributing to global warming and that people should exchange their current food consumption habits for more environmentally sustainable ones. The International Panel on Climate Change lists agriculture at contributing just 13.5% of total global warming emissions, but Lappe points out that that the emissions due to our food system are really a bigger piece of the pie, including part of the emissions from transport, commercial buildings, waste, and forestry. Livestock in particular are significant emitters of greenhouse gasses due to their methane emissions from the animals and their waste, the energy use of feedlots and processing plants, large amount of fertilizers needed for the large amount of crops for animal feed, etc. Lappe argues that changes in agricultural methods could greatly cut emissions rates by, for example, raising meat from free-range cattle, switching to organically grown produce, and keeping food more local. All of these things reduce reliance on energy, especially oil, allowing them to produce fewer global warming gasses and to continue to be effective even as oil becomes more scarce and its costs rise. Lappe also takes time to discuss companies use of 'greenwashing' techniques to sell products that are not truly environmentally friendly and a section for consumers on making sustainable food choices.
Overall, I agree with Lappe's main argument: modern agriculture significantly contributes to global warming and we can and should make changes to production methods to decrease our impact. However, I think some of Lappe's ideas are idealistic, impractical, inflexible, and contradictory. For instance, throughout the book she condemns large companies for their failure to take responsibility for their own emissions and for trying to hide their poor environmental practices from consumers. However, she still condemns them even when they do attempt to reduce their impact by investigating the use of genetically modified plants and using methane digesters in order to produce energy from livestock waste. I agree with Lappe that genetically modified plants have the potential to do more harm than good and that producing energy from livestock waste is still not sustainable in the long run in terms of global warming, but I do think that these ideas are a step in the right direction and deserve some credit. At very least they could be used until some other more sustainable ideas could be implemented. Concerning sustainable ideas for agriculture, I found Lappe to offer few except ones requiring complete overhauls of the current system- in other words changes that would be least likely to actually be accepted by food producers, politicians and farmers. I think if she really wanted some change for the better, she would be more accepting of any ideas to better the system, especially if people were willing to embrace them.
An area where I think the author is over optimistic given the evidence is with the yields and efficiency of organic farming. Lappe cites studies which have not been peer reviewed and published in academic journals which support her conclusion that yields are nearly the same as conventional farming methods with less use of energy input, even though published studies also existed which have conflicting conclusions. For instance, this study found a 20% smaller yield from organic farms using 50% less fertilizer and 97% less pesticide. This study found that organic apple production is more energy efficient while this (1) one found that organic apple and potato production was less energy efficient than conventional methods. Finally, this long-term study found that crop yields were 20% lower in organic systems while fertilizer plus energy input was 34% to 53% lower. My conclusions based off these studies are that organic farming may be very promising in reducing energy requirements, but more land may be required for cultivation due to the lower yields, which could increase emissions in itself. Overall, more study seems to be needed- not the head first jump into complete agricultural overhaul that Lappe recommends.
In one section, Lappe argues that the transport of foods should be reduced in order to curb emissions and she provides this humorous example: "When Fiji [bottled] water ads boasted, 'FIJI, because it's not bottled in Cleveland,' that city ran tests that compared it with municipal samples. It turned out that Fiji water fared worse; it contained arsenic as well as higher levels of contaminants." I wholeheartedly agree with Lappe that bottled water and transported foods that could easily be produced locally is both wasteful and unnecessary. However, I think these examples bring up an important issue that Lappe doesn't discuss, but is always on my mind when considering environmental issues: is there any way to get consumers and businesses to stop wasteful, unsustainable practices without reducing their freedom with rules and regulations? Consumers of bottled water and plastic grocery bags only seem to stop when cities and countries ban their use. Despite this, to me personally it seems wrong to limit an adult's choice as long as it doesn't harm someone else, even if the choice is misguided or mistaken. Yes, the pollution and global warming overall is bad for everyone, so in a way buying bottled water is a source of harm, but to me this is a very different sort of harm than say hitting one's neighbor in the face. Also, there could be a legitimate circumstance where someone really does need to buy bottled water- perhaps the city water went stopped working, or they needed a large stock for a trip to Mexico, in which the ban causes negative unintended consequences. In the case of businesses, environmental problems often do direct harm to people and property, such as with waste mismanagement, and I think those types of issues should be better handled in court by forcing the companies to pay the consequences for their actions. If the judicial system worked well in that manner, companies would have strong incentives to avoid pollution on their own. Perhaps better environmental education would benefit people by making them more aware of the impact of their purchases. Yet this seems unlikely since basic education is already lacking for many people in the US, and adding another area would be unlikely to help.
Lappe, Anna. Diet For a Hot Planet. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.
1. Pimental et al. (1983). "Energy efficiency of farming systems: Organic and conventional agriculture". Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 9: 359-372.