In this series, we’re interviewing the world’s foremost thought leaders in biomimicry and sustainability to explore nature-based solutions to the world’s most pressing climate change issues. With each interview, we’ll delve into the top three areas where climate and sector leaders think we should intervene to affect the most change, take a deeper look at the most promising solutions on the horizon, and explore where they think the next big opportunity will be. Look for new interviews here on our Asking Nature blog.
Q: What’s one (surprising) thing about climate change and our food system that most people DON’T know?
Anna: A lot of people are surprised that there is such a big connection between our food systems and climate change. Our food system is a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions: nearly one third of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions come either directly or indirectly from food production. But the other piece of the puzzle that surprises people is that the food system can be a key part of the solution to the crisis. We know how to reduce emissions from the sector, right now, today. And we know how to make agriculture more resilient to a changing climate.
Q: What are the top three areas in our food system where we need to intervene in order to truly impact climate change?
Anna: We need to intervene in the “where,” the “what,” and the “how” of our global food production models. The “where”: we know that there are key regions globally that are essential to protect to prevent runaway climate change: our vital rainforests in South America and peatlands rich in carbon in Indonesia and Malaysia. We know that rainforests are the lungs of our planet; we need them intact for biodiversity, for atmospheric regulation, to maintain stable precipitation patterns. So we need to be alarmed when we hear about huge incursions into the Amazon rainforest to make way for monoculture soy plantations. We also need to raise the alarm when we hear about palm oil production for processed foods or biofuels in Malaysia and Indonesia. There are places that are well suited for certain types of food production, and other areas that are vital to protect.
The “what”: we know that certain foods have much larger environmental impact. For instance, by and large, producing plant-based foods can be significantly less resource-intensive than producing industrially raised livestock. But we also know that producing biodiverse foods is a key part of sustainable food production. So we need to reignite our dedication to biodiversity.
The “how”: a huge reason the food sector is such a climate culprit has to do with industrial farming techniques, from energy-intensive synthetic fertilizer use to the incredibly polluting factory farms used in industrial livestock operations. By and large, if well managed, grassfed beef is less impactful than beef finished in confined animal feeding operations. We also know that organic agriculture can reduce energy use and on-farm greenhouse gas emissions. This is well documented.
It’s critical to look at this question from these three angles–the where, what, and how. These are the three lenses I like to use to address the question of food and climate impacts.
Q: Is there a nature-inspired solution that makes you hopeful?
Anna: The body of work from farmers and researchers about the power of agroecological practices is inspiring. I’m excited about the flourishing of practices that derive soil fertility from working with soil, and ecological pest management firmly rooted in tapping nature for pest control. What gives me hope is the growing number of such solutions … that are better for farmworkers, eaters, and certainly better for the climate.
Q: How do we get more people involved in addressing climate change issues?
Anna: It’s important to help people understand the root causes of a crisis and identify the actions we can take as individuals and as a society to address those causes. And when it comes to food, the actions abound. I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna, here: I don’t think it will be easy. But in uniting the food and climate conversation, we can perceive a range of actions we can take as individuals and society that could make a huge difference. We can make conscious choices as food consumers, [in terms of] where we put our purchasing dollars. We can develop policies for incentivizing farmers to adopt more sustainable practices.
We can also see the links between other policy campaigns and climate in new ways. Taking on the soda industry through sugary drink taxes may not seem to have anything to do with climate, but it does. If these campaigns reduce the land used to grow sugar–an ingredient with no nutritional value–that has climate benefits as well.
My theme song on this is that food is a culprit in climate change and also that food is part of the solution. Casualty, culprit, cure – the three Cs. We need to help people see that farmers are on the frontlines of the crisis; they are among those most impacted. We need to develop policy and action to help farmers who are suffering and to help them develop new strategies that reduce their impact and improve their resilience. We also want people to see that farmers aren’t the adversaries, but really are the source of potential positive change.
Q: Where could our Biomimicry Global Design Challenge teams really make an impact, given how much we know about what we need to do in the food production space to reverse climate change?
Anna: There are so many places biomimicry could make a big impact! Challenge #1: Design teams, for instance, could look at synthetic fertilizers and its environmental impact and explore new strategies to improve soil fertility. There are some solutions out there but huge room for innovation. Challenge #2: Design teams could explore all the potential biomimetic solutions to weed, pest, and fungus control. There’s huge room for innovation there. Challenge #3: There’s huge room for innovation around strategies to reduce food waste. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 30 to 50 percent of all food is wasted. In the developing world, it’s often the result of losses between harvest and sale, sometimes having to do with access to market or lack of storage technologies. There have been some innovations in this space–such as sustainable packaging that preserves food longer to solutions in how to turn food scraps into value added products–but there’s a lot of potential there.
Challenge #4 is around packaging and preservation. As more and more food systems globally become more disconnected from on-the-farm food production, and we see growth in supermarkets, the more we are seeing an explosion of wasteful and polluting packaging. This has a huge impact on climate and on waste in general. So I can imagine huge innovation in this space.
About Anna Lappé
Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, a respected advocate for sustainability and justice along the food chain, and an advisor to funders investing in food system transformation. A recipient of the James Beard Leadership Award, Anna is the co-author or author of three books and the contributing author to more than a dozen others. Anna’s work has been translated internationally and featured in The New York Times, Gourmet, Oprah Magazine, among many other outlets.
Named one of TIME’s “eco” Who’s-Who, Anna is a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and the Small Planet Fund with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé. She is currently the founder and director of Real Food Media, a collaborative communications initiative based at Corporate Accountability International.
With her team at Real Food Media, Anna partners with grassroots organizations around the country to catalyze creative storytelling to inspire, educate, and grow the movement for sustainable food and farming. Since its founding in 2012, Real Food Media has created the world’s largest short films competition on food with pop-up festivals around the world, collaborated with the award-winning StoryCorps to elevate voices of food workers, produced powerful mythbusting videos viewed more than one million times and more.
Ms. Lappé also served as a judge in our Biomimicry Global Design Challenge.