NOTE: This interview excerpt is transcript only
Anna Lappé is a widely respected author and educator, known for her work as an expert on food systems and as a sustainable food advocate. The co-author or author of three books and the contributing author to ten others, Anna’s work has been widely translated internationally and featured in The New York Times, Gourmet, Oprah Magazine, among many other outlets. Named one of Time magazine’s “eco” Who’s-Who, Anna is a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and the Small Planet Fund. She is currently the head of the Real Food Media Project, a new initiative to spread the story of the power of sustainable food using creative movies, an online action center, and grassroots events.
On Leading Transcript
Seana Lowe Steffen, host: Anna, what compels you to do the work that you do?
Anna Lappé, guest: There are so many things that compel me to do this work. One of the forces is the experience that I had with my mother when we wrote Hope’s Edge traveling to India, Brazil, Bangladesh, Poland, Kenya, France, throughout the U.S., and seeing with my own eyes what alternatives there are out there and what ways there are to really fundamentally rethink how we relate to the environment, how we relate to food, how we relate to nature. In the United States often we think that we are such a worldly population and so on the cutting edge, and then I get to travel around the world and see that we, in many ways, live in a bubble and we have a very unhealthy relationship to food and the environment, and that other countries around the world are really showing that there are alternatives out there. It got me inspired to showcase those stories and to help think about how I can be part of transforming our dominant culture’s relationship to food and to the environment.
Seana: If you could change one thing in the world right now with a snap of your fingers, what would you change and why?
Anna: To me what is at the core of so many of the issues that I talk about in my work and in my latest book is the concentration of power over our food. That concentration of power is really at the root of so much that is destructive about our food system, whether it’s the fact that almost a billion people are going hungry despite the fact that we produce enough food to feed the world or the fact that we are destroying rainforests that are vital to planet sustainability in order to grow palm oil for biofuels for European cars. The fact that the power is concentrated in the hands of, for the most part, companies who are primarily driven by the need to return profit every quarter to their shareholders. If that is your driving force then you are constantly making decisions that aren’t being driven by what’s for the greater good, what’s for long-term sustainability. What are the decisions that we need to make so that everyone has access to good food? So if I could snap my fingers, I would dismantle corporate control over the system. I would take away that concentration of power and that real monopoly that exists.
Seana: Given your experience of working with others to accomplish what you have, what would you like others to learn from your experience?
Anna: My mom and I talked about this a little bit at one of our events – our theme song of, “It’s impossible to know what’s possible.” So many people stop before they have even begun to try to make a difference or take action because they say to themselves, “Well that’s impossible. How could we ever go up against a company that has a billion dollars in sales every year and that is so well endowed? How could we possibly compete and how could we possibly think we could win?” I think that our biggest barrier is in our own minds. If you think a few years back to the public health campaign around Joe the Camel, they succeeded in getting the camel banned and Camel Cigarettes no longer uses Joe the Camel. I think we can look back and embolden ourselves by looking at successful examples of regular folks organizing against some of the biggest companies in the world.
Seana: What do you think that those working for global sustainability and planetary wellbeing need to be successful?
Anna: One thing is a passion for doing the work and for believing that they can succeed despite the odds. In another sense, what I feel like we need is real political change because I think that there’s a kind of imbalance between what is happening in local communities, and what needs to happen on a policy level. What we need to be figuring out is how to make some real changes happen at the policy level, not just in the U.S. but throughout the E.U. and many countries. The chemical and agricultural companies, agribusiness and mega food retailers, are getting the lion’s share of public support, which I would argue should be the inverse, so having that political change I think is really important.
Seana: Above all else, what would you have all people understand at this time in our planet’s history?
Anna: There are a million ways I could answer that question, but I’ll zero in on this one piece that fits with my current work, which is the connection between food and the planet. What I personally am trying to get people to understand is to see the central role that food plays in terms of its ability to be a significant source of greenhouse gas mitigation. In other words, the food sector can dramatically reduce its emissions. We know that healthy soil leads to carbon sequestration. We know that a healthy, sustainable food systems can also help stave off deforestation. What I would like people to see is that food and therefore farmers can really be central in helping to address the climate crisis. And the flip side of that is that I would hope people understand the really negative role that agribusiness and the international food companies are currently playing in the climate crisis. We don’t hear about it, we don’t see it, but when you look at what are the biggest drivers behind rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Brazil and many other countries, we see that it’s either direct pressure from agribusiness or indirect pressure in the sense that farmers have been pushed off land because of corporate buyouts and land-grabbing, and therefore are creating more agriculture emissions. That’s what I personally think that people need to understand and what I’m particularly interested in right now.
Seana: What would you say is the next frontier?
Anna: I feel like the next frontier is to deepen and further the direction that we’re already moving in. The next frontier is to keep going. I’m excited to do more work on the food and planet connection. I feel like there is much more to do, to expose, to talk about and to share. My next personal frontier is continuing to learn what it means to be a good mother, which is very rewarding.
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Grow Food, Soil and Sustainability
Nearly four decades after her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, published Diet for a Small Planet, sparking a revolution in our thinking about the social and environmental impact of our food choices, Anna Lappé picks up the conversation, examining another hidden cost of our food system: the climate crisis. From raising cattle in industrial-scale feedlots to razing rainforests to make palm oil for Pop-Tarts, the choices we make about how we put food on our plates, and what we do with the waste, contribute to as much as one third of total greenhouse-gas emissions. Lappé exposes the interests resisting this crucial conversation while she educates and empowers readers and eaters committed to healing the planet.
We believe that ideas have enormous power and that humans are capable of changing failing ideas in order to turn our planter toward life. At the Small Planet Institute, we seek to identify the core, often unspoken, assumptions and forces — economic, political, and psychological — now taking our planet in a direction that as individuals none os us would choose. We disseminate this deeper understanding of root causes.