Author cites food production as villain in climate change

Anna Lappé, author of "Diet for a Hot Planet," speaks at the annual Green Matters Symposium at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton.
Anna Lappé, author of "Diet for a Hot Planet," speaks at the annual Green Matters Symposium at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. (Rachel Fus/the Gazette)
By Amber Parcher
The Gazette
Thursday, March 4, 2010

The main culprit causing climate change isn't the Hummer; it's the hamburger.

That's the message Anna Lappé, the author of "Diet for a Hot Planet," presented last week to a crowd of more than 100 regional gardeners and foodies at the annual Green Matters Symposium at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, which zeroes in on pressing environmental issues.

The damaging impact of commercial food production has largely slipped under the radar of global environmental policy, although it is one of the biggest reasons the earth is warming, according to Lappé.

"We hear little about how food affects climate," she said.

The title of Lappé's book about food's connection to climate plays off the iconic 1971 vegetarian book, "Diet for a Small Planet," which was written by her mother, Francis Moore Lappé.

Meat production creates more carbon dioxide than all of the world's travel combined, through deforestation, waste and methane that livestock emit, and fossil fuel-based pesticides and synthetic fertilizers farmers use, Anna Lappé said.

Many Westerners live off a packaged, processed diet, blind to the wasteful and combative nature of their food system, Lappé said, adding that until they change their eating habits, it will be tough to make any meaningful change to the environment.

Many of her listeners at the symposium, however, said they have started to shift how they view food.

Last year, the Montgomery County Department of Parks proposed planting seven community gardens across the county, after a test garden thrived in Takoma Park. And Brookside will start growing food this spring for the first time in the 50-acre botanical garden's history.

Such changes reflect the county's push toward growing local food in small community gardens instead of relying on produce delivered from industrial farms, said Mark Richardson, the adult education programs manager for Brookside and coordinator of last week's symposium.

"It's just a growing movement in our parks," Richardson said. Jessica Weiss was one of those at last week's symposium who is perpetuating the community garden movement. Weiss is the executive director of a new nonprofit group, Sustainable Opportunity for Universal Learning, which uses the earth's natural resources to grow food in urban and rural areas across the county.

The group, based in Sandy Spring, produces healthy soil with leftover food scraps, coffee grounds, beer mash, horse manure and wood chips. Community farmers grow their own fruits and vegetables in the fresh soil, which they sell in farmers markets or use to cook their own meals.

Last week, the Montgomery County Planning Board agreed to let Weiss's nonprofit group grow food on the small patch of land outside the board's Silver Spring headquarters.

Many environmentalists tout the benefits of locally grown food because it travels fewer miles, creating fewer carbon emissions. But a bigger impact of growing food locally is the relationship communities build with the earth, Lappé said. Growing your own food means you are less likely to cut down forests, use harmful pesticides or raise methane-producing cows, she said.

Some communities have struggled in their effort to promote community gardens, however, with some residents objecting to the time and space the gardens demand. Some neighbors even fear that fellow gardeners will use unauthorized pesticides on their plants.

The motivation to grow locally has to come from a desire for sustainable, healthy food, said Gordon Clark, project director of a Montgomery County nonprofit food shed called Victory Gardens. By making the benefits of growing local food personal -- lower cost, more vibrant taste, potential health benefits -- communities will embrace the idea, he suggested.

Eventually, policymakers will take note and a less-wasteful way of eating will become the norm, said Clark, who in 2008 ran as the Green Party candidate for Maryland's 8th Congressional District on an environmental platform.

"The more ways we can think to grow our own food, the better," he said. "Growing our own food is the start of a renovation of people taking back their own lives, their own food."

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