Frances Moore Lappè’s iconic Diet for a Small Planet has helped awaken millions of people to the connections between our diets, our bodies, and the fate of the planet. Since its publication in 1971, a rich array of food-related movements has risen up, taking on everything from nutrition and health, to farmer and farmworker justice, to world hunger and climate crisis.
What is the balance between crisis and progress? Can food activism possibly keep pace with the food industry’s destructive swath? Lappè, author or co-author of 17 books – including a new updated edition of World Hunger: 10 Myths, with co-author Joseph Collins – calls herself a “possibilist.” In a recent hour-long interview, she adroitly juggled bright-eyed hope with clear-eyed realism.
Somewhere between that hope and realism, Lappè exudes a passionate dedication to the idea that food is about more than filling stomachs sustainably – as she explains, it’s also about community, democracy, and human dignity.
I sat down with Lappè during her visit to Berkeley this May to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Food First, the prolific and influential think tank she and Collins founded in 1975. Lappè now runs the Small Planet Institute with her daughter, author and activist Anna Lappè.
Christopher D. Cook: Since the publication of Diet for a Small Planet, what’s changed and what hasn’t changed?
Frances Moore Lappè: On the one hand, things are so much worse than I could have imagined in terms of the concentration of power in the world, and the destructiveness of industrial agriculture. Never could I have imagined the extent of the dislocation, the extent of the cycles we are in with industrial agriculture. On the other hand are the things we’ve been documenting in our new book—the emergence of people aligning their lives with the laws of nature, human nature included. There is a deeper understanding of what it takes for people to thrive—that human dignity is not some add-on after we get everything else met. I think so much disruption in the world today is because our structures deny so many people their basic human dignity.
How would you describe the state of food activism, then and now?
It was such a different era, because it was really the awakening to world hunger, famine in Bangladesh, famine in Africa. In 1974, world hunger hit the international marquee, when the United Nations called a World Food Conference. At that conference, I was just stunned. Corporations were so present. There was still so much buy-in to the scarcity diagnosis and the corporate solution that I came home just shaken.
Then, the focus that Joe Collins and I were called to was world hunger. We weren’t as focused on the U.S. food supply and its degradation. We were part of a very alive world hunger movement that was very international, that in some ways doesn’t exist today. It’s morphed into all these different dimensions.
The things that inspire me today, I would never have imagined possible when Joe and I founded Food First, and that’s very humbling. The science behind agroecology is now widely accepted. The Indian government admits that the testing ground for the industrial model in Punjab has failed horribly, and there are two million farmers in two southern Indian states who are transitioning to agroecology.
How do we tie today’s many different food movements together?
If I could somehow orchestrate it all, I would want us to have more of a common theme song, and that theme song has the word “democracy” in it. That we are redefining democracy through activism around food, the most basic of all our needs, linking our diets to the earth and to each other, whether it’s school gardens or anti-GMOs [genetically modified organisms]. I would love to see us always tying it back into what we share, the concept of what I call living democracy.
I would love to have more of a canopy of hope over all of our work, the hope that we are agents of a deeper practice of democracy that will reclaim our rightful roles as citizens, despite the dominance now of private entities over the public. That’s the tension I live with all the time, between celebration and yearning for that seed, a real voice for regular people.
What unites our struggles?
A recognition of human dignity. The struggle is not just that everyone has enough nutrients, the struggle is ultimately about whether we all recognize each other as people worthy of a voice, and therefore people with dignity, who are not just recipients, but co-creators. That’s what could unite us: recognizing that this is not just about supply, but about extreme imbalances in our power relationships. We’ve created structures which give such huge numbers of people in the world so little capacity to act in their own interests, and in the common interest.
What potential links do you see between the food movements and the sharing movements, the commons?
In Germany, they have sharing centers where if people have too many leftovers, they can just drop off the food. Some of them have significant refrigerators, and anybody can drop off food and anyone can pick it up. Everybody is responsible for themselves. Food waste is such a totally avoidable outrage, and that idea that, of course, we don’t just throw away good food, and making it easy for people to feel good about sharing with others.
Now there are 28 countries in whose Constitution, food is an explicit human right. I think of the city that Anna and I visited for Hope’s Edge, Belo Horizonte in Brazil, the idea of food as a public good. As the leaders there explained it to us, what has really changed is social mentality, from food as a private good to food as a public good, like education. You realize that an educated people is a benefit to everyone: your community is educated, of course, you benefit.
They are now understanding that when everyone is well-fed, we all benefit. So they cut the child death rate in that city by 72% in a dozen years, which is lightning speed for such public health improvements. That sense of food as a common good, that we all have a stake in making sure everybody has access. Out of that change in mentality came public restaurants, people’s restaurants where for fifty cents, you get a several course meal, no stigma whatsoever, all kinds of people gathering in these huge open-air, very upbeat environments.
It’s saying that food is not only a commodity, it is a commons and is essential to life, and we all benefit when we set the rules so that everyone has access to it.
Panel discussion at the recent Food First 40th Anniversary. From left to right, Food First executive director Eric Holt-Gimenez, board member Michael Dorsey, board member Shyaam Shabaka, and Lappè. Photo: Christopher D. Cook.
What is the role of capitalism in the food crisis?
The terms are tricky here. If people equate capitalism with a market economy, and they assume, therefore, that if you are critical and say capitalism is the root of the problem, then they assume you want some kind of state, top-down distribution system. In my work, I talk about this peculiar kind of economy we’ve created, essentially driven by one rule: what brings the highest return to existing wealth. We’ve fallen for this false notion that there is only one kind of market. It’s not capitalism per se, it’s capitalism misunderstood to mean this peculiar kind of market.
When I look back, I see my lifetime spanning two different worlds—my generation in the ‘40s, and my children’s generation in the ‘70s. In the first, you see the bottom fifth of the population doubling its real income, as Robert Reich points out in Supercapitalism. I grew up in this working-class neighborhood in Texas, and there was this basic sense of security. After the depression, we had a very different understanding, that the market couldn’t work without democratic government setting boundaries. Then Reagan brilliantly, within a few years, brought a wrecking ball tearing down the whole idea of a democratically bounded market.
Once government is the enemy, you have nothing to actually have citizens say, “I want a voice in how the market works…” There’s this myth of choice, we say, “Oh, gosh, 30,000 items in a typical supermarket,” but most people don’t have the choice of affordable, chemical-free produce. We don’t have the choice to say we don’t want our kids to be tempted with aisles and aisles of junk food right in their reach.
Why is there such a gap between awareness and change?
I think we have yet to ground our various pieces [of the food movement], such as school gardens and anti-GMO campaigns, in a common philosophy and values about democratic society, the actual voice we have in our food system. That’s what I want to be a part of, figuring out how to do both/and: make progress where we can on the issues (such as dietary guidelines, health and ecological benefits of eating less meat), and not fool ourselves by thinking we can have a life supporting society without democracy – not just electoral democracy, but a culture, where kids are learning at the earliest age that they can be a part of the problem solving. It’s part of what I call apprentice citizenship—learning how to be an active co-creator of your community.
When you look at food movements today, what gives you hope?
In the last decade, the awareness about how dangerous this corporate-processed food product is—the obesity epidemic, especially among kids. The awareness that food has become a disease source, not just nourishment. The Berkeley soda tax struggle. I think that’s a big start, people waking up to this food crisis, that this food is killing us. And this is global. The worsening of diets is moving faster than the improvements, the unhealthy trends are outpacing the healthy trends.
I continue to be impressed by the anti-GMO movement. Forty percent of Americans think GMOs are not safe, despite all the money thrown in by Monsanto. That movement really moves my heart. The whole seed-patenting issue is so foundational to human life. The struggle over the seed, and the continuing resistance to GMOs and seed patenting, I really feel that people get it.
If you were the Secretary of Agriculture, what would top your agenda?
I would make, first, a very exciting, engaging and fun public education campaign about taking our agriculture and moving it into what makes us feel good and healthy. And explain to people how completely wasteful and destructive our grain-fed meat centered diet is, that of all the feed calories we are giving to beef, they return three percent—three percent of those feed calories!—in the flesh that we eat. We now know what is healthy food, and our tax dollars are going to what’s making us sick and destroying our long-term productivity.
We need to shift public subsidies toward diversified food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. People have no idea how distorted and inefficient and unhealthy it is, what we are producing, and with their tax dollars. It would really be an effort to try to engage people in a positive way, that this is a win-win-win: It’s a win for you to be healthier; your costs of healthy food could go down if we shifted these subsidies; and our Earth’s soil could be sustained.
Already people are changing; we have voluntarily reduced our beef intake quite a bit in the last few decades. I think all of this is doable with a democratic system, where we could really vote for that kind of leadership in Washington.
Christopher D. Cook is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis (New Press). His writing on food politics and other issues has appeared in Harper’s, Mother Jones, The Economist, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and elsewhere. Contact him through ChristopherDCook.com. Check out "Harvesting Profits," his latest essay on the roots of food crisis.
Top photo by Laura Findley (CC-BY-20)