It’s been 50 years since the publication of an unlikely bestseller, a book that combined research, policy prescriptions, dietary advice and recipes into a quiet manifesto on the importance of food choices on our world. This year, as Diet for a Small Planet turns 50, the publisher and author are celebrating by releasing a new, updated edition. In this excerpt from the newly revised book, Frances Moore Lappe talks about how her understanding of the root causes of hunger evolved through her organizing work with marginalized communities.
My graduate program at the University of California involved working on fair housing in racially segregated Oakland, but one morning I woke up with this “ah ha”: I can’t actually help our troubled world until I understand how my action contributes to tackling the root causes of the injustices that killed my friend.
But where do I start? I knew the roots of racism, poverty, and powerlessness lay deep in economic and political relationships; but how could I even begin to untangle all that?
At the time, our culture was being hit with a scary message: Experts were predicting imminent famine, as we humans were overwhelming the Earth’s limits. Paul Ehrlich’s book, ThePopulation Bomb, had just exploded, and another book with the ominous title Famine 1975! (including the exclamation point) had also hit the stands.
Food! The first thing every species does is feed itself and its offspring. But we, the brightest species, are failing at this most basic task. What does that tell us? My hunch was that, if I could answer this question, I could untangle the mysteries of economics and politics—and find my path.
Lappe’s research led her to the realization that the “experts” were making their predictions based on flawed numbers, that what they were counting as “available food” was a tiny fraction of what could actually be available if we — as a world — allocated our resources differently. Specifically, she found that the vast majority of agricultural land was devoted to growing food for livestock rather than food for people. In fact, by her estimates, for every 21 calories of protein we put into cattle, we got one calorie of protein back. As she notes, her rough numbers have been confirmed by a recent study. This study found that 36% of the calories grown go to livestock feed, and we only get 12% of those calories back as meat and other animal products. When the researchers added in the percentage of human-edible calories that are grown for biofuel, they calculated that shifting agriculture to exclusively produce food for human consumption could, in principle, increase the amount of food calories available to feed people by as much as 70%. Imagine a world with 70% more food!
Beyond Diet for a Small Planet – Interconnections with Current Events
There is, however, far more to the equation than increasing the amount of food available to feed people — we are, after all, only one part of the full diversity of life on this planet. That very diversity — biodiversity — is essential to maintaining the balance that helps preserve life as we know it on the planet. The drive to produce crops for profit has led to the wholesale deforestation of huge swaths of the planet, along with a grest deal of other damage. A look at just one agricultural practice — monoculture — spells out how our current land management policies (which are a big part of food policies) contribute to climate change by affecting the water cycle. Monoculture, from those amber waves of grain from seat to shining sea to coffee plantations that have denuded millions of acres of rainforest, makes the planet more vulnerable to disastrous “weather events” — droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires, just to name a few.
Monoculture and large-scale food production also maks us more vulnerable to disruptions in the food chain in multiple ways. When the food system depends on national and international transport to stock grocery shelves, anything that affects the food supply in one place can impact it globally. Long food distribution chains make us more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses and pests, not just locally, but nationally. When food processed in a single facility can sicken people in 39 states — and take months to track the source — it indicates that our current food system is a health and safety risk.
Is there a better way? Last week, the United Nations Food System Summit convened to “drive meaningful change in the food system.” The UNFSS was boycotted by more than 300 organizations and indigenous groups from around the world because of its emphasis on industrial and technological approaches to farming. Among their concerns, that the summit leaders focus on profit over human rights, and that they are ignoring the importance of agroecology and food sovereignty in the decision-making process.
Implications for Food Policy
And this comes full circle back to Diet for a Small Planet. In an interview with Civil Eats, Moore Lappe and her daughter, who worked with her mother to revise the book, talked about how intertwined food policy is with nearly every other type of policy and choice we make:
Democracy and food are not an either-or. And whether it’s food, environment, climate change, social justice, or racial justice, all of that has to be part of this deeper, wider common movement for democracy itself.
At WFPC, we recognize that there is more to ending hunger than giving people food. We advocate for policies that give people meaningful choices about food, including increasing access to healthy foods, promoting urban and local agriculture, and lifting incomes so that everyone is able to afford and access healthy and culturally appropriate food for themselves and their families.