Q&A: 50 Years Ago, a Young Mother’s Book Helped Start an Environmental Revolution

Frances Moore Lappé argued that the “Diet for a Small Planet” was plant-based. Science at a time of climate change now says she was right.

Apr 22, 2020
Frances Moore Lappé speaks at a New York City event in the late 1970s.

Frances Moore Lappé speaks at a New York City event in the late 1970s. Photo Courtesy of Frances Moore Lappé

Fifty years ago, when world hunger often made news, Frances Moore Lappé decided to find out why.

Her answer started a food revolution, forced a global examination of how humans used the planet's resources and gained a key role in the burgeoning environmental movement.  

Diet for a Small Planet, a Ballantine paperback published in 1971, argued that the prevailing wisdom was wrong. A population explosion straining the planet to its breaking point had not created world hunger. There was more than enough potential food for everyone. Humans, especially those in wealthy societies, were squandering it. They were growing grain for farm animals on fertile earth that could grow a healthier, "plant-based" diet for far more people.

 

Lappé's book, with vegetarian recipes offering the "complete proteins" of meat, spawned untold numbers of "eco-conscious" food consumers and presaged the toll widespread cattle farming would take on the earth (before widespread deforestation and climate change were causes for alarm). Her fundamental argument was radical at the time—switching to plant-based food systems could solve world hunger, ease poverty and help save the planet. Yet the book became a mainstream hit, a staple in college dorms and American kitchens. 

Credit: Courtesy of Frances Moore Lappé

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History described Diet for a Small Planet as "one of the most influential political tracts of the times." Nearly 50 years later, in August 2019, a special report on climate change and land commissioned by the United Nations echoed Lappé's thesis. It warned that efforts to combat global warming would fall significantly short without drastic changes in global land use, agriculture and human diets—and included a policy recommendation to reduce meat consumption as a way to mitigate the damages.

Cattle production is a prime source of temperature-changing greenhouse gases, the report concluded. The fuel used to make fertilizer to grow animal feed, raise meat and transport it, not to mention the clearing of vegetation for grazing, results in large quantities of carbon dioxide. Emissions from cows—gas and manure—are responsible for a third of all methane in the atmosphere, which warms the world 20 times faster than carbon dioxide.

After Diet for a Small Planet, Lappé, a young wife and mother barely out of graduate studies (in social work at the University of California at Berkeley) kept exploring her entwined themes of food justice, social equality and a healthier planet. She has never stopped. She has written or co-written 19 books, including several sequels to Diet for a Small Planet. She has also co-founded three national organizations dedicated to advancing social justice and democracy. She currently runs the Small Planet Institute, focused on community-based solutions to local and global issues—or what she called "Living Democracy"—​from Cambridge, Massachusetts, along with its co-founder, her daughter Anna, an environmental justice activist and writer based in Oakland. 

Frances Moore Lappé cooks with her two children, Anthony and Anna in their home in Oakland, California, in the early 1980s. Photo Courtesy of Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé cooks with her two children, Anthony and Anna in their home in Oakland, California, in the early 1980s. Photo Courtesy of Frances Moore Lappé

Before the coronavirus turned Earth Day 2020 into a livestream event, the two women were due to speak in person on Earth Day at a large town hall in Seattle on "Climate Change and Farmland."  

Lappé, who is 76, is currently working on a book on climate change and farmland as she recovers from an undiagnosed case of the coronavirus. She talked about her activist beginnings, the state of the world and why she is still hopeful for a better future in this lightly edited Q&A.

What was the impetus for Diet for a Small Planet? How did you figure out that a plant-based diet could solve world hunger?

I was a "lost" young woman of 26 desperate to find my path; and the topic of world hunger was very much in the public mind. So, I thought, hey, for our survival there's nothing more essential than food. If I just figure out why so many people are hungry, that might unlock the mysteries of economics and politics. Then, I'd have direction!

So, I asked: Are the experts right that hunger is caused by scarcity of food? Just a few years earlier, Professor Paul Ehrlich at Stanford had published The Population Bomb. Its impact was huge, convincing many people that widespread famine was around the corner.

I headed for the agricultural library at the University of California, Berkeley, to find out for myself. Soon, I was astonished to discover that all the newspaper headlines and the experts were wrong. There was then, and still is, enough food to make us all chubby. Even though we were feeding vast sums of crops to livestock, and still are, there were enough calories for all.

But I was even more struck to learn that human beings—a super-bright species—had created a food production and distribution system that was vastly reducing the capacity of the earth to feed us. We thought of it as efficient, but our food system was, and is, about as inefficient as one could imagine. That inefficiency arises primarily from a system of wealth creation generating vast inequality in purchasing power. In it, the best off chose to purchase large quantities of meat, requiring vast resources. Meat was and, for some, still is a status symbol.

Fifty years later, here we are—in a climate change crisis partially created by agribusiness and the production of cattle for meat. 

Today we are still trapped in that inefficiency: Producing livestock uses about three-quarters of all agricultural land, yet livestock provide us only 17 percent of our calories. Beef is worst. Of calories that cattle eat in feed, we get 3 percent.

Are you discouraged? Why or why not?

I am elated that food, farming, forestry increasingly are now understood as part of the problem and solution to the climate crisis. Overall, from land to landfill, our food system contributes almost 30 percent of climate-changing emissions. That's huge.

I'm thrilled that plant-centered eating is spreading fast. When I first released Diet for a Small Planet, people worried they would die from protein malnutrition if they followed my philosophy!

I also strongly believe that every choice we make that is aligned with what we know is good for  all, the better we feel about ourselves. I know my individual choices alone can't "change the world" but they change me. They make me more convincing to myself and therefore to others.

Frances Moore Lappé participates in a rally in April 2016 in Washington, D.C. Photo Courtesy of Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé participates in a rally in April 2016 in Washington, D.C. Photo Courtesy of Frances Moore Lappé

Plus, I think that food—what we choose many times a day—is especially powerful. Choosing consciously, based on consequences for the earth and others, daily reminds us of the interconnection of all life. The late German physicist Han Peter Duerr told me, "In biological systems there are not parts, only participants." I love that.

How has the coronavirus changed the debate over what we eat, if in any way?

Hopefully, the message will now spread even faster and more widely that plant-centered diets with plenty of whole foods can help prevent diabetes, obesity, heart conditions and cancers that are risk factors for Covid, and no doubt for other infectious diseases. During my bout with Covid, I never feared hospitalization or death, and I believe that my 50 years of healthy, plant-centered eating is one reason.

What has it been like to have Covid-19? 

It's been quite humbling—since my self-image is that of great health. But this virus sucked almost all my energy out of me. I was flattened! 

My experience has sensitized me even more deeply to the unconscionable inequities in our society in the distribution of suffering and death. In part because of my advantaged life, I realize, I had no "pre-existing conditions; so, I was never afraid of death. Whereas my African American friends are part of families experiencing hospitalizations and deaths because poverty and discrimination on so many levels mean they did have risky conditions. This gap in suffering is horrifying. 

That seems like a bonus since personal health wasn't the prime reason you went plant-based.

My turn toward what I think of now as an earth-conscious diet was to me an act of "rebel sanity." I was rejecting a system disconnected from human need, and that was unhealthy, wasteful and destructive of resources—as it overuses and pollutes water and poisons us and other species with pesticides and more.

What is one small thing people can do now to help save the planet—beyond a plant-based diet?

I'll tell you a big thing: Embrace the role of an empowered citizen! Learn the power we each have. Drop the notion that fighting for democracy is for somebody else. Only with real democracy can we overcome such inequity and be prepared for the next crisis, including climate disruptions. Democracy is not dull or wonky. So, jump in. Make new friends and choose actions you thought you could never do. That is life's thrill.

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