Nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine a thriving environmental movement absent a revolution in the way we grow, sell, and eat food. Similarly, where would the food movement be without Frances Moore Lappé?
Lappé’s debut book, Diet for a Small Planet, was groundbreaking back when it was published in 1971. Lappé was one of the first people to tout plant-centered eating for both its nutritional value and the impact it could have on world hunger and the environment. Diet unexpectedly shot Lappé into stardom in the world of food and nutrition, and she went on to co-found three organizations, including the Oakland-based think tank Food First, and more recently, the Small Planet Institute. Michael Pollan has called Diet for a Small Planet an inspiration for his bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and a key milestone in the food movement.
“I had no idea I was ever going to be a writer, I had no idea the kind of impact the book would have,” Lappé says. “When I learned what I learned sitting in the UC Berkeley library, I just felt I had to share this because hunger is utterly needless, and there’s more than enough for all of us, and that people would be motivated once they knew that. That was my thought—a burning desire to share.”
The book’s long-lasting success, she adds, is a sign that the movement to encourage clean, sustainable eating has largely been a success. For her, this is most evident in the changing attitudes toward meat consumption.
“For this generation it may be hard to believe it, but when I wrote Diet for a Small Planet the widespread belief was that a plant-based diet was unsafe, that you would die if you didn’t eat meat,” she says. “Going from perceiving a plant-centered diet as totally unsafe to now, the medical establishment saying it’s the healthiest, is a huge change that I see as profound.”
As she looks back over the last four decade though, Lappé, ever an optimist, sees the story of a movement dotted with victories and culture shifts that have made gradual improvements in the world we live in, many of which are mapped in an interactive timeline on the Small Planet Institute's website.
Certainly, a high point has been the explosion of knowledge about pesticides and chemicals in our food system, which began with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring. The United States’ ban on using the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, on our food in 1972 was an important milestone and began to “awaken people to chemicals in our environment, including related to food,” Lappé says.
But while the conversation around pesticides initially revolved around getting the toxins out of our food system, Lappé says the following years produced some groundbreaking research that would begin to marry traditional farming practices with the latest in ecological sciences. Agroecology and permaculture are two examples of this development. Permaculture, discovered by Australian scientists, is a set of agriculture principles wherein ecosystems are designed to maintain themselves through symbiotic relationships between plants. Agroecologists studied the ecological processes present in various farming systems, suggesting that solutions for sustainable agricultural production are not one-size-fits-all, but site-specific. Today, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization trains farmers around the world in the principles of agroecology.
What’s more, with the new knowledge about how pesticides negatively impact our food, bodies, and environment, the organic movement took off. Acreage planted with organic crops doubled in the 1990s, even in the absence of any federal standards from the United States Department of Agriculture. When the National Organic Standards were finally adopted in 2000, the amount of certified organic farmland in the U.S. would double again between 2002 and 2005.
The growth in organics is directly tied to the explosion of the United States food movement—of which Lappé, and later her daughter, Anna, would become a trusted voice—that would cause Americans to think more carefully about the contents and origins of what we eat. Lappé credits domestic groups like the Community Food Security Coalition and useful online tools like LocalHarvest.com for both raising awareness of food issues facing our communities and providing practical solutions that are connecting consumers with local food producers.
Community Supported Agriculture programs and farmers markets, which were born and saw rapid growth in the 1980s, helped restore a sense of connectedness between Americans and farmers.
“My son, when he was just three or four, wanted to be Superman on Halloween in the 1970s. My step grandson wanted to be a farmer,” she says, laughing. “I was joking at the time that the farmer was the new Superman, because [my grandson] had seen the farmer at the CSA. This idea that people can go out and meet the farmer and pick their food is a huge, huge change.”
There have been many other positive developments, of course, including efforts to combat food waste, the adoption of food access as a human right in 23 national constitutions, and the presence of numerous groups coalescing to protect indigenous food systems and small producers. But 43 years after she first published Diet for a Small Planet, Lappé says she keeps coming back to principles put forth in that first work. She now believes the diet she initially saw primarily combating world hunger is precisely what is needed to fight global climate change. But even some climate alarmists, she says, will play off people’s fear of inadequate food supplies to make their points, a tactic, and conclusion with which she disagrees vehemently.
“A key part of my worldview is that fear actually ends up creating more destruction,” she says. “The theme of my life is how do we align with nature so that we can take a deep breath and know that as we align with nature, there’s plenty for all.”