January 19, 2014
Well this one is kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it?
Frances Moore Lappé wrote Diet for a Small Planet, published originally in 1971. Simply noticing that date should give some recent converts to the food movement pause. It’s worth recalling that sixties hippies were eating brown rice, bulgur and waxing poetic about the miraculous benefits of macrobiotic diets. That was the milieu in which Diet for a Small Planet appeared. Shifting subtly away from possibly spurious health claims, Lappé put forward an ecologically based rationale for shifting to a more plant-based diet, interspersed with recipes for a few dozen vegetarian dishes. I have the sneaking suspicion that the early success of the book depended heavily on those recipes. We were a generation who simply could not imagine a proper meal with a fairly significant chunk of meat at the center of the plate, after all.
She went on to found Food First (more officially known as the Institute for Food and Development Policy) with Joseph Collins. Food First was (in my experience) the first organization to emphasize the link between food and social justice. Throughout the eighties they produced a stream of publications and multi-media products promoting the idea that a) there was plenty of food in the world, but b) poor people—even poor farmers—were systematically being deprived of any access to it. I used to show the Food First slide show to my agricultural ethics class at Texas A&M. More recently she has partnered up with her daughter Anna Lappé to create the Small Planet Institute. Her latest book is EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want.
Like other food-system icons we’ve discussed, Lappé tends to paint in rather broad strokes. As long as you think of her as a primary motivator, and not the place to go for details, there is absolutely nothing bad I would want to say about her message. For my money, the key message in EcoMind is simply “Hey! Philosophical presuppositions matter!” It would be easy for a reader to conclude that changing “the way we think” is simpler than it really is, but somehow I don’t take this to be a very serious knock on Lappé or her contribution to food ethics. I guess I should admit to having a more positive disposition toward Frances Moore Lappé than to some other equally well known activists, and it’s mainly because though I’ve only met her once, I’ve been friends with two of her former husbands: Marc Lappé and J. Baird Callicott. Neither of them seemed to carry any kind of grudge about that “former” part, either.
If I were going to recommend any of her 18 books, it would probably be the latest edition of Diet for a Small Planet—which, I confess, I haven’t read. I think it’s actually the 10th anniversary edition that sits on my shelf, and that one would be more than thirty years old, now. I’m not sure what she’s done with it in recent updates. At one time, she was pressing the idea that her argument was not intended to support vegetarianism. Rather the idea was a rather significant decrease in the amount of meat that people were consuming. The reason being that industrial meat production consumes a lot of soil, water and energy that goes into agriculture. And by “a lot” she meant a disproportionate amount. You have to produce between 2 and 5 times as much plant protein to get a pound of meat as you need to produce if you at that plant protein your own self. And this argument was put together before we had a real grasp of the way that beef and dairy production contributes to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses. But there is an “on the other hand” to this argument, because animals can be an integral part of a sustainable agriculture. I would probably send people to Simon Fairlie’s book Meat: A Benign Extravagance to ‘splain that point, rather than Diet for a Small Planet. But that doesn’t prevent Frances from being this week’s food ethics icon.
Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University