After 50 Years, ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ Remains Urgent | Civil Eats

After 50 Years, ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ Remains Urgent

‘The future of life on Earth is now at stake, and our food system contributes enormously to climate change,’ says author Frances Moore Lappé, who collaborated on the latest edition with her daughter, Anna Lappé.

francis moore lappe and anna lappe and the cover of the 50th anniversary edition of diet for a small planet

When Ballantine Books published Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, the book attracted very little mainstream press. And why would it? The 26-year-old Lappé was a first-time author and community organizer who had just dropped out of grad school at the University of California, Berkeley. Diet for a Small Planet combined investigative reporting with recipes for earthy, whole-grain vegetarian foods—soy grits, sprouts, something called “tofu”—that were made with ingredients few Americans had tasted, or, in fact, wanted to know about.

Yet the book’s message made it through the counterculture, growing in momentum until it reached the broader public. It called for a simple, radical shift in perspective at a time when experts argued that the Earth had bypassed its carrying capacity, which would lead to food scarcity and widespread global famine that would destabilize the planet.

Those assumptions were wrong, Lappé argued. Hunger wasn’t insolvable. Her research demonstrated that the world could easily feed itself—if it stopped growing so many crops to feed animals for meat and fed more of them directly to people instead. Just as promising was Lappé’s writing about nutritional research illustrating that humans didn’t need meat for their bodies to thrive. And her recipes gave readers the means to fill their diets with ovo-lacto-vegetarian protein.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, many in Lappé’s generation were looking critically at the politics and economics of the U.S. food system. They didn’t just read Diet for a Small Planet, which has gone on to sell more than 2 million copies—they acted on it. And, for many prominent food leaders at the time, the book was the movement’s intellectual cornerstone, which had propelled natural foods from a quirky, fringe set of ideas into the mainstream.

Lappé, who goes by Frankie, went on to found Food First and the Small Planet Institute, speak around the world, and write 20 books. She has revised Diet for a Small Planet three times, the last time in 1991. For the 50th anniversary, she collaborated with her daughter Anna Lappé—herself a James Beard Award-winning author, food-systems advocate, and Civil Eats advisory board member—to rethink Diet for a Small Planet for 2021, addressing 50 years of climate change, corporate consolidation in farming and food production, pesticide proliferation, topsoil erosion, and water pollution.

The new edition is centered around the research at the heart of the 1991 edition but is now led by a barnstorming new chapter and a total rethink of the recipe section. They kept a few of the favorite recipes from the original edition and added dishes from 14 nationally known cooks, including Bryant Terry, Yasmin Khan, Padma Lakshmi, and Brooks Headley.

What is immediately apparent is that the Lappés’ call to action is just as timely, and even more urgent, as it was 50 years ago. I met with them over Zoom earlier this week to talk about the new book.

How did this new edition come about? And how did you decide what to include and how to reshape the book?

Frankie Moore Lappé: Let me just preface my answer to say a lot of it is Anna’s initiative and coordination. She really saw the vision for the 50th.

Anna Lappé: If memory serves, the publisher reached out in 2019 and said, “Look, there’s this 50th anniversary. Can we reprint the book, and maybe you can just write a few opening words?” Mom said yes. I told her. “Think of it as an opportunity to write a new opening chapter reflecting on how your thinking has evolved over five decades.”

What were some of the biggest shifts that were critical for you to incorporate into the 50th edition?

Moore Lappé: I’ve always felt that the message of Diet for a Small Planet makes so much sense from a health point of view, from an ecological point of view, from [the perspective of] equity, democracy, people’s voice. But what was overwhelmingly in my face as I dove into this new book was that we had allowed wealth to continue to concentrate and corrupt our democracies—and so much more was at risk.

What was a “really great choice” in that first edition is now a no-contest necessity. The future of life on Earth is now at stake, and our food system contributes enormously to the decimation of other species and to climate change. Agriculture is now estimated to contribute as much as 37 percent [of greenhouse gas emissions]. And then there are the health consequences: The diabetes rate, to take one measure, has leapt four-fold. We’re the brightest species, yet we’ve turned food into a threat to our health. We’re killing ourselves by feeding ourselves.

There’s a level of crisis now, a kind of do-or-die moment. I was a cheerleader in high school, and I have that bug in me to get people jumping up and not just crawling under the seats, so I try to balance that alarm with a sense of possibility. But I’m not an optimist. You don’t have to be an optimist to be engaged and determined. All you have to do is believe there’s some possibility that your actions can make a difference. So, I’m a “possibilist.”

After writing 20 books, what did this edition symbolize as you contemplated your first book all over again?

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Moore Lappé: The book itself came out of this youthful intuition that something as personal as food—that we make every day, that is essential to life itself, that connects us with each other and the Earth—had special power. We don’t buy a computer every day or decorate our homes. But we do choose food multiple times a day, and so we have to think about it. What are the ripple effects of my choices? What is the effect on me, my body, my psyche? [Making those connections], I hope, will bring forth other changes in people’s lives.

The exciting thing for me is not when people say, “I read your book and became a vegetarian,” but when people say, “I read your book, and it changed my life’s path.” That’s what I was hoping for; that’s what happened to me. I realized that in these choices I had new power. It’s empowering myself to feel that I’m not just a victim, or when I walk into a supermarket, I’m not just a pawn for corporate advertisers. I have power that can ripple outward.

“The exciting thing for me is not when people say, ‘I read your book and became a vegetarian,’ but when people say, ‘I read your book, and it changed my life’s path.'”

Lappé: I feel that the book was also the beginning of my mother’s life’s work to help people understand that when you look at where there is hunger in the world, more often than not, it is caused not by a scarcity of food production but a scarcity of democracy.

Moore Lappé: The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization says that one in three people worldwide don’t have access to an adequate diet. Per capita [agricultural] production has grown close to 20 percent since I began my work. The big thing is how much waste is built into our system. Eighty percent of our agricultural land around the world is devoted to livestock production, and livestock offers us less than 20 percent of our calories. That’s just such a waste. In the first edition, I called meat “a protein factory in reverse.” That factory is still going in reverse.

In the new essay you look to the Global South to find positive changes—even a way forward—out of seemingly unsolvable, world-threatening challenges.

Lappé: You can look to other places in the world that don’t have the kind of corporate influence over policymaking and agenda-setting that we have here in the United States. What it looks like is places like Andhra Pradesh, in Southern India, where, thanks to pressure from farmers organizing, the state government is now putting public dollars into what they call “zero budget natural farming,” helping farmers transition away from reliance on pesticides toward ecological practices. Chile has passed some of the strongest regulations around marketing junk food to kids. Mexico recently passed a country-wide tax on sugary drinks.

I think my mom’s work has always been about trying to bring these stories from around the world to her audiences so that we see possibilities—examples of communities who are aligning the needs of their diets with environment and social welfare.

What do you hope American readers take from the book about the policy challenges that need to be addressed in the U.S.?

Moore Lappé: 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.

In the first edition, the recipes combatted the misconception that people couldn’t get enough protein in their diets if they stopped eating meat. How do you see the role of recipes in the 50th anniversary edition?

Moore Lappé: Their role is not that different. It’s saying that our personal acts are a daily affirmation of our connection with the Earth, with others’ fates, and with living our values. The more we align our lives with the world we want, the more convincing we are to ourselves, and by extension, to others. I’ve always thought that my individual choices are part of changing the rules that create hunger out of plenty and that are destroying ecosystems. I know that my action alone is not going to change the world, but it changes me.

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Lappé: As I was working on this section with recipe developer Wendy Lopez, there were a few key songs we were hoping people would be singing once they finished working their way through [it]. One is that while there’s much more appreciation of a plant-centered diet, we wanted readers to understand that there’s still a lot of mythologizing around the primacy of protein. The typical American still consumes twice as much protein as their bodies can even use. I think of that as another form of food waste.

Second, there is an active de-skilling that the food industry is hoping that we do. Learning how to cook for ourselves and nourish ourselves is an important political act.

The third song is for people to get that sense of the incredible, rich cultural diversity embodied in plant-centered eating, as well as the deliciousness and joy of it. We were really intentional about celebrating the work of so many people who are giving [their audiences] the skills to nourish themselves with plant-centered food.

“Learning how to cook for ourselves and nourish ourselves is an important political act.”

What are you hoping new readers will take away from this book?

Moore Lappé: The first word that comes to mind is power. Power comes from the Latin posse, which means “to be able.” We think of power as power over, but power is just our capacity to act. The feeling of powerlessness leads to despair, and despair is our worst enemy right now. [I want people to come away saying:] “I am not power-less. My voice does count. I’m going to learn new ways to nourish, literally and figuratively, that sense of power that I have.”

Lappé: The word that came to my mind after power was pleasure. We want new readers to see the great pleasure that stems from learning how to cook for yourself, tasting new foods, and exposing yourself to new cuisines—and the pleasure that comes from aligning your life’s path with one that is working toward a better world for all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan Kauffman is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and the author of Hippie Food, a history of the 1970s natural foods movement. Read more >

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