HUMANS, THE FIRST SPECIES TO TURN ITS FOOD SUPPLY INTO A HEALTH HAZARD, WITH FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ
How is power linked to the way we eat? Has inequality boosted the amount of unhealthy food we consume? How have things changed since Diet for a Small Planet was first published in the early 1970s?
This week on International Horizons, Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey talks with Frances Moore Lappé about the politics of food and how the way we eat interacts with structures of power — and what we can do about changing that for the better.
Subscribe to International Horizons on Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited selection of the transcript follows below.
John Torpey 00:06
The way we eat and the way we live are not always seen as connected. But how we eat is on arguably related to the fate of the planet in climate terms, and the connection goes further to the social order in which we live and the survival of democracy itself.
John Torpey 00:23
Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I’m director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York.
John Torpey 00:42
We’re fortunate to have with us today, Frances Moore Lappé, the author of Diet for a Small Planet some 50 years ago now, which has sold millions of copies and is still very much in print. She’s received numerous honorary doctorates and awards for her work, including the Right Livelihood Award, which is sometimes known as the alternative Nobel Prize. With her daughter, Anna, she established in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2001 the Small Planet Institute, which focuses on the promotion of democracy. She’s written some 20 books on food, climate and democracy, including World Hunger: Ten Myths with Joe Collins, and most recently, Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want with Adam Eichen, which was published by Beacon Press in 2017. Thank you so much for joining us today, Frances Moore Lappé.
Frances Moore Lappe 01:40
Thank you so much, John. This is the 50th anniversary — I can’t believe it — of Diet for a Small Planet. And we did, with a great deal of help from my daughter, Anna, we’ve done a new version for this 50th anniversary. So, everything is updated, a new introduction, and I have to give a big shout out. It’s great to give birth to a child who really helps you to do the work.
John Torpey 02:08
Yes, indeed, that was a good idea.
Frances Moore Lappe 02:10
John Torpey 02:11
That worked out well.
John Torpey 02:13
So you know, the book: it is remarkable and hard to believe in many ways that the book came out 50 years ago, or 51 years ago, I guess now. And as you say, you’ve written a new introduction, you’ve revised the book in various ways, added new things and parts to it. But the introduction, I think, in many ways tells the story of your journey, if you like, and about the the ways you delve into the connections that I was talking about in my introduction between food, that is how we eat, and how we live, and the fate of the planet, and the future or the health of democracy. And so it’s not just a diet, it’s not a recipe book, I mean, it has that in it. But your interests have, obviously, as The Small Planet Institute suggests, your interests are really much broader ranging. I mean, indeed, I was struck in the introduction; the new introduction, by how wide ranging the sort of vision here really is. So let’s try to sort of whittle it down to manageable parts, maybe, and talk a little bit about the different components of this project that you’ve been on for the last 50 or more years.
Frances Moore Lappe 03:29
Well, it’s been a journey, but the questions have really remained the same. And I started out with this very simple question: is it true? Is Paul Ehrlich right? You know, there was the book in the late 60s telling us that we’d reach the Earth’s limits and famine was virtually inevitable, according to some great thinkers, because we they’re just not enough. And I thought, “Oh, food, what is more basic than that? I can’t think of anything besides air maybe." And if I could understand why hunger, that that would unlock the mysteries of economics and politics, that I would know what to do with my life. And so I just said, “Okay, I’m going to see if that’s right.” And I went to the UC Berkeley Library where I was in that area at the time, and put two and two together, kind of literally, and realized that actually, no, there’s more than enough food for all of us. And that is what took me on this journey. Why would such a bright species not first figure out how to feed itself, all of its creatures, with the healthiest food? And what’s up with us?
Frances Moore Lappe 04:43
And that is still my question. So I realized that we take plenty and we reduce its capacity. And of course, now by the ultra processing of our food, we’ve turned food into a health hazard. I like to say we’re the only species I know that it is literally killing itself by feeding itself. I mean, that’s not very smart. So that it’s been a good, a good – I guess I feel I started with – a really good question. It’s taken me a long way.
John Torpey 05:17
Yes. Well, indeed. I mean, it strikes me that the question, which is really a lot of questions, is interesting in itself, just having the kind of intuition that all these things are connected. And I mean, I think about as you know, I went off and became an academic and academics are, you know, sort of rewarded for specializing, for specialization. And I’m sort of struck by the way in which your work resists any specialization. I mean, there is a lot of specialist knowledge in there, but
Frances Moore Lappe 05:52
I call myself a professional generalist. And it’s challenging, because, you know, if you ask the biggest questions — a friend of mine once said this, to me — that if you ask the biggest questions, you’re bound to get something wrong somewhere, because it’s so vast. But if you ask just the narrowest questions, it won’t matter. And I’d rather matter and take the risk of asking the biggest questions, I guess.
John Torpey 06:16
Well, I think, indeed, that’s often the way that in my sort of corner of the academic world, this is the way things work. People ask questions that are perhaps important in some way, but their knowing the answer is not necessarily so crucial. We’re not going to gain that much from getting that one right, as opposed to getting these bigger questions right. But this is a long ongoing debate in academic life.
John Torpey 06:45
So maybe you could talk a little bit about the ways that things have changed, the impact of the book on our society. And I know, you tell a number of personal stories. I mean, I was interested to learn that Eric Adams, the now Mayor of New York, seems to have gotten at least some of his ideas about how to fix his own health from reading Diet for a Small Planet. But talk a little bit about the kinds of changes that the book has affected. And about what changes: I mean, most of the changes, I would say, that you explore in the new introduction are bad sort of developments, or their developments that aren’t improvements over what happened, what was going on 50 years ago. So maybe you could talk a little bit about those things.
Frances Moore Lappe 07:34
Yeah, I often think of it as we move in two directions at once. And we have to hold that seeming contradiction. Because on the one hand, there’s so much greater understanding of the connectedness of all. And I love to quote my hero, Hans-Peter Duerr, German physicist, now deceased, he said, “Frankie, in biological systems, there are no parts, only participants.” So there’s more awareness with emerging and still developing ecological worldview of the connectedness of all. And I think that the reason that Diet for a Small Planet, now more than 50 years ago, really grabbed people is that because all is connected, then every act we take and don’t take ripples out and has an effect.
Frances Moore Lappe 08:22
And so I love to say, the only choice we don’t have is for them to change the world. Because every act we do, and don’t is having ripples. And since we choose food, many times a day — I mean, I’m kind of a grazer, so I many times a day, I choose something to eat — that has a lot of power in it. Because just because of that, that it’s personal that it’s easy to visualize the impact on farmers on the earth, on our health and our bodies and our communities. And so I think the reason that my question really grabbed a number of people who bought the book is that we want our lives to have meaning and power and choosing food that is aligned with our values aligned with what the Earth can, how the Earth can thrive with us on it, that had a lot of appeal. People don’t like to feel meaningless and powerless. And I think that really is what Diet for Small Planet is all about.
Frances Moore Lappe 09:28
And for all who’ve never heard of it, it’s really about how our food choices, yes, ripple out and that a grain-fed, meat-centered diet that we’ve taken to an extreme form in the United States has all sorts of negative impacts besides just its extreme inefficiency. You know, I started out, which is the shock and how inefficient that we use now about 80% of agricultural land is devoted to livestock. But they provide us only 18% of our calories. So just those two numbers alone, we see how profoundly inefficient this is, and how, therefore we sort of absorb this idea that that is necessary for health when it is not necessary for health. In fact, it’s a health hazard.
John Torpey 10:23
Yeah, this reminds me a bit about the part in the book about the relationship between how we eat and our health. And I mean, the comments you made already: We’re the only species that is eating itself to death. And I mean, a lot of this, it seems to me has to do with improvements in people’s well-being, that is to say, people have become more affluent, and they’re in a position to buy things that turn out, in fact, not to be that good for them. And as relative affluence has continued or improved elsewhere in the world, they’re now facing the same kinds of diseases increasingly that we face: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc.
John Torpey 11:09
So maybe you could talk a little bit about what to do about that. I mean, in other words, some of what we’re talking about, some of the changes in people’s diets seem to simply have to do with them getting better off. And that’s counterintuitive, perhaps. But that seems to be what’s happening. So how do you reverse that kind of link?
Frances Moore Lappe 11:31
Well, I would emphasize power. That we have increasingly concentrated global economic power that is promoting this unhealthy diet, both, I would include here, grain-fed meat-centered. First of all, let me just say I’ve learned recently that the WHO (World Health Organization) has deemed red meat a probable carcinogen, and processed meat, like sausage, a carcinogen. So there’s that piece of it, but then, through concentrated economic power, we now have so much food processing, that is being advertised and pushed throughout the world. Let me just put it this way: seventy-ish percent of global deaths are from non-communicable diseases. And most of those are diet-related.
Frances Moore Lappe 12:30
So what I’m saying is that what is happening is because of concentrated economic power, food is processed and taking out, therefore the great fiber that we need, and many of the vitamins and minerals we need, and it is geared to make us hooked on it. It’s geared to taste so much that it’s actually as addictive as something like alcohol, some experts tell us. So we have to understand behind this, both the grain-fed meat-centered and the highly processed foods — by the way, ultra processed foods as a category in the United States supply now about 60% of our calories, which is shocking. And so we have to understand that by allowing such concentrated power then to take over our food system, we are exposed to a diet every day and become hooked on a diet that is actually a danger to our health. And I think I love to say, we’re the first species that is turning its food supply into health hazard.
John Torpey 13:41
Right? So you’ve mentioned now a number of times the term or the idea of power. And that’s not necessarily something that would immediately leap to mind as an issue in a book of this kind. And in general, I would say there’s a lot of ambivalence, I think, for many people about the idea of power, but you’re sort of putting a very positive kind of valence on it. Why do people need power? What will it do for them? How should that change in the coming period?
Frances Moore Lappe 14:16
Well, power has a bad rap. I agree with you. But ultimately, its root meaning, in the Latin, is just: to be able, that we are able to act. And that is a human need to know, I believe, that to know that we count that we’re not just a cog in somebody’s machine, that we really matter. That is a deep human need. And so this capacity to act at root of power is expressed in having real choices, first of all, having knowledge about what’s good for us so that we can make sound choices. And certainly, yeah, and having the economic power, the access to resources that we can afford to eat healthfully, and that we can live in places where there is access to healthy food. All of that is about power.
Frances Moore Lappe 15:09
So I think it’s very important that we remove the concept of power from something negative to that which we all need. And it’s only negative when it is highly concentrated. And that is what we’ve allowed to happen, especially in the United States where we have one of the most extreme gaps between rich and poor, worse than more than 100 countries.
John Torpey 15:39
Right. And you mentioned in the introduction, again, some not so salutary developments in the realm of power in recent years. And I wonder if you could say a little bit about it. Obviously, there’s a lot of concern these days, a lot of talk about the threat of authoritarianism, you seem to have written the introduction, sufficiently early that you could comment on the January 6th fiasco — whatever exactly that was. And I wonder what you would say about, I mean, there’s a discussion, even though we’re on the brink are heading towards or whatever civil war in the United States, which I guess I think is a little overwrought. But there obviously is a serious problem of polarization in the country. And you know, whether you see any particular antidotes to the situation, the pickle we seem to find ourselves in.
Frances Moore Lappe 16:32
Yes, I grew up — and I think a lot of us grew up — absorbing the idea that we’re the best, the U.S. And that we are profoundly democratic; we’re the leader of the democratic world, right? That’s our self-concept. And so, I think what happens then when you absorb that, then if you’re not making it, gosh, you feel like, “Oh, it must be me.” I mean, that’s what the culture is saying that if I’m not making it, I have failed, it’s not that the system is working against so many. And that’s a very uncomfortable feeling. And so human beings, we tend them to want to find a culprit and to blame others, because the system is invisible to us. And so we think somebody else is causing the problem. And that’s really what’s happening today, I think, is that there is a tendency, when people are very insecure about their status, to then blame the other. And, of course, in our society that comes with a lot of racism, unfortunately, that then well, it must be those people, those people of color who are a big part of the problem.
Frances Moore Lappe 17:56
So that is what I try to incorporate into my own life and worldview, that it’s not that the people who carried out this violation of all democratic principles when they stormed the Capitol on January 6, not that they’re bad people, that they are trapped in a frame of understanding where they truly believe that they were defending their country. And so we have to look at the roots and how our communication systems are concentrated. So people watching get a lot of the news that has a lot of disinformation in it if you watch certain channels, like Fox News, and we then move in the direction of polarization. But it’s not because of bad people is what I’m suggesting, it is because of a frame that we don’t understand how important it is to create rules in which we can all thrive, and when many of us are feeling like we’re not making it, then we look for a culprit to blame. Unfortunately, I think that is a tendency for human beings. And I’m not saying I’m innocent of that either. But we have to look deeper to why, why, why.
Frances Moore Lappe 19:22
And it’s one of the great things about being an elder as I am is that I can remember the 1960s when I was paid by the City of Philadelphia during the war on poverty to go door to door in African American communities and organize a a women’s movement, a welfare rights movement. And it was understood that that was going to benefit us all, if we could address poverty, that that would be good. You know, that was the Great Society. A Great Society doesn’t have people living in misery.
Frances Moore Lappe 19:58
And I think the more that all of our listeners can grasp that this frame of othering, this frame of, you know, in a sense, accepting this extreme inequality has always been this way. And so, I was born in the '40s, and my children were born in the '70s. So for my youth, we cut the poverty rate almost at half through very direct public action, where we work together. And then my children born in the '70s to today, all the wealth is just rushed to the top. So that we have, as I said earlier, one of the more extreme concentrations of wealth, so I just want to underscore that it hasn’t always been this way.
John Torpey 20:45
No, of course, it hasn’t been this way. And, the period from sort of 1945 to 75, roughly, I mean, the French call it the 30 glorious years, but for Western European societies in the United States and Canada, and a few others, these were times of great prosperity as well as relative equality. And that period came to an end after 1975-ish. And we’ve been living in that period of massive upward redistribution of wealth that you just described.
John Torpey 21:26
There was seemingly an opportunity for the new president, relatively new now, Joe Biden to make inroads against that kind of set of arrangements. But that opportunity seems now a bit to have come and gone, I’m not sure. But I wonder what you would say about that. I mean, have we left this period behind, which is sometimes referred to as neoliberalism, this emphasis that you point out in the introduction, the emphasis on markets and self-interest and those kinds of ways of looking at the world? You know, are we going to leave that behind anytime soon? Do you think?
Frances Moore Lappe 22:12
Well, it depends on us, right. And so my focus in my life right now, and my organization’s goal, the Small Planet Institute, is very much on democracy itself. And we co-sponsor a website, that’s very easy to remember, DemocracyMovement.us, which is either us or United States, however, you want to look at DemocracyMovement.us. And so anybody who grasps, and I hope more and more of us do, that we have to create fairer rules, so that we can all be heard through our political channels to begin to shape the rules, so that they are more fair. And that’s what the democracy movement is about. And so you can go there and there, of course, many other great places to learn about the kinds of reforms that you can, wherever you are, pursue with your elected officials. And of course, we’ve just had this big push in Congress for the Voting Rights Act, which could have made it, except for a couple people. And we can’t give up on that. Because, without a fair voting process, and fair access to the ballot, we don’t have a full-blown democracy. And so just so our listeners know, the U.S. ranks, depending on whose measure you’re looking at, we ranked down at 50th, or roughly 60th, by global bodies who rank the quality of democracy worldwide, that we're way down behind a few dozen other countries.
Frances Moore Lappe 23:51
So we have a lot to learn. And, and I think part of it for me is shifting this movement for for real, accountable democracy from some dull duty that you got to do because you’re a citizen to a thrilling part of one’s life because you know that you’re going to the very roots of the problem. I call democracy now the tap root problem, because we can’t address climate change, we can’t address hunger, we can’t address poverty, we can’t address a great need for a better health care system that we all can access. We can’t do that without democracy. So it is quite a calling. And, and that also it’s very intergenerational, too, because a lot of young people and people of all generations get that now.
John Torpey 24:47
So yeah, I would be remiss, I think, if I did not ask you a little bit more pointedly about climate change. I mean, you and your daughter, Anna, have devoted a lot of attention and time and writing to that issue. And so I wonder if you could say, I mean, John Kerry is reported in this morning’s paper to be saying that, “we’re not doing enough.” And that refrain is, unfortunately, woefully familiar. And I guess the question is, how do you see our attempts to address climate change? I mean, it seems to me that part of the problem of climate change is that leaving the last year or two aside, it often seems like a problem that’s kind of out there and down the road, rather than something that’s happening now. So I wonder if you could talk about how you think we’re gonna see…
Frances Moore Lappe 25:41
I borrow a phrase from my dear friend David Korten, who talks about from emergency to emergence. In other words, I strongly believe -and this is not just my hype to get people interested and concerned in acting on climate change — but all the changes that we need to make to address the climate crisis, the climate emergency, are all things that will that improve the quality of our life in so many other ways. Through in food, for example, our food system contributes about 37% of the climate challenge, the greenhouse gas challenge. And so I think, when we know that by shifting away from the meat-centered to more plant-centered and more ecologically grown food, we all gain gain gain, because we’re healthier, our farmers aren’t poisoned by pesticides if we move into an ecological farming system. Small farmers have more of a chance, because we have to be fighting monopoly at the same time. So it’s a win win win. It’s not about sacrifice.
Frances Moore Lappe 26:59
And I think the more that we can reframe the climate crisis as the opportunity to gain in our health, gain in our community, the beauty of our community because we know that people thrive where there is greenery. I once read, in my book EcoMind I cite this study, that showed that even being able to see a tree out the window can reduce a teenage depression by some percent. You know, that all the things that we need to live up, to address threat of our fast changing climate are all things that we benefit personally from as well. So we have to really embrace it as a win win win win. Is that an answer to your question, John?
John Torpey 27:53
But that’s, sure. It still strikes me as such a big problem. And there’s a lot of finger pointing, getting people convinced that this is really something they have to do something about.
Frances Moore Lappe 28:08
But most, well, I think there’s at least a majority, who are very concerned about climate change. So is no way a “French issue” now. And now that, you know, as you say it, the effects are happening. And I was just listening to a story from Alaska how lives are being seriously disrupted and species ended there. So it’s happening, but let’s see it as the opportunity to make changes that benefit in so many ways.
John Torpey 28:50
Absolutely. So, perhaps a last question that — I didn’t read all of your books in preparation for this, but I did see the titles and there’s one that was called Rediscovering America’s Values. And I’m sort of intrigued by what that book is about and what values you think there are that should be rediscovered? And not everybody in your part of the political spectrum shall we say (and mine, I suppose) thinks America’s values are the most ideal ones. And the ones that are going to carry us to addressing the problems that we’ve been talking about. So I’m curious what that book was about and what your views on that might be now.
Frances Moore Lappe 29:39
I think you’re a mind reader because I just picked it up off my shelf yesterday and thought, “You know, I should really redo this.” But the book title came from the publisher, because actually the book is all written in a dialogue. And it is a dialogue about what is the meaning of freedom? What is the meaning of justice? And what is the role of the market? What is the role of government, and then at the end of the book, what is human nature? And it’s a dialogue between my voice and my construction of a middle of the road, American conservative. And so I got actual conservatives to help me write that voice. So I don’t tell the reader what to think, I ask the reader to consider and to engage with these two voices. And so I think that it might be worth redoing.
Frances Moore Lappe 30:41
But what I mean by values, yes, is just one of the premises, and for example, our definition of freedom, and that’s a big one, because there’s a lot of different angles on it. So I often say that people talk about the wonder of the market is that it gives us choice and there is our freedom, but you only have choice if you have income to participate in choosing right in the marketplace. So that there is a very, very close connection between, if you define freedom in our system as freedom of choice, it’s a very close connection between that and the fairness of who has access to resources to be able to choose.
John Torpey 31:35
Well, I’m glad I stumbled across that title, because I totally agree, this is a book that needs to be redone. I mean, I had no idea that it was framed in the way that you just described, but I spend a lot of time thinking these days about how we’re going to overcome the divides that we have built up between ourselves and how we’re going to come together as a country and address the problems that we obviously have. So a book that attempts that, you know, views a conservative as a worthy human being who has to be talked with and persuaded, you know, I think is a very valuable project right now.
Frances Moore Lappe 32:16
I think, the biggest contrast, I hope, comes through because it’s everything that is our different understanding of what is human nature. Are we fundamentally just selfish little shoppers? Or is it that we are also deeply social, and therefore, what comes out whether our social nature or our need to be in communities, thriving communities, or our more selfish nature of what comes out, depends on the rules that we make together and that’s democracy. So there is a debate then about how inherently who we are. What is our inherent nature? And my position is that we can be either very selfish or very socially cooperative, depending on the rules that we make together in democracy.
John Torpey 33:09
Absolutely. Well, that’s gonna be it for today’s episode, I want to thank Frances Moore Lappé for sharing her thoughts about food, democracy and the future of the planet. She’s as smart and gracious as she was when I met her almost 40 years ago.
John Torpey 33:26
Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance, as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song “International Horizons” as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.