A Conversation with Frances Moore Lappé

Talking to the author of the critical text Diet for a Small Planet on the occasion of its 50th anniversary edition.

  
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Frances Moore Lappé, with the 1971 publication of the first edition of Diet for a Small Planet, eventually changed mainstream conversation on food by popularizing the reality that hunger was a human-created problem—not an issue of food scarcity, but of distribution. Now, in the new edition for its 50th anniversary, there is updated information on hunger as well as urgent writing on the climate crisis. (I have a recipe in it, and we partnered to make this conversation public.)

Here, we discuss what has influenced Lappé’s work over the last 50 years, how her thinking has shifted, and how we still need to reframe the significance of protein if we’re going to save the planet. Listen above, or read below.


Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé was released in 1971, making the statistic that 80 percent of farmland provides only 18 percent of calories through livestock a rallying cry for better, more equitable agriculture systems. This book gradually grew to sell over 3 million copies and irrevocably changed the way we talk about food, hunger, and culture. Fifty years later, there is a brand-new updated edition, out now, to meet the urgency of our current environmental moment. Visit dietforasmallplanet.org to learn more and get your copy.


Alicia: Hi, Frances. Thank you so much for being here today.

Frances: Thank you so much. I love it.

Alicia: [Laughs.] How are you? Where are you? You're in Cambridge, Massachusetts?

Frances: I'm in Belmont, which is just very close to Cambridge, where our office is. But I'm working at a cottage in my home now because of the COVID isolation.

Alicia: Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Frances: [Laughs.] I grew up in Cowtown, literally called Cowtown as a nickname, Fort Worth, Texas. And the stockyards were never far from my smell distance. 

That was the ’40s and ’50s. And we ate meat at the center of every meal. ‘What's for dinner, Mom.’ ‘Oh, pork chops, or meatloaf,’ it was, that was the center of the meal. And, I mean, we ate healthfully in the sense that my mom never got on to the processed foods. White bread was a really big deal when I was growing up. We had a big, white bread factory on the way to town. You could smell the smell. But my mom always served us whole wheat bread. When she made after school cookies, she always put in a lot of nuts and things that were good for us. 

But generally, we ate the typical diet, but we—without the soda pop in the fridge, we never had that. But it was pretty standard.

Alicia: [Laughs.] Well, as the author of such a historically significant book on diet and the environment, I would think people are curious about how you eat and shop for food on a regular basis. So I wanted to ask what your weekly kind of eating and food shopping and acquiring look like.

Frances: Well, for years now during the summer—and we still are getting them—we are part of a community-supported agriculture. So we get this huge bag of veggies every week, too much for me and my partner to eat, so we share them with a neighbor. So that's a lot of our veggie, fresh veggie intake. We're very big on eating organic, and the only access is primarily Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, as we're trying to get Trader Joe's to carry more organic. But when we don't have our community-supported agriculture, we rely on those sources for fresh veggies. 

My kitchen—if you could see it, it has this huge shelf of jars with all the various, the quinoa, the brown rice, the black beans, the chickpeas, all dried. And so, I have a lot of stuff. We could probably live for a few months on what we have on those shelves. 

I'm a cook, but I kind of wing it. I really encourage people not to be intimidated by recipes, but just to be inspired and motivated by recipes and think of recipes as just a source of ideas. But not, you don't have to be a slave to them and to feel free to add more or less of your family's favorite herbs and substitute veggies. 

It's funny that somebody with so many recipes in her book [Laughter] is not—I’m advocating, ‘Don't be a slave to them.’ I guess I've always hoped that our recipes would be inspiration and motivations, that ‘Oh, I didn't know you could do that with that.’

And I was just talking to somebody yesterday about one of our recipes from the very, very first edition called Roman Rice and Beans. And the concept was to take the basic Latin combo, but just try throwing Italian herbs in there instead of the more traditional cumin and that sort of thing that you associate with a beans and a rice.

So yeah, and just try new stuff. This is not the best thing I've ever made, but just instant—dinner the other night, I had a frozen roasted corn so it's corn, shelled corn but roasted so it has that smoky flavor. And I threw that in the blender with corn—I mean, excuse me—with carrots that we'd gotten from the CSA. And I didn't prepare either. I just washed them, washed the carrots and threw them in the blender with a—and then I added some veggie, veggie, what’s the word? 

Person 3: Bouillon. 

Frances: Bouillon. Thank you.

I added some veggie bouillon and some liquid, and it made it into delicious soup. I was really pleased ’cause it was—I was using what I had on hand, and it was so fast and it was so healthy.

So that's the spirit of Diet for a Small Planet, really, to free us and to—because when I first moved into the plant-centered eating world, people thought, ‘Oh, you're sacrificing? Oh, how do you make that big sacrifice?’ And I said, ‘Oh, no.’ It was discovery. 

Because I was the classic female—maybe it's not true anymore. But in the ’50s, there was just this weight fixation. And I was always counting calories, even though I was never overweight statistically, but I felt I needed to always lose ten pounds. And I think a lot of women feel that way. And so, I was always counting calories in my head. I was a slave to obsession about counting calories. And I'd finish one meal, and ‘Oh, how many do I have left for the next meal?’ It was terrible. 

But I just thought that's the way one lives until I started eating in the plant world more. And all of that just evaporated. And my body just wanted what was healthy for me. And I did lose those ten pounds over time, but I never counted calories from that time on. And I've never changed my weight in 50 years, pretty much. 

I felt my body was just so much more in tune. And I didn't have any more cravings. I’d look forward to eating but it wasn't that, ‘Oh, I've got to have that’ kind of feeling. And so, it was freedom. It was just freedom for me. Maybe my metabolism is different from others. But all I can really share is my own experience, of course. And that was my experience, that it was a win, win, win, win, win. I felt so empowered, that I was aligning with the Earth, best for my body, best for the world in terms of abundance for everyone. And so, it never felt like a sacrifice.

Alicia: And do you use that phrase to describe your diet, ‘plant-centered’?

Frances: I do now. Because I think that's the most all-inclusive. 

Well, I use that. And I use plant- and planet-centered. Because now, we know so much more about the implications of our very, very wasteful use of the land and destruction of rainforest to support the grain-fed, meat-centered diet. So, I wanted to emphasize plant-centered but planet. We're taking the whole planet into our consciousness. And I like that better than vegetarian, because it doesn't send a message. 

Alicia: Right, right, right. 

Well, there have been regularly released editions of Diet for a Small Planet in the last 50 years. So readers have been able to understand the changes in your perspective, changes in information that you've been sharing. But what are the most significant ways you, do you think that your thinking has changed from 1971 to 2021?

Frances: I mean, I think all of us have learned, or all of us who are attending to this piece of the puzzle, we have learned that how we use our land so greatly affects climate. 

And we think about smokestacks, when we—typically, we have thought about smokestacks, about car emissions, when we think about the human creation of this climate catastrophe. But very, very important, very central is the role of food and farming. And it's estimated that our food system could contribute as much as 37% of greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock alone 14.5. And some say even higher. And they point out that if cows were a cow country, it would be contributing about a six, six greatest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. So it's right up there with the problem. 

And therefore, the more we align with our bodies, which thrive so much better with a plant-centered diet, we then align with our goal of stopping this climate catastrophe. And we also prevent all sorts of harm to other species. 

And I think the two things that I emphasize in the new edition, so much that I've learned is that one, is the climate factor. And the other is that natural historians tell us that we are at the brink of the sixth great extinction. Something like a million species now are threatened with extinction. And that we've lost something like 40% of insect species. So that's huge. 

And it's something that I didn't appreciate, when I've—in earlier editions. And so, that's why I call it now this broader—it's not just a climate crisis. It’s an assault on nature that our food is implicated in. And is the real crisis. Because, of course, biodiversity, as I'm sure, is the basis of all life. 

In the new edition of Diet for Small Planet, I use the phrase of my hero, Jane Goodall. And she talks about the tapestry of life, and how we have to both stop tearing it and mend it. And so, I use that metaphor and talk about the tears and the tapestry of life. And one of them certainly is this species decimation. And that is through so much of the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture.

Alicia: And also in the last 50 years, what are the books that have come out that have influenced your thinking more than anything? Or what are the most significant texts on environmentalism and the global food system? I see Eating Tomorrow on your shelf.

Frances: Ok, I had jotted down some titles, but maybe I can remember them. 

Yeah, Eating Tomorrow by my ally and colleague, Tim Wise. And of course, my daughter's book. Diet for a Hot Planet; I think she was one of the early people to focus on the contribution of our food system to climate change. And Raj Patel's books, Stuffed and Starved. And course, Bill McKibben’s book back in the ’80s, The End of Nature. I can still remember where I was, the time when I first read that book. 

So, those are some of the books that have really made a huge impact. I've been influenced also by the work of David Korten. Corporations Rule the World, The Great Turning. He's also a very integrated thinker. So those are some of the people who have been in, close to me a great deal. 

Alicia: And one of the things, the common refrains that people say about changing personal—they don't want to change their personal behavior because they're, that's not as meaningful as regulating emissions by corporations and that sort of thing. And I have the 10th anniversary edition of Diet for a Small Planet. And I was on a podcast about cars, the War on Cars, talking about food stuff. But I quoted from your book about how—I should have written down exactly [Laughs]. But you wrote, oh, a change in diet is a way of saying simply, ‘I have a choice.’

And so, I always think of that. And that's what I talked about on the podcast, too, is that I like to get up every day and do and feel I have agency in the world. And that the foundation of my work in the world is my own personal actions. But it's becoming more and more of a common refrain to say that your personal choices don't mean anything, even as the climate crisis worsens. And so, I wanted to ask what your response is to that, to people who say that their personal changes and consumption changes are too small?

Frances: Well, it's just the false frame for me in a way, and I think for so many human beings, that the more that we don't feel like a victim. You said agency. That's it. The more that we feel that we do have power, the more likely it is that we're going to take the next step and the next step. And we'll be attuned, and we'll read what we need to know. And we'll talk to people about it and get people awake. 

To me, it's an absolutely false, a false dichotomy. It's ‘Oh, yeah. I'm not a victim. I can make a difference. And every time that I align my life with the world I want, I am stronger. I'm more convincing to myself.’ And I think that makes us automatically more convincing to other people. 

I mean, if we preach about climate change, and then they said, ‘Wait a minute, you're running your—’ Oh, you know what? I just heard about leaf blowers. They’re the worst thing ever. They almost were too noisy for this interview, but they turned them off across the street. 

But the more that we can align with the world we want, absolutely, the more credible we become. And I think people sense that and they say, ‘Yeah, it's possible.’ I guess that's the thing. If we don't think that change is possible for ourselves and demonstrate that by changing our behavior, then how can we think the world can change? 

Yeah, I just really hate that. So I'm all for all of the above. Our institute is very much a player in the democracy movement. And I encourage people that wish to say about President Gerald Ford, ‘You can chew gum and walk at the same time.’ You can be part of the food movement, and you can't be part of the democracy movement. It's not a trade-off, one can alert you to the other.

And ’cause I do believe that, yes, we have to change the laws and the—I like to call them enforceable standards rather than regulations. But regulation will do too. But we have to, as a society, set the rules so that we're encouraging more plant-based eating and we're getting rid of this very, very harmful diet. 

Because I'm sure you know, it's not just for the sake of some distant children who have to grow up in a climate chaotic world. But I think everyone should know that processed meat, that is a fifth of all of our meat consumption, is a carcinogen as defined by the World Health Organization. And red meat in general is a probable carcinogen. So it's on every level of responsibility and health and alignment that I think our diet choices are so important.

Alicia: And in the popular imagination—I'm a little bit obsessed with this right now, because I just did a lot of research into lab meat and other types of meat, which—anyway. So ‘the future of food,’ this phrase, people only use it to refer really to technology-based kind of solutions to climate change. And so I wanted to ask, if you were to define or to reframe how people think of the future of food, how would you want people to think of it instead of being something about technology? What is your future of food?

Frances: My future of food is that we are much more integrated. I think of this curious foray into agriculture as a symbol of that or an example of it, that where our food comes from is much more local and personal in that way. And farmers’ markets are everywhere. We have one in our town. And in our office, we have one across the street on Fridays that I love. So one, that we're closer to it. And we're closer to our farmers, and they are honored in a way that they are not today. 

And that we have the rules that insist that we're not using chemicals that can make farmworkers sick. I think the statistic is that half the world's farmers and farm workers are poisoned each year. I mean, no. That means that we're poisoned, too, as consumers. We do not need that. And that we are using our resources very efficiently so that we are—I'm not saying that no one should ever eat meat, of course. I mean, that's not the point. I honor vegans and others who take that stand. 

But my vision is that, yes, that growing is much more integrated into our lives. Every school has a school garden, so little kids can actually grow food and then eat the food they've grown. So that, and then that we just obviously set the rules to protect our health because we have democracy that's really answering to us and not to the Monsantos of the world, not to the large corporation. 

So I just see us much healthier than we are today, and much more just feeling good about ourselves because we—our bodies are more aligned. I mean, just on that point. 60 percent of the calories we now eat have no nutritional value. I mean, and just tragic, if you add all of those who are pre-diabetic to the actual diabetes, it comes to about 45 percent. Almost half of us are either pre-diabetic or diabetic. And that's so debilitating and so life threatening. 

So I just see us much healthier, more integrated into our environments of food and food production, and much less obsessed about our bodies because they're working for us. And we become the shape, sort of, that our metabolism and our genes meant us to be. And there are a variety of shapes that are fine. There's no body shaming anymore. 

So all of that is what I hope, which is reduced so much depression and ill health. And our medical bill would go way down because something enormous—I don't have an exact number, but billions and billions of dollars of our health expenditures are related to our diet. 

Alicia: I wanted to ask also about the idea of lab meat as a solution to meat consumption issues and livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions. I wanted to ask what your perspective is on lab-grown meat, which has a ton of money behind it right now, both private venture capital and also now from the USDA.

Frances: It's such a diversion. Well, I don’t know what I can say about it. It’s such a diversion, because we're still—it's still highly processed, so we're not getting the kind of fiber we need. It's still filled with additives, all of which—we don't understand all of the implications of those. 

And it keeps us fixated on one piece of the meal, when it keeps us from this attitude of, ‘I can be a creator in the kitchen, and I—it can be fun. And I can be experimental.’ It keeps us locked into a certain definition of what a meal is, still has to have meat at the center. 

And it keeps us obsessed about protein, which we now know that Americans eat about twice the protein their bodies can even use. And I just want to underscore here that, I'm sure you know, we don't store protein, so that if we eat more than we need, it just becomes more calories that we use as if it were carbs or a fat. 

So it doesn't really help. And it leaves power in the hands of the corporate sector, so it helps to concentrate control in our food system. Yeah, I guess, fiber additives. All of these questions come into play, and—but most importantly, it kind of keeps us obsessed with meat and protein.

Alicia: No, I agree. That is the—a huge aspect. And I think that's why people, the media has been latching on to it is because people are obsessed with protein. It is still people's first comment when they talk about, ‘Oh, maybe I'll stop eating meat. But I just worry so much about protein.’ And I personally never worried about having—I haven't eaten meat in ten years. There was a point where I was exercising a lot, and I did have to think about it. But for the most part, it's really not that, it's not that difficult.Your body tells you what you need when you're eating what you should be eating. 

Yeah, it's such an obsession.

Frances: I hope we make clear in Diet for Small Planet, is virtually every food has some protein in it. Some has more than others. And we know in the plant world, where we really get the protein hit is in the legume world of peas, beans, lentils, and nuts. By the way, peanuts are a legume, I learned years ago. And they're packed with protein, but all nuts and seeds. I love seeds. So they have a lot of protein.

But yeah, those are the main sort of protein, high-powered protein in the plant world. But all veggies have some protein. You don't have to sweat it. And that's what the scientists are telling us: if we eat a healthy diet with a variety of foods, we're covered.

Alicia: And so, even though plant-based eating has kind of gotten more traction lately, it's still considered niche. And I wanted to ask what you think food media's role is in educating the public on issues around food and sustainability and basically all the things you've written about in Diet for a Small Planet, which remain kind of under covered, I would say, in food media, where you're giving res—you're talking to the people who are cooking and shopping for food, but you're not really giving them the tools to understand the implications of what they're eating and what they're cooking. 

And so, I wanted to ask, do you think food media has done any sort of job, good or bad, on communicating about climate change and sustainability?

Frances: I don't think I’m an expert on it. Just so much of my focus of my life has been, is certainly in recent years, on the democracy movement. 

But I think, certainly, food media can—with every recipe we put out, I think about the New York Times that I read, whenever it's putting forward anything about food to remind people, if that would be easy to do, remind people that getting enough protein is not a problem in the plant world. And this dish that, this recipe, ‘by the way, without any major protein-focused addition to it, it's offering plenty of protein.’

So I think there could be more awareness for sure in debunking the myths that do make people hesitant and just underscoring always the benefits to our health. I mean, I think that's so important, the evidence that plant-based eating actually contributes to longevity. When I started out 50 years ago, the only control group we had, so to speak, was Seventh Day Adventists who were vegetarians. And they had longer lives typically. But now, we have much more evidence of how plant-based diets can contribute both to disease reduction and to longer lives. 

Alicia: You said before that whereas earlier editions of Diet for a Small Planet were focused on hunger, now, it's—you're focused on climate change more. What do you think is the next pressing issue that we can talk about in the food system?

Frances: I would say it's not a shift, it's a both. It’s adding the climate focus, the climate, to all of our thinking about food. Tragically, hunger is still very, very much with us. One in three people in the world still does not have access to an adequate diet. The most heartbreaking statistic on hunger is that one out of every four young children suffer stunting, which is a devastating condition that has—it's not just being short. It has lifelong impact on functioning. 

But then, making clear that has nothing to do with the actual food supply, because we have about a quarter more food per capita than we did back when I wrote Diet for Small Planet. So, hunger is still very much a human-made tragedy. And in addition to that, the climate crisis is very much worsened by this grain-fed, meat-centered diet, which is a product of economic and political systems that don't reflect the majority view. So, it's all connected. 

And that's what's so beautiful about an ecological worldview, is that we can see those connections. In the new book, I quote my dear friend, now deceased, but German physicist Hans—Peter Dürr said to me, ‘Frankie, in biological systems, there are no parts. Only participants.’ And that's throughout all of our social and biological. We're all participants, and everything we do and don't do is shaping the larger tapestry of life. 

Alicia: Absolutely.

Well, I wanted to ask to finish, how do you define abundance for yourself, for the world? [Laughs.]

Frances: Well, I think—I never have been asked that question. I can feel my body, and by my body, it's just my shoulders, relax. 

Abundance just means that I don't have to worry. I don't have to worry about feeding myself, my partner. If I had kids, I’d just not have to worry that I will have what I need to live a fulfilling life and to be a good parent. I mean, that to me is abundant. It's not about having two or three homes, or a million dollars in savings. It is about knowing that I'm okay. I can really get up in the morning and do something purposeful and be responsible and know that there's, there is enough for me to live healthy and take care of my loved ones. That is abundance. 

And there's more than enough in this beautiful, beautiful earth of ours to allow everyone of us to live that way. More than. And that is so tragic, that anxiety and fear is so ingrained. And I think very much that it's that anxiety and fear produced by this concentrated wealth that infects the political system. That's what leads to the finger pointing and the blaming, because we're told to blame ourselves for our struggle, rather than the rules that are created by our broken and corrupted democracy. 

It's a spiral, then. If we blame ourselves and feel shame, then we want to find somebody else to blame, and—rather than looking at the underlying rules and norms that have been created that so limit us. So I think the shift of understanding to an ecological worldview is totally key, and letting go of the finger pointing. 

Alicia: Absolutely. 

Well, thank you so much for taking the time today.

Frances: Oh, my great pleasure. What fun. Thank you.