Diet for a Small Planet: Still Edible after 50 years

Diet for a Small Planet

Over 50 years ago, Frances Moore Lappé, a young American social worker, argued that there was more than enough food to feed everyone in the world. What needed to change was how food was distributed and the kind of foods eaten. 2021 was the 50th anniversary printing of her book, Diet for a Small Planet, which is every bit as relevant today as it was in 1971. It has been called by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Diet, “one of the most visionary books of the last 50 years.”

Many of the people Lappé worked with went hungry, despite living in one of the richest countries in the world. But not only were people in her community going hungry, millions were also dying of starvation globally. At the time, fear of overpopulation abounded. It was assumed we could never feed the exploding population.

Lappé came to understand that much of the grain crops grown in America were fed to animals. Why not grow crops that could be fed directly to humans? She championed eating a more plant-based diet focussed on proteins such as beans, soy, and legumes. She even provided recipes to encourage this practice. Diet for a Small Planet challenged ideas about how much and what kind of protein we really need. Her work helped push a non-meat-based diet towards the North American mainstream. Large scale production of the foods Lappé recommended are more cost-effective, as well as more environmentally conscious. Today we have become even more aware of the troubling links between meat production and climate change.

She also pointed to a direct relationship between food, democracy, power, and social justice. “No society has fulfilled its democratic promise if people go hungry... If some go without food they have surely been deprived of all power. The existence of hunger belies the existence of democracy.” Poverty, especially food-poverty, is a symptom of people’s powerlessness over their own lives. People have a democratic right to have ready access to the good healthy food they want and need. Without it, how can they participate in a democracy? And what is a democracy if its people cannot participate? “Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy.” This was a revolutionary concept in 1971, and it is still not fully understood today.

Although it addresses the international crisis of food insecurity, Diet for a Small Planet in its many editions is about hope – hope for a better and more just future for all. “Hope is not what we find in evidence, it's what we become in action.”