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Living on Earth's Profile #6: Frances Moore Lappé: Diet for a Fragile Planet

Air Date: Week of

From her best selling book Diet for a Small Planet to her recent investigations into "food democracy", Frances Moore Lappé has influenced the way millions of people think about food and nutrition, and consequently, agricultural methods and means. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Ms. Lappé.


CURWOOD: Twenty-four years ago, an unusual cookbook burst onto the American scene: Diet for a Small Planet, written by Frances Moore Lappé. And it helped change the stature of vegetarianism in this country. Meat, Lappé wrote, is not necessary to get complete protein. The combination of vegetables such as beans and rice is just as good and far gentler on the planet's resources. Ms. Lappé's work taught the more than 3 million people who bought her book about some hidden costs of eating meat. Lappé wrote, for instance, that each pound of beef takes more than 20 pounds of grain to produce. As part of our series on 25 important people related to environmental change, we talked with Ms. Lappé, who now co-directs the Center for Living Democracy in Brattleboro, Vermont. I asked her what she sees as the biggest change since she first published Diet for a Small Planet.

LAPPÉ: I think the most incredible change that I have seen is people's openness to whole foods, and to the concept that we do not need meat at every meal to thrive. And a greater understanding of the connectedness between our daily choices and the larger impact that has on the Earth itself.

CURWOOD: Americans are eating less beef, but we seem to be consuming more pork and poultry. I think it's 10 pounds a year more per person of those. I'm wondering if our change in meat-eating habits has really made that much of a difference.

LAPPÉ: No, I agree that, the implication is that it hasn't in any fundamental sense, and the forces that drive the overuse of our agricultural resources are just as much intact as they ever were. What I try to communicate in the second and third rewrite of that book, Diet for a Small Planet, is that fundamentally, farmers are driven to overuse the land simply to stay in business. That pressure, the market pressure, is what drives the overuse of our soils and what's driving the continuing application of massive amounts of petrochemicals. And that has certainly not altered; in fact, I think the pressure may be even greater today. In essence, what I have tried to do throughout my life is to keep pulling away the layers of the onion, asking why, why, why? To keep the food metaphor here, of course. Each layer, why is it? And fundamentally, that process led me to focus on who makes the decisions about what is grown and ultimately who gets to eat. I came to say, actually by the early 80s, that hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food, but by a scarcity of democracy. Fewer and fewer people making the decisions about what is grown on that land and ultimately who gets to eat it.

CURWOOD: The problem is a shortage of democracy, you say. What about this country? This is a democratic country. Why do we have hunger in the United States? Surely we have a democracy here.

LAPPÉ: We have a democracy understood as a structure of government, a set of constitutional protections, a multi-party system. But what I came to realize, the nature of today's problems, their depth, their interrelatedness, their pervasiveness, means that they cannot be solved from the top down. They cannot be solved by a few experts or a few elected officials. They have to involve us all in decision making ourselves. And that's what I think of as a living democracy. And that's what I gradually came to see, that the only thing that can work is to show people where there is real democratic participation that is working today. I really do believe that hope is the most important motivator for action, and more and more people cannot see grounds for hope.

CURWOOD: Any signs of hope in the area of food?

LAPPÉ: Well, I think that certainly where people are working in their communities to link up with local farmers, that community-supported agriculture, where farmers are directly supported by consumers in nearby towns, I think this didn't even exist 20 years ago. And I think that's a very, very constructive movement. I think more and more farmers are beginning to question dependence on chemicals. And that's considered maybe good business. I think that is certainly a sign that is very, very hopeful. The common element here is people understanding a sort of the demystification of the expert up there who has the answer, and regular people seeing that the solutions might be right in their own communities.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Frances Moore Lappé is co-director of the Center for Living Democracy in Brattleboro, Vermont.

LAPPÉ: Thank you very much.



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