Frances Moore Lappé is my guest today on Inside Ideas. A household name in America, Frankie is the author of 20 books, including the three-million bestseller Diet for a Small Planet. Which for decades has taught people about the plant-based food solutions that offer better choices for supporting the health of people and planet.
This month the much anticipated 50th-anniversary edition of Diet for a Small Planet is being released, with new features on how food systems can help restore ‘our damaged ecology, address the climate crisis, and move us toward real democracy’. On democracy, which Frankie explored so eloquently in the original edition, she argued ‘hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of power among those who go hungry—in other words, a scarcity of democracy’.
For the past five decades Frankie has been writing and speaking about this injustice, in her fight to change the narrative.
“Food is one channel through which we can meet, not just our physical needs but this deep, emotional, psychological human need for power, meaning and connection,” she said.
Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food, it’s caused by a scarcity of democracy.Frances Moore Lappé
But Frankie has long known that the needs of all were being sacrificed, that the reasons for hunger were largely misunderstood, and that scarcity was not the issue.
Talking about the backstory which led up to the 1971 release of Diet for a Small Planet, she told me: ‘I thought, if I could just dive into food – what’s more basic? Nothing’s more basic than food, air, water. If I could understand – ‘why hunger’? Food is quantifiable, we all relate to it, we are all interested in it, we know what good nutrition is, all that is known, so if I could figure this out, that would unlock the mysteries of economics and politics and I would have direction – that’s what I wanted to know. And really very soon into that process I was shocked because I said ‘wait a minute – there is no scarcity’. Yes there’s the experience of scarcity but we are creating that. I really got very clear that there was enough food for us all and if you weren’t eating it wasn’t because of an absolute lack of food, it was because you didn’t have access, you didn’t have power to access the food that is being grown, so pretty soon into the process I could say that hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food, it’s caused by a scarcity of democracy.”
She continued: “Human beings are very special in the animal kingdom with our complicated brains, we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are, and we see through filters and we literally can’t see what doesn’t fit inside our filter. We often hear the expression, ‘seeing is believing’. I flip that and say no – I now get it, believing is seeing because we believed that people were dying because of scarcity and therefore that’s what we saw, when clearly there was more than enough, and more than enough potential for all of us. And that we were creating the human-made systems that denied people the right to access that food.”
Frankie says the climate crisis has been an unwelcome wake up call that has made people understand the many weaknesses of these systems.
“The sense of urgency and the more rich and various reasons why – for health reasons, ecological reasons, economic reasons, and climate reasons that a plant-centred diet is one way to make a significant dent in this is because our food system contributes 37% of greenhouse gas emissions and among those is methane from cows – which packs a particularly strong climate punch so there is extra gain by limiting beef consumption.”
It has been said that for some change is more scary than death but Frankie insists fear can be used to drive transformative change.
“We can reframe fear as pure energy, which we can either use to run in the wrong direction or to break through. This is a time when our fear energy has to be put to good use, not into fear for fear’s sake and making people feel trapped, but we need to use fear as energy to get us out of our comfort zones into doing that which we thought we could not do.”
Today the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) is taking place in New York, with world leaders expected to commit to actions ‘we thought we could not do’ – so who better to have as a guest on this historic day for the future of food than Frances Moore Lappé, co-founder of Food First and Small Planet Institute, to explore what that democratic future might look like.