France Moore Lappé created a stir 30 years ago when she wrote the blockbuster Diet for a Small Planet, a revolutionary book that showed the high economic, social and ecological costs of a meat-centered diet. Now a visiting scholar at MIT, she has written a sequel with her daughter Anna.
It is called Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. “I grew up in a cow town,” says Lappé, who was raised in Fort Worth, Texas. “In 1971, my work was heresy. The Cattleman’s Association tried to prove that not eating meat was unthinkable.”
Lappé decided early in her career to focus on food to awaken people to their power to create more just and sustainable societies. “Food, I found, is a powerful tool because it is both personal and universal,” she says.
Concerned early on with understanding the roots of deprivation and suffering in the world, she realized that massive starvation was not the result of inadequate resources, but of their misuse. “Instead of using land to grow crops for humans, we increasingly were using it to produce feed for livestock. We were creating scarcity from plenty.”
In the original Diet for a Small Planet, Lappé showed that, in spite of the prevailing convictions that meat-rich diets were critical to our health, it was possible to get enough protein from a vegetarian diet; and, furthermore, that if the world devoted fewer resources to raising livestock, there would be more than enough on the planet to feed everyone. The book also included pages of recipes to drive home the point that vegetarian cooking could be not only nutritious but also delicious.
Sold Three Million
The book has sold more than 3 million copies, has been translated into French, German, Japanese, Spanish and Swedish, and still is selling. In the United States, it helped launch the food cooperative and family farm movements, community and school garden programs, and urban farmers’ markets. It also has greatly expanded the opportunities for vegetarian cooking and eating, and has influenced a whole generation of great chefs, including Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Mollie Katzen, author of The Moosewood Cookbook.
Lappé’s subsequent works on world hunger and the search for workable solutions have been used in university courses throughout the United States and translated into more than a dozen languages in more than 50 countries. In 1987, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, a prestigious honor given annually in the Swedish Parliament on the day before the Nobel Prize presentations, which recognizes people for their work in solving crucial world problems. Lappé was only the fourth American to receive the award.
The inspiration for Hope’s Edge, says Lappé, came from her children. “They felt people of their generation needed a book like Diet for a Small Planet to help them understand ways they could take responsibility for addressing today’s social, political and economic challenges.” Her daughter Anna agreed to serve as co-author.
Writing the earlier Diet for a Small Planet, Lappé explains, she was struck by the power of long-held assumptions — like the belief that food was scarce — to impede the search for solutions. “We argue in this book that none of us would choose the world that we are now creating — none of us wants a world with starving children, or with a hole in the ozone layer, with global warming, or the erosion of top soil. We decided to write about people who are breaking free of those mental blocks and figuring out ways to address these problems.”
Lappé and her daughter take their readers with them on their journey to five continents. They introduce the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, which has helped settle more than a quarter of a million families on formerly idle land, and Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization which has promoted tree planting to avert the devastating desert expansion in Africa. At its last count, Kenyan farmers had planted over 20 million trees, which had a survival rate of 70 percent.
One chapter is devoted to Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, which 25 years ago started giving “micro-loans” to the rural poor, people who, because they had no collateral, were unable to borrow money to start businesses to lift themselves out of poverty. To date, it has loaned money to 2.4 million borrowers, 95 percent of them women.
The pair also journey to two sites in the United States to capture promising innovations in this country. Among the projects they discuss are: San Francisco’s Garden Project, an initiative that provides gardens to released prisoners, reducing the recidivism rate of those who participate from 55 to 24 percent; and the Community Supported Agriculture movement, whose goal is to connect local farmers with local consumers, strengthening regional economies and decreasing the economic and environmental costs of transporting food over great distances. “Most of this work isn’t covered in the U.S. press,” says Lappé, “but fortunately I came into contact with many of these people through winning the Right Livelihood Award.”
Food remains an important focus of Lappé’s work and the second section of Hope’s Edge is a collection of recipes from the people and cultures she and her daughter encountered in their work. Mollie Katzen guided the recipe testing. But, as in the original Diet for a Small Planet, the concern of the book extends beyond food.
“Hunger can’t be separated from the overall health of a community — meaning healthy earth, healthy water, healthy air,” says Lappé. “The people we write about in this book all are doing extraordinary things to address the problems that cause their destruction.”