Whether rooting for the bottom of the food chain, organizing in the neighborhoods, or refreshing the political zeitgeist, Frances Moore Lappe has been a vivid force in the US counterculture for nearly 2 decades. This consultation tracks her transit from the realm of mindful diet to the barricades radical democracy.
Lappe: No, I never expected much of a response at all. In fact, I didn't even think that the book was worth publishing because I really thought that it would appeal to a few hundred people and the fact that it ultimately sold 3 and a half million was the biggest shock in my life and had the biggest impact because it told me that other were asking the same question that I was asking. And I think that that is the first step to feel that you're not alone, that other people are asking the same question.
So, the premise is quite simple. The premise is that the world produces plenty of food. I mean, that's the first, the first argument that the world produces enough food to make everybody overweight actually. But, when I first wrote "Diet for a Small Planet" about a third of the world's grain was fed to livestock. But at the time I came back to it ten years later almost half of the world's grain is now going to livestock. Some place to be accurate, you can't say exactly, but it's well over 40 percent. And so, my goal in writing the book was to show people that the food system that in the United States we took for granted which was a grain-fed, meat-centered diet was not responding to our bodies real needs because we need a fraction of the protein that we actually consume in the United States. Instead this diet that the post-war generation had grown up to take as the status diet and the best diet, a grain-fed, meat-centered diet was actually a product of a very destructive economic structure that led farmers to compete against each other, put them on a treadmill so that they had to be producing more and more and more, putting on more pesticides, more fertilizers, creating then an oversupply which drove the prizes down so that it was economically viable, economically made sense to feed it to livestock. But the cheap grain as I explain in the book was an illusion, it was the illusion of cheap grain because the cheap grain does not incorporate all the costs - it doesn't incorporate the pollution of ground water from pesticides or the loss of the family farm in this drive to grow more and more and more, you have to push out your neighbor because you have to grow more and the prices are falling and you've got to grow more because you've got to sell more if the price that you're getting per bushel is falling.
So, the cheap grain that goes into to create the grain-fed, meat-centered diet in the United States is an illusion because it does not incorporate the human cost, the loss of the family farm, it doesn't incorporate the top soil lost, in other words the quality of the soil - the nutrients that are lost in this kind of monoculture of feeding to livestock. In other words, over half the harvested acreage in the United States is used in the production of meat - over half. So, it doesn't account the overgrazing that is part of that, too. It doesn't account for all the waste problems that are created by all these huge feed lots. So, my point simply in the book was one, that there is plenty of food in the world to feed everyone but that the people who are hungry don't count in the marketplace because they don't have the money to make their demands felt in the market. So, what happens is you have this overproduction relative to what people can buy, not relative to need in a real sense, but what people can buy, so it gets fed to livestock that then reduce it to a small fraction of what those nutrients could supply people if those nutrients were eaten directly.
I calculated for the book that in the United States it takes 16 pounds of grain and soy to produce one pound of meat. So, this was the sort of protein disposal system that wasn't just a product of people's desire for meat - that desire for meat was very, very much encouraged and I would say in part manufactured by advertising to make that grain-fed meat the status food. So, I try to show people that it's all in our hands. We created this economic system that drives farmers out of business, that ends up creating such cheap grain, and making people too poor to buy it but making it so cheap that it's feasible, economically profitable to feed it to livestock.
So, I wanted to help people see that, wait we created this and it doesn't make any sense - people are dying of hunger, in the United States people have malnutrition and yet we feed more and more grain to livestock. So, that was the irrationality of our economic system was what I was hoping to get people to see and that by making very personal choices to eat more of a plant-centered diet that that was a way of reminding oneself on a daily basis - not that I was ever naive enough to think that my changing my diet, your changing your diet would solve the world food problem. But I do believe that the more we make our own personal choices consistent with the world we want to create, the more powerful human beings we become.
And so that's why my generation and many of my colleagues say in the United States, would never buy a Cadillac because they understand that a gas-guzzling automobile is the last thing our planet needs with carbon dioxide destroying the atmosphere. Well, it's the same way to attempt to make food choices that make a statement about the vision that we're working toward in our world. That to me eating a grain-fed meat diet was like driving a Cadillac. It was saying that I am putting this tremendous weight on the planet and feeding into a very irrational and destructive economic and political order. So, that was the beginning for me starting with something so personal then trying to go from the most personal to the very deep economic and political levels.
Well, now almost twenty years later after having written "Diet for a Small Planet" you've recently come out with a revised edition. How would you say that the scenario has changed in America - better? worse?
Lappe: I think that certainly the poverty in the United States has definitely gotten worse in the last twenty years. There was some improvement in the 70s but during the 80s under the Reagan and Bush Administrations, there were soon more and more poor people. The gap between rich and poor is widening so that and among the poor, say in the bottom 20 percent of the population, that quintile, that segment of the population is absolutely poor. And it's impossible for them to get a healthy diet. So, while our understanding has gotten better, the problem has gotten worse.
The destruction of the family farm system of agriculture has accelerated over the last twenty years very, very rapidly and it's in part because the American farmer was told that the salvation was export agriculture. And this, of course, is what we're pushing on the world. This free trade model of agriculture has sped up this tread mill that I was describing that farmers are on where they have to produce more and more and more because the price falls and then you have to buy out your neighbor and you have what we call in the United States, the cannibalization - in other words, the farmer who is slightly ahead then cannibalizes his neighbor. So, you have a problem with outside investors coming in and buying up farms. But as much as anything the family farm is being destroyed from within by just the increasing expansion of those who have a slight edge, who have a greater equity in their land or who can get loans to expand. So, all of that has accelerated very, very rapidly. We're losing something on the order of 25,000 farms per week on an average. So, there's this rapid decline in the family farm system, there's increased poverty which also can be measured in increased infant death which is related to the nutrition of mothers.
So, in many ways the problems that I identified in my early work in the 60s and 70s is worse today than it was then. But my own response to that has been to try to go deeper into what is my strategy beyond simply alerting people to the problem. I think that what's really changed for me is that so much of my work in the 70s was me telling people that there was a real problem and at least in the United States people know that we are in big trouble. And you hear people say, "we are becoming like a Third World country, the gap between rich and poor is so great." And you see people homeless on the streets and dying on the streets. So, my job is much less telling people, it's much less sounding the alarm or pushing the siren that our world and our nation is in trouble. My work has shifted a lot to try to then say, "okay, we all know that we are in trouble. This is not working. The economic and political assumptions that we grew up believing in, they're failing. Our problems are worse whether we're talking about agriculture or any other sector."
Does this bode well for the new paradigm thinkers to believe that in education, in making the masses aware of the problems that things will get better. I mean, you're saying that people are informed but it's not enough.
Lappe: It's not enough. And this is the balance that I work with all the time. There's a tendency to really be like Chicken Little, you know, "the sky is falling" and to just go on telling people "oh, no the ozone hole, the greenhouse effect, we only have a few years left." And I think that can be overdone to the extent that people are just frozen as their problems become overwhelming. So, in my own work I'm trying to focus very, very practically on what people can do in their own communities and how can they conceive of themselves as part of political change in a society like ours where politics has always, at least in my lifetime, been something that people feel pretty alienated from. And politicians have more and more a profile as pretty despicable people.
And I was just reading and use findings of a poll of young people this last year and basically this poll of American youth concluded that most young people do not see a connection between homelessness and hunger and the environmental problems and drugs - they don't see a connection between these problems and government policy either as causes or solutions. They see no connections between the structures of decision-making that have been established in this society to solve problems and solutions. So, they feel completely at sea and of course, that's why teen suicide is going up; that's why the voting rate is going down.
So, my work has been shifting over the past few years and my most recent book called "Rediscovering America's Values" is written as a conversation about what are the values that we can now start building on, the traditional American values that I've tried to work with - of freedom, of democracy, of fairness. So, I very intentionally tried not to use new age words - you know, "community" and "win-win" and all that nice new language. I've really tried to take the language that most Americans knee-jerk to, you know, "we're a free country" and to give it a depth and to encourage my fellow countrypeople to start really thinking to themselves "Well, how free are we if we're losing family farms, if our children are dying from drugs or at birth at increasing rates because of malnutrition of their mothers, how free are we when we can't walk down the street at night without fearing for our lives, how free am I if I worry about my children every day - about their safety.?" So, instead of just telling people that we're in big trouble, I'm trying to take some of the traditional American themes of freedom and democracy and say, "okay, let's pull from the best of what we have, we don't have to start from scratch, we don't have to make the world over from nothing. We have some very important traditions to draw on. And one of them is the tradition of democracy, of democracy understood as citizens taking responsibility for our world rather than the notion that has come to dominate our view of politics that some expert somewhere is going to do it for us. And now, of course, with the power of the media, politics has simply become who can put on the best commercials.
So, my work is very much trying to pull out the best of our historical belief in democracy and work with it very practically in communities. So, I'm starting a new project which is a national project which will be a coalition of all sorts of groups - community groups, church groups and civic organizations and business organizations asking what does it mean to take democracy seriously as citizens? To take that kind of responsibility? Because with the rights that come in a democratic society, there also come very important responsibilities. And understanding that instead of being burdens and duties, weighting us down and boring us, that being active as real participants in a democracy can be an enriching and dignifying and exciting part of life. And that's the key for me and that's the transition that has to come if we're going to solve the world's problems.
You've termed this project "Public Life" and you have three arenas of basic activity that you're focusing on. Do you want to elaborate on this?
Lappe: Well, the first is the whole word "public life" because it is a concept that I think...well, I don't want to sound simplistic but I think the concept itself of public life is a sine quo non, not that it's sufficient to solve our problems but it is necessary. The concept of public life is that we all have a public life, that public life is every engagement that we have throughout our lives in circles beyond our immediate families, our immediate love circles. All ways that we are interacting with the world and our choices are effecting others, our choices even as consumers I would say are part of our public life - what things we choose to buy in the market place. But certainly our role as students, our role as workers, our role as employers, our role in clubs, our role in religious institutions, our role in political institutions. So, what I mean by public life is not just what political party you join or whether you run for office. It's the whole arena outside our immediate circles of love in the family that relate us, that the choices that we make determine what the world will be.
That whole idea is that there are skills, there are concepts, there are what I call arts to be learned, to be effective in engaging our energies in creating a world that is livable and sustainable. It's not something that we're just born with, we have to learn how to be citizens of our community and citizens of the world. And that's what I mean by public life. And it's a very rich concept to me.
And the three arenas that we've defined in this project in the United States is first, an arena of discussion that redefines politics. It's a discussion just like the one I'm having here with you, that goes out then to other people. The heading of this arena of activity is called "Redefining Politics." But it means everything from sitting down with journalists who cover political events and talking to them about reflecting on how they present politics. And if they just present how a politician is manipulating the citizen or do they go into the communities and find out what community groups are doing to solve problems and report on that as politics? They are then helping to redefine the meaning of politics and public life.
The second arena is what I'm calling "Schooling in the Political Arts" - how do you introduce the idea that whether it be a religious institution that wants to have a positive effect in the secular world, whether it be a school from the earliest grades onward to university level, or whether it be a business organization - how can we learn the arts that make participation effective and these include the arts of dialogue, which means being able to listen and effectively communicate, which means that we have to be able to analyze, to evaluate our own thinking and others. We have to be able to express anger, constructively because that is part of engaging people.
One of the basic concepts is that public life is an arena of diversity as opposed to private life of being an area where you associate with people you are comfortable with, who are like you. But public life means communicating with people who are different and who have different interests, and being able to have the imagination, which is another one of the arts, to put myself in your position to some degree, to understand what your interests are and how they can intersect with mine or maybe how they don't but how we can then learn to carve out a solution where all of our interests can be accommodated.
But we can learn how to understand those differences and that to me is the only real hope for world peace and being able to solve our environmental problems. It's not just going to be one truth that we all embrace and then become this unified singular family. I don't think that's my concept of a world community - it's not that we're all the same. It's that we learn to listen to each other's differences and that's a very different concept of world peace and unity. It's not all one of sameness because that creates fundamentalism.
Our goal is not to create a new organization. We have in America thousands and thousands of organizations each doing their own little thing. We want to know how do we inject these ideas into existing organizations where people are just throwing up their hands and thinking, "oh my god, how can we connect with others and what is the purpose of what we're doing? How does it fit into the global problems?" So, we're hoping to provide new insights, new energy, new tools, new resources to people already working with each other in pre-existing organizations, rather than creating a new organization. removing wealth from the political arena decentralization.
- End -
Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak