Fifty years ago, what stirred me to write “Diet for a Small Planet” was shock. In the late 1960s, Paul Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb” had just exploded, igniting a scarcity scare.
I had to know. Was humanity really hitting the earth’s limits to feed us?
Soon I discovered there was no scarcity. Rather, it was our inequitable economies that were ensuring hunger for hundreds of millions.
So I set out to expose the vast waste and injustice built into our increasingly corporate-dominated and meat-centered food system. I hoped not only to empower people to choose plant-centered eating but to realize more broadly our power together to create a system that serves life.
When “Diet for a Small Planet” came out in 1971, my message was heresy.
Today is different. Very different. Back then I framed plant-centered eating as an important choice, but today it has become a no-contest necessity, as life on earth is now at stake. If I sound more than a bit melodramatic, stay with me.
Half a century later, we are in the midst of a fierce storm: Years of attack on the integrity of our democracy, a pandemic, and a destructive climate crisis may finally open our eyes. It’s only when a mighty tree falls that we can see its roots.
What are the food-related roots of crises that continue, worsen, or have arisen during the last 50 years? And how do we use what we discover to pull ourselves back from catastrophe and protect life itself?
First, hunger amid plenty continues. Today, nearly a billion people “do not have enough to eat,” the UN World Food Program reports, while another UN agency estimates that many more, nearly one in three of us, lack “access to adequate food.” And another heartbreaking and long-standing measure? One in five young children worldwide is stunted by malnutrition, bringing lifelong harms.
Second, we’ve turned food and farming into a health hazard. About 58 percent of all calories Americans eat come from ultra-processed food, with little nutrition but loads of sugar, salt, and additives. Diet-related diseases have become leading causes of death. One hundred million adult Americans suffer from diabetes or pre-diabetes. That’s more than one in three.
Some people hoped genetically modified seeds would reduce the use of herbicides, but instead we’ve seen substantial increases — killing insects that are, of course, key in sustaining countless plant and animal species. One recent study found that pesticides’ toxic impact on bees and other pollinators has doubled in just a decade. Pesticides poison farmworkers as well.
Third, our food systems generate as much as 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Just five meat and dairy corporations generate more greenhouse gas emissions than Exxon, Shell, or BP. Cows pack such a punch that if they were a nation, “cow country” would rank as the world’s sixth worst greenhouse gas emitter. And the greenhouse gas emissions from food waste are more than what all but two countries emit.
Fourth, resources essential to growing food — healthy soil and groundwater — are fast disappearing. At the current pace, topsoil for farming worldwide could be gone in 60 years. In our key farming states, underground water is being mined for irrigation much faster than nature can replace it. Note that to produce a pound of beef takes 1,800 gallons of water — nearly 50 times more than a pound of vegetables.
Fifth is a piece of the crisis that most of us have never even registered: Excess nitrogen is wreaking havoc on the environment. Chemical-dependent farming may have disrupted the nitrogen cycle even more than it has affected the carbon cycle. In the United States, meat is the single biggest food production avenue — via the runoff from fertilizing livestock feed crops and from manure — by which nitrogen moves into inland waterways and then into the Gulf of Mexico. There, it’s created a coastal “dead zone,” killing marine life — one of 415 such oceanic zones. Nitrogen runoff also worsens smog, haze, acid rain, forest loss, well-water pollution, climate heating, and the stratospheric “ozone hole.” Whoa.
Sixth, here’s the clincher: Widespread, intensive livestock production threatens the web of life itself. By killing animals and destroying habitats, we’ve eliminated more than eight in 10 wild mammals on Earth, and 60 percent of the mammals remaining are livestock we’ve bred. Large-scale livestock production is a primary force causing forests and wildlife populations to shrink by two-thirds in the last half century. Plus, pesticides and mega-monocultures are primary drivers of the possible extinction of 40 percent of the world’s insect population in the next few decades. In all, one million species are threatened with extinction, and the pace of loss is quickening.
Such massive loss is terrifying.
So how did our bright species turn feeding itself into a threat to life?
Through the undermining of decision-making that is accountable to us citizens: Ever more private corporate influence has translated into political power. One measure? Today, for every member of Congress we’ve elected to protect our interests, 21 lobbyists are instead pushing policies that serve their industries’ interests. Agribusiness has a much larger battalion of lobbyists than even the oil and gas industry.
Now, to the good news. Worldwide, people across all walks of life are waking up.
Awareness is growing that plant-centered eating is healthier. Not only are plant-centered diets associated with lower mortality rates, they also encourage soil-protective crop diversity and reduce the amount of land we need to grow food — reducing pressure on other species. Plant-based diets could cut in half the land that has to be used for food.
A diet doesn’t have to be entirely vegan or vegetarian to be plant-centered. We’re also talking about diets that include small amounts of meat, as a complement to other ingredients. When I was growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, amid the smell of the stockyards, meat was the centerpiece of almost every meal. Today we know just how unsustainable that was.
With this fast-spreading awareness, a global movement for healthy farming and eating is taking off. The necessary sharp turn toward life depends both on our everyday choices and on our courage. It requires determined citizens willing to challenge concentrated economic and political power to together achieve democratically set rules — rules that put our health and Earth first.
Now is the moment. Tomorrow is too late.
Frances Moore Lappé, cofounder of the Small Planet Institute in Cambridge, has written or co-authored 20 books about food, the environment, and democracy. The 50th anniversary edition of “Diet for a Small Planet,” with new recipes and other updates, will be released on Tuesday.