It’s Past Time To Change What We Eat

I wrote a book 50 years ago arguing that plant-based diets would be healthier and more just. Now they’re a necessity.

By Frances Moore Lappé / September 17, 2021

Photo: Paige Green

Originally Published in The Boston Globe on September 17, 2021

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 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.