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Diet for a Small Planet
To my surprise, it is not so much a book about food —which it obviously is— as about the social, political and economic implications of our food choices. To be fair, Lappé discusses in detail how to follow a healthy diet, including information about combining proteins and a good amount of vegetarian recipes. Yet, the core of the book truly is about politics, stressing the need to take the power back in our own hands, instead of leaving it in hands of the big corporations and special interests that have come to corrupt our democracy. Lappé goes even further, pointing out that the origin of many of our problems can be traced back to the changes brought about by Modernity itself back in the 17th and 18th centuries, when our current approach to the world first developed:
What I find peculiar about all this is that Lappé's criticisms back then (1991, when this 20th anniversary edition of the book was published) barely differs from what the Occupy Wall Street movement (and similar movements around the world) defend these days. She first published the book immediately before the neoliberal onslaught was to spread throughout the world, and the preface to this 20th anniversay edition as the Communist block was defeated in the Cold War and few people managed to see an alternative to unfettered capitalism. Yet, from today's perspective (2011), after the late 2000's financial crisis we should be able to see things with more perspective, one would think. Notice, for instance, her position on how to deal with today's social problems:
Of course, some would think that this makes the problem worse, not better. After all, what power do we have? If the "experts", who are obviously in charge, ar a part of the problem, not the solution, then it is easy to conclude that we are all doomed. Unless, as the author argues, we can act to change the world in the course of our everyday life. Thus, Diet for a Small Planet tells us how we can change the way we eat and the way we do our grocery shopping to contribute towards a positive change. Moore Lappé soon clarifies too that her answer to the problem does not necessarily involve vegetarianism, as many would think, but it does imply the return to a traditional diet where meat plays a lesser role:
But what exactly is wrong with the meat-centered diet? After all, we have been told for decades now that eating more protein is the objective, and meat is the best source of protein. What is the problem then? Moore Lappé starts telling us about the damage such a diet infringes on the less developed countries, which she sums up in five forces (pp. 62-63):
That is only the political side of things, though. Moore Lappé also explains how the meat-centered diet has other problems related to efficiency:
So, as indicated above, the problem is not so much with including meat in our diets, as with following a meat-centered diet, which is something we have increasingly been doing in the richer countries.
However, the cost of raising cattle does not end there. There are plenty of other inefficiencies that all too often are not even taken into account due to the fact that they are conveniently considered externalities that we all contribute to maintain: water and soil depletion, pollution through the use of chemical fertilizers, use of hormones... Altogether, when all these things are taken into account, our food industry does not look so efficient all of a sudden.
And yet, the problems with a meat-centered diet do not end there. As it turns out, we are also learning that such a diet is quite unhealthy. A combination of more meat and more processed foods at our tables also imply that most of our protein comes from meat, instead of grain, bread and cereal products, as in the past; we also eat more fat than we burn due to our mainly sedentary lives; we eat too much sugar and too much salt, but too little fiber and, to make things even worse, we also drink too much alcohol and take plenty of pesticides, hormones and chemical additives in our food. Far from the ideal situation, and most of it due to the fact that our food industry does have an incentive in promoting this type of diet to reduce costs and increase profits. It all boils down to the fact that our nutrition has become a business.
So, what can we do? Moore Lappé recommends, of course, a change towards a more varied diet. As stated above, she does not necessarily believe that we all should become vegetarians, but she does recommend to drastically reduce the amount of meat we eat. However, simply changing our diets (already hard enough, since we have to struggle with our own habits) is not enough. She also recommends that we connect with like-minded people in our communities to make the change easier, as well as committing ourselves to a social and political change that would be needed to bring about a real transformation of our societies and our everyday lives.
It is clear, then, that, although a good part of the book is dedicated to meat-free recipes, Diet for a Small Planet is more of a social or political essay than a book on food. Or, to put it a different way, Moore Lappé discusses how our food choices affect our societies and tells us what to do in order to avoid the clearly negative consequences of our current meat-centered diets.
If anything, my main criticism of the book is that, being a 20th anniversary edition, the author chose to keep plenty of references to the world as it was back in the mid- to late-seventies, when it was first published (for instance, it includes references to the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua), which makes it feel old and somehow outdated. Actually, it is not only those references that make it sound old, but also the hopelessly outdated leftist rhetoric of the author, which will surely turn off plenty of potential readers. In that sense, I think that a less ideologically driven approach to the topic would have been way better. There is no need to renounce one's own philosophical convictions, but they can certainly be expressed in a less partisan manner, especially if we are trying to gain people to a particular cause.
Entertaiment Factor: 6/10