Diet for a Small Planet
Frances Moore Lappé
Ballantine Books, Twentieth Anniversary Edition, New York (USA),
September 1991 (1971).
479 pages, including, bibliography, index and recipes.

I first heard of this book while reading an article about the recently deceased Steve Jobs. Apparently, it is the book that convinced him to become a vegetarian.

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:

This combination of notions —social atomism, materialism, and the rule of human affairs by discoverable laws— has had profound implications for the social order we have created. For if indeed we are isolated social atoms, any conscious process of group decision making based on identifying common needs —usually called politics— is suspect. We must let absolute laws determine our fate, for self-seeking egos may well twist any other method to their private gain. Any genuine deliberative process is therefore impossible.

Instead of trusting our capacities for common problem solving, we sought desperately, and believed we had found, laws governing the social world —governing life and death matters of economics— laws that determine who eats and who doesn't. The more choices we can leave to these laws, the better off we are.

And what are these absolute laws? In much of the West we have established at least two such laws as almost sacrosanct, and adhered to them in varying degrees of faithfulness. They are:

  • the market distribution of goods and services;
  • not private property per se but a particular variant of this institution: the unlimited private accumulation of productive property.

And here's where the problem arises. It is not the institutions of the market or private property. The problem is converting these handy tools into fixed laws. What happens then? Human responsibility for consequences goes out the window.

(Frances Moore Lappé: Diet for a Small Planet, p. XXII)

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:

Mammoth social problems, especially global ones like world hunger and ecological destruction, paralyze us. Their roots seem so deep, their ramifications endless. So we feel powerless. How can we do anything? Don't we just have to leave these problems to the "experts"? We try to block out the bad news and hope against hope that somewhere someone who knows more than we do has some answers.

The tragedy is that this totally understandable feeling —that we must leave the big problems to the "experts"— lies at the very root of our predicament, because the experts are those with the greatest stake in the status quo. Schooled in the institutions of power, they take as given many patterns that must change if we are to find answers. Thus, the solutions can come only from people who are less "locked-in" —ordinary people like you and me. Only when we discover that we have both the capacity and the right to participate in making society's important decisions will solutions emerge. Of this I am certain.

(Frances Moore Lappé: Diet for a Small Planet, pp. 7-8)

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:

Most people think of vegetarianism as an ethical stance against the killing of animals, unconventional, and certainly untraditional. But what I advocate is the return to the traditional diet on which our bodies evolved. Traditionally the human diet has centered on plant foods, with animal foods playing a supplementary role. Our digestive and metabolic system evolved over millions of years on such a diet. Only recently have Americans, and people in some other industrial countries, begun to center their diets on meat. So it is the meat-centered diet —and certainly the grain-fed-meat-centered diet— that is a fad.

(Frances Moore Lappé: Diet for a Small Planet, p. 13)

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):

  • A small minority controls more of the farmland.
  • Agricultural development of basic foods is neglected, while production for export climbs.
  • More and more basic grains go to livestock.
  • Poverty pushes up population growth rates.
  • Conscious "market development" strategies of the US government help to make other economies dependent on our grain.
Altogether, quite close to what we refer today as food sovereignty. It seems as if things have not changed much since, unfortunately.

That is only the political side of things, though. Moore Lappé also explains how the meat-centered diet has other problems related to efficiency:

For every 16 pounds of grain and soy fed to beef cattle in the United States we only get 1 pound back in meat on our plates. The other 15 are inaccessible to us, either used by the animal to produce energy or to make some part of its own body that we do not eat (like hair or bones) or excreted.

To give you some basis for comparison, 16 pounds of grain has twenty-one times more calories and eight times more protein —but only three times more fat— than a pound of hamburguer.

Livestock other than cattle are markedly more efficient in converting grain to meat (...); hogs consume 6, turkeys 4, and chickens 3 pounds of grain and soy to produce 1 pound of meat. Milk production is even more efficient, with less than 1 pound of grain fed for every pint of milk produced. (This is partly because we don't have to grow a new cow every time we milk one).

(Frances Moore Lappé: Diet for a Small Planet, p. 69)

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
Intellectual Factor: 7/10