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Sowing hope: Author of 'Diet for a Small Planet' writes a new book on hunger

Monday, April 22, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, Frances Moore Lappe wrote the seminal book "Diet for a Small Planet" in which she analyzed the causes of hunger and became the first to put food and this green orb's social and environmental health on the same plate.

Frances Moore Lappe and her daughter, Anna, at Chatham College last week. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Think of that populist -- and 3-million-copies-sold-popular -- tome on vegetarianism as the tasty appetizer.

Today, as millions celebrate this 32nd Earth Day, Lappe and her daughter, Anna, are serving up a sweet and sour main course in "Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet."

Alongside recipes for organic fare like coconut ginger curry and Bengali lentil soup, the book dishes out the message that there is enough food for all and hunger is a social creation that individuals can choose to change.

It is organic food for thought.

"Food is the entry point; a way to ground what we're talking about -- the essential choice we make every day about what we eat," said Anna, who with her mother last week presented the first lecture in a series at Chatham College celebrating the 40th anniversary of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring."

"It's such a personal choice and yet it's becoming one of the most impersonal as more and more people eat things like Kraft cheese slices that directly feed the corporate profits of Philip Morris but not any sense of community."

From 'Hope's Edge:'

Coconut-ginger curry


The first "Small Planet" challenged assumptions about food safety, poverty and hunger. The new book finds that the world has been squeezed smaller by the grip of corporate globalization. And even though bigger farms use more technology for bigger harvests, hunger still exists.

Worldwide, for the first time in history, the number of people who are underfed -- over a billion -- is roughly the same as the number who are overfed. People are worried about genetically modified foods, excessive use of pesticides and the export of the American fast-food/fat-food, highly processed diet.

"Environmentally, we don't realize the waste we are creating. We have turned cattle, which once ate grass and turned it into high-grade protein, into protein disposals," said Frances Moore Lappe, author of 12 other books and winner in 1987 of Sweden's Right Livelihood Award, often referred to as the "Alternative Nobel."

She said corporate farms started feeding cattle grain in the 1950s. By the time her first "Diet" was published, beef cows were consuming one-third of the world's grain.

"Now they eat one-half," Lappe said. "We're creating the food scarcity we say we fear. Famine isn't inevitable. We're creating it, and more than 30,000 children a day are dying of hunger."

But in the Lappes' account of their journey of discovery through nine countries on five continents, they also found folks ordering off the globalization menu.

In Brazil, they found peasants standing up to big landowners to create the Landless Workers Movement, which has settled 300,000 families on previously vacant land and improved living conditions that have significantly reduced infant mortality. And they visited the marketplace in Belo Horizonte, Brazil's fourth-largest city and the only one in the capitalist world to declare food a basic right of citizenship, like education is in the United States.

In India, they talked with farmers defying corporate efforts to patent seeds and conducting their own seed research.

In Wisconsin, they visited renegade dairy farmers who are rejecting pesticide use to effectively and profitably run organic cooperatives.

In Kenya, they talked to women who, in an attempt to hold back encroaching desert, started the Green Mountain Movement on Earth Day 1977 by planting seven trees.

"They were unschooled women who were told by the government that they couldn't plant the trees and that only professional foresters could do that work," said Lappe. "That was 20 million trees ago."

It is those stories that give the new book its "Hope's Edge" title.

"If I had predicted all of the positive developments over the last 30 years in the first 'Small Planet,' they would have called me delusional and a starry-eyed dreamer," Lappe said.

"So how could I say something is impossible over the next generation? I'm so encouraged by the shift of people who realize they can't turn over their fate to corporate globalization, and it's happening on every continent."

But the Lappes acknowledge that corporate concentrations of economic power will be tough to overcome. More production through technology and chemicals continues to be the mainstream theme, and just 10 corporations control half of all the food and drinks made and sold in the United States.

As a counterpoint, Lappe co-founded Food First in 1975 and the Center for Living Democracy in 1990, national organizations focusing on food and democracy issues. Last year, she and Anna started the Small Planet Fund, to provide grants for groups profiled in "Hope's Edge."

"I think the book recognizes two conflicting themes: that things are getting both much worse and much better," Lappe said. "That's where individual choice comes in. And I'm optimistic because we have seen a whole upsurge of people saying they do have choices."

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