In 1969, as I tried to grasp the root causes of hunger, I struggled to absorb the shocking picture my simple research was uncovering: While world food experts cried “scarcity,” in truth we bright humans were—and still are—creating hunger out of plenty. We’d turned our food system into a scarcity-creating machine, and were undermining the Earth’s food-producing potential, too.
I’ll make a one-page handout, I thought. I’ll pin it up here and there and we’ll all catch on, won’t we? For no one would do such a crazy thing, if they only knew.
My handout became a book, Diet for a Small Planet, which showed how our newly emerging diet—based on grain-fed meat produced with chemical inputs—reflects neither our bodies’ needs, nor what the Earth can sustain.
That was then.
Today, hunger’s toll breaks all records, and we’re now facing another huge downside to our reductive, extractive approach to farming: a warming climate. My daughter, Anna Lappé, has just released Diet for a Hot Planet, which continues the conversation I helped to start. She shows how much our global food system now drives the climate crisis—even more than transportation.
I’m beyond proud. It’s a fabulous book (moms have a right to say what we think), shocking and empowering at once. And in June the U.N. Environment Programme released a report backing up her message, calling out industrial agriculture, particularly large-scale livestock production, as among the world’s most energy-intensive and environmentally destructive industries. Among the UNEP’s recommendations? We individuals adopt plant-centered diets to lower our own carbon “foodprints.”
The report also highlights how agriculture itself can be part of the solution: Ecological farming actually binds carbon in the soil, and its abundant crop varieties can boost biodiversity. So it’s not agriculture per se, but a certain kind of agriculture, that threatens our planet (and our health).
I could never have imagined, writing my little handout 40 years ago, that today I’d be living in a world in which earth-friendly, hunger-ending farming is proving its potential from Ethiopia to Brazil to India to the U.S.—but where citizens still go along with policies spreading hunger and the destructive, corporate-controlled industrial farming that helps to cause it.
Clearly, we have to dig much deeper.
So, while I celebrate the UNEP’s call-to-diet-action, I wish the report had framed the problem more precisely. It names population and economic growth, which increase consumption of animal products, as culprits. Ernst von Weizsaecker, an environmental scientist who co-chaired the panel, is quoted in press coverage saying, "Rising affluence is triggering a shift in diets towards meat and dairy products.”
I wish the UNEP had emphasized that population growth and our kind of economic growth (producing vast waste) are themselves symptoms of deeper problems.
Almost all population growth in the next 30 years is predicted to be in poor countries, in large measure reflecting the lack of power many women have over their fertility and the dearth of economic opportunities available to them.
And the destructive planet-heating food production and distribution we now experience are themselves consequences of a particular kind of growth—centralizing control of farmland, processing and distribution by national elites and global mega-corporations; power that both reflects and strengthens their political influence. The deepening, gross inequities that result do in fact spur consumption of animal food by the better off—animal products produced using environmentally egregious practices.
But might the UNEP’s frame emphasizing “growth” itself as the problem further distract us from the root problem, deepening worldwide power inequities?
If, by contrast, we were as societies redressing power inequities and reclaiming our democracy from private interests, and if our world’s poor majorities were gaining access to land and agroecological knowledge, enabling more local food distribution, too, then it’s possible we’d see the meat question differently. We’d see that those without access to animal food could produce and consume modest increases, integrating livestock into healthy farming—and reducing our collective climate impacts.
Of course, as author of Diet for a Small Planet, I also know that for the world’s minority who now consume much more protein than our bodies can even use, eating less animal food is great for our health and useful in sending countless messages through the market for saner use of resources.
But that’s a very different proposition than suggesting that overconsumption causes the crisis, and that less is the primary cure.
So I applaud all who are now embracing planet-friendly diets. Hurrah for us! But let such a diet serve as a daily reminder—a string around our fingers that we notice at least three times a day, reminding us of the root of our ecological and hunger crisis: the concentration of corporate power. From there, all that good plant food in our bellies can not only enhance our health, but also bulk up our courage to name this deeper challenge and take it on.
- : A city in Brazil recruited local farmers to help do something U.S. cities have yet to do: end hunger.
- : YES! Magazine's food issue looks at how to grow a local food revolution.