Cupids Health

After 50 Years, ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ Remains Urgent

When Ballantine Books published Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, the book attracted very little mainstream press. And why would it? The 26-year-old Lappé was a first-time author and community organizer who had just dropped out of grad school at the University of California, Berkeley. Diet for a Small Planet combined investigative reporting with recipes for earthy, whole-grain vegetarian foods—soy grits, sprouts, something called “tofu”—that were made with ingredients few Americans had tasted, or, in fact, wanted to know about.

Yet the book’s message made it through the counterculture, growing in momentum until it reached the broader public. It called for a simple, radical shift in perspective at a time when experts argued that the Earth had bypassed its carrying capacity, which would lead to food scarcity and widespread global famine that would destabilize the planet.

Those assumptions were wrong, Lappé argued. Hunger wasn’t insolvable. Her research demonstrated that the world could easily feed itself—if it stopped growing so many crops to feed animals for meat and fed more of them directly to people instead. Just as promising was Lappé’s writing about nutritional research illustrating that humans didn’t need meat for their bodies to thrive. And her recipes gave readers the means to fill their diets with ovo-lacto-vegetarian protein.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, many in Lappé’s generation were looking critically at the politics and economics of the U.S. food system. They didn’t just read Diet for a Small Planet, which has gone on to sell more than 2 million copies—they acted on it. And, for many prominent food leaders at the time, the book was the movement’s intellectual cornerstone, which had propelled natural foods from a quirky, fringe set of ideas into the mainstream.

Lappé, who goes by Frankie, went on to found Food First and the Small Planet Institute, speak around the world, and write 20 books. She has revised Diet for a Small Planet three times, the last time in 1991. For the 50th anniversary, she collaborated with her daughter Anna Lappé—herself a James Beard Award-winning author, food-systems advocate, and Civil Eats advisory board member—to rethink Diet for a Small Planet for 2021, addressing 50 years of climate change, corporate consolidation in farming and food production, pesticide proliferation, topsoil erosion, and water pollution.

The new edition is centered around the research at the heart of the 1991 edition but is now led by a barnstorming new chapter and a total rethink of the recipe section. They kept a few of the favorite recipes from the original edition and added dishes from 14 nationally known cooks, including Bryant Terry, Yasmin Khan, Padma Lakshmi, and Brooks Headley.

What is immediately apparent is that the Lappés’ call to action is just as timely, and even more urgent, as it was 50 years ago. I met with them over Zoom earlier this week to talk about the new book.

How did this new edition come about? And how did you decide what to include and how to reshape the book?

Frankie Moore Lappé: Let me just preface my answer to say a lot of it is Anna’s initiative and coordination. She really saw the vision for the 50th.

Anna Lappé: If memory serves, the publisher reached out in 2019 and said, “Look, there’s this 50th anniversary. Can we reprint the book, and maybe you can just write a few opening words?” Mom said yes. I told her. “Think of it as an opportunity to write a new opening chapter reflecting on how your thinking has evolved over five decades.”

What were some of the biggest shifts that were critical for you to incorporate into the 50th edition?

Moore Lappé: I’ve always felt that the message of Diet for a Small Planet makes so much sense from a health point of view, from an ecological point of view, from [the perspective of] equity, democracy, people’s voice. But what was overwhelmingly in my face as I dove into this new book was that we had allowed wealth to continue to concentrate and corrupt our democracies—and so much more was at risk.

What was a “really great choice” in that first edition is now a no-contest necessity. The future of life on Earth is now at stake, and our food system contributes enormously to the decimation of other species and to climate change. Agriculture is now estimated to contribute as much as 37 percent [of greenhouse gas emissions]. And then there are the health consequences: The diabetes rate, to take one measure, has leapt four-fold. We’re the brightest species, yet we’ve turned food into a threat to our health. We’re killing ourselves by feeding ourselves.

There’s a level of crisis now, a kind of do-or-die moment. I was a cheerleader in high school, and I have that bug in me to get people jumping up and not just crawling under the seats, so I try to balance that alarm with a sense of possibility. But I’m not an optimist. You don’t have to be an optimist to be engaged and determined. All you have to do is believe there’s some possibility that your actions can make a difference. So, I’m a “possibilist.”

After writing 20 books, what did this edition symbolize as you contemplated your first book all over again?

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