July 17, 2016

The Impact of Food on Climate Change: a Dialogue with Frances Moore Lappé. {Book Excerpt}


Frances Moore Lappé is the author and co-author of 18 books, including Diet For a Small Planet, which has sold over three million copies worldwide. She is the co-founder of Food First and the Small Planet Institute, a collaborative network for research and popular education that seeks to bring democracy to life. She has been a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And she is the winner of the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, “for revealing the political and economic causes of world hunger and how citizens can help to remedy them.”


THEO HORESH: How can human nature be used to bring us together to meet the climate challenge?

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: We drop the scare tactics, we drop the guilt tactics. They may have short term payoff, but they do not create a sustaining way of being in the world. What is missing now is a really passionate, positive, cross-issue movement on these themes of alignment. So, many of the messages of limits and the finger pointing keep us from uniting in a common mission. Both conservatives and progressives get it that democracy has been hijacked by private interests. Yet there is so little articulation of that, so little attempt to bridge the differences and come together. And we can come together, because 90 percent of Americans agree that corporations have too much power.

Theo: You talk about transforming “something so frightening as to make us go numb into a challenge so compelling that billions of us will eagerly embrace it.”

Frances: We have an incredible opportunity to get it right, and getting it right is what I call “living democracy.” It is not just about getting rid of the next bad leader, but it is a different way of being and understanding democracy, as a culture, as a way of life. Living democracy creates opportunities for regular people to come together and reason together, and there is much evidence it works, but this process is still invisible in the popular culture. The greatest under-appreciated human need is the need of voice, of power, of dignity itself. And recognizing that need for dignity, meaning the sense of voice and agency, needs to be fundamental to all of our environmental messages. It is so much more powerful and effective than just saying, “You greedy person, you are to blame.” Of course you want your children to thrive, of course you love nature and you appreciate other species. We need to be asking how we can all have a voice to enable the future.

Theo: Meeting the climate challenge may involve changing a lot of rules, and making some new ones in business, in government, and in our personal lives. How might we make the most of this process of rewriting the rules of social existence?

Frances: First, we have to believe that it is possible. Too many people seem to have given up on democracy. Compared with other democracies, the U.S. is an outlier in terms of the extreme way we have allowed private wealth to overwhelm public decision-making. One ranking that looks at how much private interests control political decision making in democracies measures their freedom from corruption on a scale of 1 to 100. And while it places Germany as the best at 83, the U.S. scored 29 with Tajikistan.

Theo: As democratic participation has eroded in the United States, it is still on the rise throughout the world, and supporting this also seems to be a part of your project.

Frances: Yes, definitely. What is really working to end hunger is the regular people who are creating social movements of non-farmers and movements of farmers that are transforming agriculture into an ecologically sound practice. This is working to change relationships, not just to the soil, but to each other, so it is happening, but it is not as visible as it could be.

Theo: You have written that democratization within families, villages, and governments can, among other things, help alleviate world hunger through bringing about a redistribution of resources. Can you talk a bit about how some of your solutions to world hunger might also decrease greenhouse gas emissions?

Frances: We need to recognize the degree to which the food system is contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. There is a very credible study that says that the food system accounts for as much as 57 percent of greenhouse gases if you include deforestation, as you should, and concentrated livestock, and all of the transportation involved in growing food and bringing it to market. They are all related to our food system. To take just one example from the Rainforest Action Network, Indonesia is now the third-largest greenhouse-gas emitter because of the palm-oil operations, which are causing deforestation. We can also look at this through the lens of food waste: since about a third of all food is wasted, if food waste were a country, it would be tied with Indonesia as the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Agro-ecology is better for the health of farmers, because they are not exposed to pesticides. It is better for consumers, because we are not eating harmful chemicals. It is better for the water, because it does not leave the water with nitrates and other harmful chemicals. But we are also coming to appreciate that through agro-ecology, through enhancing the health of the soil, and through creating more life in the soil, it holds more carbon. And so, agro-ecology is a very direct contributor to balancing the greenhouse gas imbalance.

Theo: Because of the release of carbon and the tilling of soil and the erosion of soil.

Frances: Agro-ecology reduces the release of carbon, as well as nitrous oxide and methane, very potent greenhouse gases, and it holds more carbon in the soil. Interspersing trees with crops can be especially helpful. In Niger, farmers have re-greened over 12 million acres of land through nurturing and growing 200 million trees. The trees supply fodder for livestock, provide fruit, and protect the soil from being eroded by wind and rain. So, agro-ecology and agro-forestry can make a very big contribution to righting the carbon balance, if spread to all of the areas in the world where soil is now degraded.

Theo: When people say, “We have enough food to feed the world easily, it is just a question of distribution,” this can be a conversation stopper. If you press into this answer, they seldom have a plan for distribution, but you do not see redistribution in terms of aid. It is not even so much a question of what we are doing with rich-world agricultural subsidies. The redistribution occurs at the level of the poor peasant family, at the level of the village, at the level of the state—say, the state of India or the state of Nigeria.

Frances: Exactly. People often say to me, “What you are really saying is it is a distribution problem.” They seem to think I am saying we need a better global catering service. No, you just nailed it, what you said is absolutely right. Virtually every part of the world has the capacity to grow the food they need. But, don’t misunderstand: I am certainly not against all trade, per se.

Think of India, where they have the most hunger in the world. Almost half of India’s children are physically stunted, which impairs people for life. Yet, in the summer of 2012 India had a 71 million-ton stockpile of grain. And we calculated that the stockpile could provide one-and-a-half cups of grain for every person in India for the entire year. That was just the stockpile. So, clearly the challenge is not lack but enabling all of us to power and dignity. Dignity captures the idea of voice, of power, and of participation, whether at the level of the village or right here where I am today in the Boston area.

If one has power, one can eat, and if one does not, then one cannot eat. So, that is the fundamental question. And then there is the question of how we come together to create sustainable production in every sense of the word, because yes, there is enough food in the world, but a great deal of it is grown in a way that is not sustainable. The main idea is to shift away from the frame of “them apart from us,” that they do not have, but we have, and we need to ship it to them. Once we see our real needs are aligned, we see can ourselves as part of a global movement, standing alongside one another shoulder-to-shoulder.

Theo: And this fits very easily within your general framework of Eco-Mind, insofar as this is an empowering message to these poor villagers and families in the developing world. And it can be an inspiring message. It also follows trends in democratization that are happening organically in the world right now, where the number of democracies is still rising in a stair-step fashion, and where we have seen a virtual explosion of pro-democracy movements arise in recent years. But it also seems difficult to effect change from the rich world. How can we have an impact on this deeper democratization of families and villages and states to meet basic food needs?

Frances: If “we” is understood as ordinary citizens, who are changing our consciousness in order to connect directly with people in the global South, that is already happening on a major scale; whether it is my trip to Andhra Pradesh, India last year, where I got to visit with the Deccan Development Society and then got to tell their story, or whether it is movements like La Via Campesina, a global small farmers movement, creating a collective voice to change trade rules that make it harder for small farmers to access markets for their products. There is more and more cross-cultural, cross-national solidarity.


This article is an excerpt from The Inner Climate: Global Warming from the Inside Out. If you liked it, please follow me on Facebook.

Bonus: Walk the Talk Show: One Take: In the Moment with Frances Moore Lappé. How We Can Save our Earth:


Author: Theo Horesh

Image: Steven Depolo/Flickr

Editors: Travis May; Catherine Monkman

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