Frances Moore Lappé. (Photo: Mamadi Doumbouya)
Frances Moore Lappé. (Photo: Mamadi Doumbouya)

Frances Moore Lappé on Fifty-Plus Years of Plant-Based Eating (and Living)

The “Diet for a Small Planet” author reflects on the transformational shifts that have taken place in plant-based eating and living over the past decade.
By Spencer Bailey
April 13, 2023
19 minute read

When Frances Moore Lappé published her book Diet for a Small Planet, in 1971, it was initially her humble way of understanding and coming to terms with modern-day food systems and industrial agricultural practices—or, as she puts it, “a way to find my own personal pathway.” She never could have predicted its profound impact on how we eat. The book, which became an international bestseller, has sold more than three million copies worldwide to date.

Now, more than 50 years later, as the co-founder of the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based Small Planet Institute, Lappé remains as engaged as ever. Aptly dubbed the “Godmother of plant-based living” by The New York Times, she has,  through her writing, research, and scholarship, linked what we eat—including where it comes from and how it’s grown—to democracy itself, exploring food’s vast, world-changing implications. Not only does Lappé remain an essential voice in today’s conversation around plant-based eating and living (alongside the likes of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters), she has, quite literally, changed the way the world eats.

Here, she talks about the transformational shifts that have taken place over the past five decades in the realms of food and farming—and what still urgently needs to be done.

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Let’s start by going back to when you published Diet for a Small Planet. What was the cultural climate at that time, particularly around plant-based eating and living? In writing the book, did you hope to shift any dominant or prevailing views?

Well, it was just the beginning of thinking of the term “plant-based.” The term “plant-based” I didn’t hear; certainly “vegetarian,” yes. But the dominant message—for those of us trying to make sense of the world, and in our twenties—was that we were running out of food and agricultural land, that we had overwhelmed the earth.

Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb had come out a few years earlier, and it was so scary. My friends were saying, “I can’t have children, because there’s not enough.” That was the world. I was kind of lost at that point. I thought, Oh, food. Is that really true? Maybe if I could understand the roots of hunger, maybe I’d find my pathway? So I went to the U.C. Berkeley Agricultural Library, with my dad’s slide rule—for those few of us who know what that is—and put two and two together, and said, “Ahhh, there’s more than enough for all of us!”

I could see that we were funneling so much land, so much grain into livestock, that we were actively shrinking. We’d created what I call the “protein factory” in reverse. That’s what people weren’t talking about—that we were actually shrinking the world’s food supply while we were talking about the scarcity, which was false. I wanted to tell the world, wrote a one-page handout, and that became a book.

You were a former community organizer. You were also quite inspired by the ecological movement that was happening, which led to the first Earth Day. Did you ever expect that the book—and, in turn, the phrase “plant-based” and the notion of plant-based eating—would take off the way it did after it came out?

Oh, no. Never did I imagine I would be a writer, much less a writer whose book would just hit at that moment where people who are looking for solutions. I got chills saying this, still after all these years, that people responded, because it was something they could do, that related into their everyday, the choices that we make. When you think about it, there are very few ways that we relate to the earth, where we make choices multiple times a day that ripple out. I mean, we only buy a car—if we buy a car—well, rarely. But food, multiple times a day, we make that choice.

I think people just got excited about the fact that their food choices mattered, and that it connected them, if they aligned their food choices, with the earth and all the earth’s biodiversity. That they could be making a positive impact. I called it “my act of rebel sanity.” It was so sensible, and yet it was rebellious at the same time. It was really a very thrilling moment, but also kind of scary, because I thought, Wait a minute, why wasn’t somebody else saying this? I was somebody just out of college, and maybe I got a decimal point wrong. But it turned out I was right.

Of course, we were living near San Francisco, and there were the hippies, the back-to-the-landers—it was all part of that movement of questioning. I remember baking bread for what was called People’s Park. Students wanted to prevent [the construction of] a parking lot, and to have a park and a garden there.There was a lot of questioning about our relationship to the earth. I think that’s one of the reasons that I connected to that: as a way to find my own personal pathway.

What do you think have been some of the key moments, the cultural shifts, the tipping points toward plant-based eating and vegetarianism over the past five decades?

Well, I think it’s been a pretty steady march, in a way. For example—well, it’s sped up, it hasn’t been a steady march, because it’s really sped up in the last ten years, I think.

When I moved my office to Cambridge, fifteen years ago, there were very few plant-based options. Now, we can walk out of our office and have options here, options there, options everywhere. In that sense, there has been a huge change recently.

I think that the whole stigma of, somehow you’re sacrificing if you don’t eat meat, you’re sacrificing some taste—I think that that is really diminishing. For me, what I was trying to tell people that I discovered is that actually all the variety and the color and the taste differences, all that is in the plant world. If you think about it, they are just a handful of kinds of meat. But when you enter the plant world, it’s just so diverse.

I wanted to excite people about being adventurers in the kitchen, and putting new things together and trying things out, and that was the spirit of the book, is to just experiment with tastes that you like, a seasoning that you like, and not be intimidated by following everything to the letter. For me, it was just totally liberating. Because my body came into balance, I’d always been one of those classic, female, always trying to lose the last ten pounds kind of thing. When I moved to plant-based, I didn’t ever crave anymore. I just ate what I loved.

What do you think has specifically shifted in the past ten years that has sped up this phenomenon of plant-based eating?

There are two things that I emphasized in the [Diet for a Small Planet] fiftieth-anniversary edition opening chapter, and one certainly is the connection to the climate crisis. When I began, we were not aware of what we were facing, and so quickly, and how much agriculture in the food system contributes [to CO2 levels in the atmosphere]. About thirty-seven percent of greenhouse gasses are linked to the food system, and the impact of the use of agricultural land for grazing and for growing feed crops is a huge contributor to that. Of course, in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a huge portion of that is to graze cattle and grow feed.

So now we see the threat that this grain-fed, meat-centered diet causes. The statistic I think is mind-boggling is that we use almost eighty percent of our agricultural land to produce livestock that return to us less than twenty percent of our calories. With beef, the return for protein in to protein out is about three percent. So the waste involved.… The other thing is that I begin the new chapter with a quote from David Attenborough, who warns us about the sixth great extinction, and all of this destruction of topsoil and native crops and diversity. All of that is key, he argues, to produce meat. It is also a key cause of the current threat to biodiversity. We can’t replenish the earth without this really important change of diet, to a plant-centered diet. I quote him in the beginning of the chapter, and he’s really convincing on that.

You’ve since gone on to publish nineteen more books since this first one, including Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity in 1977; World Hunger: Twelve Myths in 1986; and more recently, World Hunger: Ten Myths in 2015, and Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet in 2002. Tell me about this book-writing journey, and particularly the role that plant-based living has served across this body of work.

I could go many angles, but the book Hope’s Edge was a life-changing moment. Because, think about this: If you’re a parent, or you can imagine, I traveled the world—five continents—with my daughter, Anna, meeting the most courageous people in so many communities who were on the land and confronting this chemical, corporate-driven approach—and wasteful and destructive approach—to farming, and regaining the traditional wisdom and building on that.

I still carry with me in every day the spirit of Wangari Maathai, for example, who we met. Her allies taught us a great lesson about rethinking fear. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement that was countering this monoculture transformation of Kenya. Then she won the Nobel Peace Prize. I could go on and on. But can I just tell you one little story about that trip?Please do.

Well, I was in India, and I got to visit a village called Deccan Development Society, about a three hours’ drive from Hyderabad. These women there had been totally dependent on their husbands; on corporate chemical approach; growing white rice, which is very low in nutrition; and they were all suffering hunger. Then they began to meet every week. After the kids went to bed, they started meeting and planning, each one helping the other gain a little bit with these coins they’d put into a bucket. They’d get enough to buy a few acres, and then they’d started converting it to regenerative agriculture and diverse crops, so that by the time I got there, they took me out in their field and twenty different crops were growing. They had their own radio station, and now they’ve been asked to travel the world. They’re a symbol to me of this larger movement.

Again, I mention this [in the book], in a study done by a U.K. professor, of the growth of these kinds of Indigenous-grounded movements, he had counted half a million by the year 2000 worldwide. He has contacts all over the world. But between 2000 to 2020, it went to eight million of these small, sustainable agriculture groups, where they’re working together. The punchline on this is, as I was leaving their village, they raced after me. I turned around, and I heard this rustle. They looked me right in the eyes and said, “We forgot to tell you the most important thing. Most important, we found our courage!” I just love that. So I end all of my talks with the theme of courage: Where do we find it? And what is it? Because it’s frightening to break with the dominant path, and they did it. I’ve been very fortunate to learn from very courageous people.

You’ve also written at length about democracy—most recently, as the co-author of the book Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want. In your view, where does democracy connect with food, sustainability, and plant-based eating?

For me, it’s clear that we can’t make this big turn in as long as we have concentrated economic and political power that benefits from this top-down, destructive, extractive approach. The only way we can remove that power is through democracy, meaning that the system is answerable to the citizens. And right now, unfortunately—and shockingly, I think, for most Americans—the U.S. is ranked sixty-second in the world in the status of our political rights and civil liberties by an organization that was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and others in the forties, called Freedom House. So we’re not even near those we think of as our peers—Europe, the E.U. countries.

For me, democracy means electoral democracy and it means cultures that honor and meet the human need for three things: a sense of agency—that’s power; a sense of meaning in our lives; and connection with others. Those three human needs enable us to thrive, and they only exist in a democracy. Of course, power has to be widely distributed, which is one definition of democracy.

I walk on both the food foot and the democracy foot because I can’t walk just on one foot. [Laughs]

You were alluding to a lot of the issues of agriculture earlier, and we clearly know there are many dire situations around the world. So how do we create policies and systems so that nations around the world can prioritize, say, regenerative agriculture? What are some strategies or solutions you see?

We have to model setting rules so that our agricultural system is not dominated by just a handful of…. Three or four companies, every step in the food chain, are determining outcomes. So you have to grow the feed crops that then get refined into feed for livestock. We have to change those rules, to get rid of these monopolies or near-monopolies that so limit farmers into what they can grow to survive. We have to move subsidies away from the biggest farms and help smaller farms that are growing ecologically, regeneratively. Right now, we’re promoting, in our tax dollars—they are worsening the problem; they’re not representing our interests. We’ve got to spread that not with, Oh, you’re bad, because you eat meat. But, Oh, look at this opportunity that we’re denying ourselves by just putting all the resources into this dominant, meat-centered agriculture. The resources are there. They’re just going toward reinforcing the problem.

So if we all—and by “we all” I mean every human on earth, so this is an impossibility, but bear with me—if we all switched to a plant-based diet, or what you’ve more recently called a “planet-centered diet,” what do you think we would discover? What would some of the impacts be?

Well, I call it a plant- and planet-centered diet. That’s my new thing. Obviously, it’s not that new. We’ve known for a while now the climate impact and biodiversity impact. But I think that one, we would be healthier. Certainly, if we were eating a diverse and more whole-food diet, we would drastically reduce our diabetes rate, which has leaped about more than fourfold since I wrote Diet for a Small Planet. So we would be healthier. We’d have more vitality. We’d think better. It’s just a win-win-win all the way around, from the creatures of the earth, to the treatment of animals, to our own bodies’ health, to our vitality. That’s what’s so beautiful about it, is just the multiples of gain that we could experience as we move to plant- and planet-centered eating.

Before we finish, I wanted to ask you if you’ve been following the work that Daniel Humm [the guest on Ep. 53 of our Time Sensitive podcast] has been doing at Eleven Madison Park, by switching to an all-vegan menu, and if so, what your thoughts have been about seeing this in the news?

Oh, I love it. I just love it. I hope that people get intrigued and discover some new delight that they can make themselves.

I really stress—I love the chefs that create very, very special dishes, but I also want to encourage people to just experiment, as I said earlier, just to what seasoning you like best. Somebody told me recently, “I love your Roman rice and beans recipe.” All I did with that is take the Latin American rice and beans that have a certain palate of spices, and I threw in oregano, basil, and Italian seasoning [laughs], and it worked! It’s fun to feel that freedom. I think that’s what I’m hoping, is that people feel that freedom. It’s always great to have a chef to inspire us, but not to feel that we have to mimic that—to just be inspired by it, then try things out.

To close, what to you, Frances, is the good life?

It is a life filled with meaning and with a sense of agency, and with deep connection with others. I think that I’ve been so fortunate that I found my question early. The good life is finding a question, and the question behind the question behind the question, and then finding people who care about that. It’s a life that feels like a journey of exploration with others that you bond with. We can’t, any of us, expect to be the one to solve all the problems, but if we know that the choices we’re making are contributing, and we’re doing it with others… I would just say that if you’re a bit lost, find just one buddy, and make a commitment to make a change, and then another change. We find that courage when we get encouraged by the fact that we are changing, and then we believe that others can change.

This interview was recorded on October 12, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.