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Author & Food Activist Frances Moore Lappé (part 1)

Frances Moore Lappé has been a thought leader in the good food movement since the 1970s. She is the author or co-author of 18 books, numerous articles, and is a frequent contributor to the Huffington PostFrances was named by Gourmet Magazine as one of 25 people (including Thomas Jefferson, Upton Sinclair, and Julia Child), whose work has changed the way America eats. She is the co-founder of three organizations, including the Small Planet Institute, which she currently leads with her daughter, Anna Lappé.

Frances’s first book, Diet for a Small Planet, was and still is immensely enlightening, and today, she discusses her new book, World Hunger: 12 Myths, co-authored with Joseph Collins. In this episode, we examine the world food situation by defining what hunger is and how much food we currently produce, and we discuss nutritional stunting and its long term impact, the mythology and language around the idea that the U.S. can and must feed the world, and the false promise of new technologies such as GMOs.

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners! I’m Theresa Marquez, here today with author-activist Frances Moore Lappé. When I read Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, it changed my life. And when I was speaking to many other people about Diet for a Small Planet, Frankie—which is something that her friends often call her—it was all agreed that she has changed probably more lives than we know. And so, Frankie, welcome to Rootstock Radio.

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Thank you. Thank you, Theresa.

TM: I’m just curious, Frankie, do you hear that a lot? “Wow, I read Diet for a Small Planet and it changed my life!”

FML: Yes, and I can’t think of anything more rewarding than to have somebody look in my eyes and say that to me. My heart will always go flutter-flutter, and it’s incredibly rewarding, yes.

TM: I guess there’s a reason why it’s sold, is it like—

FML: Three million plus.

TM: Three million plus. And so much in Diet for a Small Planet awakened us to how food isn’t just something we shove into our mouths. Today, with France Moore Lappé, we are going to talk about the most current book that she has released, with Joseph Collins, called World Hunger: 10 Myths. And Frankie, I know that you had another book, was it 12 Myths? So is this like a remake of the 12 Myths?

FML: Yes, it’s a complete rewrite. We refuse to call it a revision because it is really a brand-new book. But we really like the myth format to put out there the ideas that are sort of in the cultural ether. It’s still organized by myths, but actually we also changed some of the myths. One of the new ones has to do, for example, with climate change. So yes, it’s the same format, in a sense, but a completely new book.

TM: Well, thank you for clarifying that. And I have always been an activist, Frankie, but after reading it I realized how critical it was for us to always keep up with the things that are going. Because if we can’t, then we’ll keep believing things that aren’t true, you know. And when you said that you were listening to someone speak and they were comparing feudalism to what’s happening today with the kind of corporate feudalism we have, and you know, how did that end? And then the person said—and I’m sorry, I can’t quote exactly who it was—and they just said, “Well, we stopped believing it.”

FML: Right, right, right. Yeah, I described the scene as a historian from Harvard, a learned woman. And I took out my notebook and I wanted to take great notes about it, and then she just said, “We stopped believing in it.” And I said, yeah, that’s it! We are stopping to believe in corporatocracy, or plutonomy or whatever we want to call it. We’ve stopped believing in the idea that we have to be governed by wealth.

TM: And so I want the listeners, when we start talking about some of these myths, that not believing these myths is the first step in trying to change. And that was very much of an aha that I had reading through the book. The first part that I got a little bit stunned by was when you said let’s define what hunger is. Could you say a little bit about that? And what made you realize that we don’t really understand what hunger is?

FML: Well, the UN, every year, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) puts out a number. And actually, the number that they put out every year and the number that’s quoted throughout the world as the number of hungry people is 800 million. And that’s the calorie measure—it is strictly a very strict definition. You have to be hungry for more than a year, so that if you have a bad harvest and you’re hungry for a few months but it’s over a year, your calories balance out to put you above the threshold and you do not count as hungry. So it’s a very severe measure. But the key to it, to understand the problem with it, is that it only is about the calories that we consume.

So what we’ve done in this book is to say wait a minute—the world today, calories and nutrition are parting ways. So more and more people can have calories and still be very ill from lack of nutrition. And so what we then introduce is the concept of nutritional deprivation. And we define it as not having access to the nutrients we need, so that today there are two billion of us—this is where the two billion comes in—that are deficient in at least one key nutrient we need for health.

For example, iron is implicated in one in five maternal deaths. So this is a crisis in the world, and we also see it in stunting of children, that one in four of children under five are diagnosed as stunted, which has lifelong implications for health and well-being. And so we say that’s another measure that shouldn’t be just considered about children; that if it has lifelong consequences we should consider a quarter of the world affected. So we come up with this definition of nutritional deprivation, which we say really is the way we should think about the food crisis, the hunger crisis, and it affects a quarter of the world’s people, roughly.

TM: And that is a staggering number, of a quarter—if we say that we’re at 7.3 billion, that puts us up at two billion plus, doesn’t it?

FML: Yeah, and just in terms of nutrient deficiency alone, that’s two billion there, which is more than a quarter. So note that the crisis, one of the parts of the challenge here is that there is no world agreement on how we measure it. And so what we put forth are the things that do get measured, and then we make this rough estimate. And we think that it is much more realistic than just counting calories.

And I tell the story in the book about how I’ve been in touch with a doctor in rural India who treats very, very poor patients. And he said, you know, a couple decades ago, people didn’t have enough to eat, enough calories to eat. He said now their calorie consumption is fine, but a huge portion of them, like 60 percent of them, he told me, are suffering from diabetes and from heart conditions because of poor nutrient consumption. So that’s what I mean when calories and nutrition have parted ways so that the calorie definition no longer alone makes sense for us.

TM: And Frankie, what is that number of calories that the FAO, what the United Nations’ acronym is—

FML: Yeah, the Food and Agriculture Organization is what you have to rely on for all of these numbers.

TM: What is the number of calories that they’ve been using? Is it like 2,000?

FML: They really don’t make that clear, you have to really dig. But available in the world today per capita is 2,900 calories per person, and that is after taking into account a great deal of the waste that goes into our system. So there is more than enough for all of us. The average minimum is something in that neighborhood, around 2,000, a little under 2,000, but in that range, depending on assumptions they make about daily activity—because, of course, our need is totally dependent on how active we are. But our emphasis in the book is wait a minute, there’s more than enough for all of us, for all of us, and there’s no excuse for hunger in the world.

TM: Yeah, I think, just to repeat for the listeners out there, that we have in the world now enough food for 2,900 calories—is that what you said?

FML: Yes, 2,900 calories are produced per person per day.

TM: So, you know, the first myth, of course, “Too much population and not enough food,” is certainly not true. What this book does so beautifully is debunk so many things that so many people think are true that just simply aren’t.

But I’d love to go back to this idea of stunting and nutritional deprivation. How do you define stunting?

FML: Well, it’s, you’re two standard deviations, I believe, if you’re a statistics person, below what is predicted for your reference group—and of course that would depend on your culture and everything—but it’s basically being shorter than you should be. And statistically it is connected to impairment in immune system function and often in mental acuity, so that it affects employment opportunities and success in the future. So of course, not everyone is equally affected or affected. But the point is that it is really a bad thing that is a handicap and is totally avoidable.

But it has to do not only with, we learn, not with nutrient-deficient diet, but also with poor, unsanitary water supply, so that your gut is not able to digest the nutrients that you do eat. So it’s both the poverty showing up in unsanitary water, and poverty in not having access to nutritious foods. So it is really a very good measure of the consequences of poverty that are extreme. And this one-quarter of children under five being measured as stunted—you know, a generation ago it was much greater than that. So if you think about it, then that means that if it’s a lifelong impact, then people affected throughout the world today are probably even greater than one in four. But we really just wanted to give people a general sense of how extensive this crisis is despite the ample food in the world.


TM: This nutritional deprivation actually is right here in the United States, in Europe, in other places.

FML: Yeah, one of the things we cite early in the book is a Lancet study that said that actually quality of diets is decreasing throughout the world, and in the “developed” global north as well and the United States also. So the point is that we are consuming more calories; often obesity can go right along with lack of nutrients. And so one can be obese and still be nutritionally deprived.

And this is a very dramatic Lancet report saying that very soon that—this was in 2015—most of the key causes of noncommunicable diseases are diet-related and predicted by 2020 to account for nearly three-quarters of all deaths worldwide. So that is pretty stunning, that these diseases that are diet-related, that they are the key causes of noncommunicable—that means those we can’t pass to one another—and they are predicted to account for nearly 75 percent of all deaths worldwide by 2020. So this is what we’re alluding to here: the degradation of our diet. In addition to the absolute inability of people to purchase food, there is the degradation of the food itself.

TM: One of my favorite things to ask my staff and other people I don’t know, when we start talking about commodities, is what is the number one, highest-volume commodity being sold in the world? Sugar!

FML: Wow! Wow, I wish I had that in the book, Theresa! Thank you!

TM: You know, diabetes, these high-sugar diets are just so common in so many places.

FML: You know, Theresa, I just wanted to jump when you said, you know, that you were appropriately reacting so strongly to the extent of this nutritional deprivation. But I also want to remind everyone that among my superheroes in the world now are people who had been locked into this very low nutrition diet and have, on their own energy and brilliance and working with one another, have transformed their diets into models of absolute health. And I tell those stories here and there throughout the book, but especially at the end of the book. And I just want to remind all who might read this book that there are some incredible stories of transformation that we never hear about, and that people just like us—you know, regular people who thought they didn’t have power and that joined together and discovered they could create power.


TM: Thank you so much, Frankie, for saying that. And once again, it’s so important for us to understand the things that are really true, not the myths. Before we get any further though, those of you who are just joining us, we are talking with France Moore Lappé, and we are specifically focusing on a new book that she has just put out with Joseph Collins, called World Hunger: 10 Myths. Frankie, let’s go back to those solutions a little bit, because one of the, I think, themes that I’m reading through the book is that a huge solution is women.

FML: Yeah, well, I had the great privilege a couple years ago to be in southern India with a group that I had learned about because I had seen videos they had created. And these were Dalit women, the traditional, you know, the lowest caste, treated with no respect. And I’d seen them because they had created their own videos, and I became fascinated.

They told the story of their transformation from what, when I got to visit with them, they called “the dark, dark time.” They used that word over and over, and they said that they were, about twenty years ago, thirty years ago, they were just every day, “Will we be able to eat? Will we be able to feed our children?” The edge of starvation, weakness, and depression. And they were beaten by their husbands, intimidated by landlords.

They told me one touching detail. They said, “We could only afford one sari”—you know, the cloths that women in India wear—“and so we couldn’t even bathe properly because we had to just wash a piece of it at a time and let it dry, and then wash another piece. That’s how poor we were. And then we learned that we could come together.”

And they started meeting, and these women came together and created their own plan for how to restore some land that they technically had access to but they couldn’t use it because they had no wherewithal to get going, you know, in terms of seeds and just basic tools. And so they were able, I believe it was a very small revolving loan that they were able to pay back. They started working to move away from nutritionless white rice to whole biodiverse fields, these fields that the women had maybe one acre, but in that one acre I could walk through and see lentils, and I could see the oil seeds, greens, grains, especially millets, which are very nutritious compared to the white rice. And these women were beaming with pride.

And now they take their seed caravan once a year, village to village, seventy-five villages in February every year, to share what they’ve learned. And they’ve made videos to share what they’ve learned. They have their own radio station. They told me that they’d petitioned the Indian government for seven years to get their own radio station so they could share what they’re learning.

And I have never been so moved by a story. And Theresa, when I left, as I got up to leave, they said, “We want you to know that the main thing that we have gained from our women’s group”—it’s called the Deccan Development Society—they said “the main thing we have learned is courage.”


TM: That is so, so beautiful, because I think that’s probably what we’re all lacking.

FML: It’s courage, yes, and that we can find in ourselves, as we join with others and take those risks together and… Oh, I just want to add a little note on this: that this courage they’ve found as a group, they now say that the village, where there’s a problem in the village, they come to the women’s group to help sort it out. And if a woman is beaten by her husband, then the whole group goes and confronts him and says that’s just not acceptable here.

TM: Yeah, and once again we’re getting back to “I’m not going to believe this anymore. We don’t have to believe that.” You know, I can’t help but have to jump to myth number eight: “U.S. foreign aid is the best way to help the hungry.” Somehow I think that this empowerment of women might be what makes that a myth.

FML: Yes, I think, well, you know, we start out that chapter, the foreign aid myth chapter, saying that basically a country’s foreign aid is only as useful as its own definition of its national interest. And we quote John Kerry saying that of course our foreign aid is in the interest of our own country. And that’s okay, as long as we define our own interests appropriately.

And so we tell stories in that chapter about foreign aid gone wrong, certainly the problem of food aid that undercuts the local producers. But we also talk a few examples of things where indeed—again, back to women—where in Nepal, for example, that USAID was involved in small startups for the creation of this magnificent network in Nepal of village health workers, where low-income women, village women are trained in basic—this is volunteer—but basically supporting one another in nutrition for your newborn and in childbearing, so that they had an enormous effect on such things as infant mortality and maternal death.

So the foreign aid chapter, we tell a lot of horror stories about the ways in which our foreign aid has pushed our foreign policy and pushed GMOs through the world, and that sort of thing, and has, as I already mentioned, the problem with food aid coming in that can undercut the local producer. And all that, we really need to understand and to stop and to shift our foreign aid. And yet, properly understood, we can see that as Americans we benefit as people throughout the world gain in their own power, like the village women in Nepal where there was a small piece of that that was from the U.S. as well as a lot of other helpers throughout the world.

So it’s really shifting how we understand U.S. foreign interests, and mainly seeing our benefit, our well-being, our foreign interests—our national interests, shall we say—our national interest being aligned with this empowerment that we describe of the poorest people in the world. And how do we kind of get out of their way and stop making it more difficult by undercutting them, for example, or by undercutting the prices for what they could produce by our exports. And how do we get out of the way by not reinforcing corporate strategies in, say, southern Africa, where aid strategies that we’ve been involved in are actually making the pathway for corporate influence and the largest agribusinesses in the world turning what could be something that could be very self-sufficient, such as the women who I described in southern India, making them dependent on purchased inputs, which is the opposite of empowerment.

TM: Yeah, I just am so taken with the idea that “We have to feed the world” is this phrase that we hear over and over again, and it’s now beginning to offend me, especially after reading different parts of your book, in that people who are hungry want to feed themselves. They don’t want someone to feed them—they want to feed themselves. And so we need to rethink that whole phrase and stop saying it over and over again. And certainly U.S. foreign aid is best helping people feed themselves.

And then the other phrase, “Only GMOs can feed a hungry world.” And I was taken with what you said and showed: gee, what is industrial ag, it’s eighty years old, or seventy, eighty, ninety, and it hasn’t fed the world. And it’s actually failed at it. And so is it really simply just so our corporations can control food worldwide?

FML: Well, certainly, I don’t believe in conspiracy theories per se; that always seemed too easy for me. But I do so strongly feel that it is a mindset, it is a set of beliefs. And we fall into it because, don’t you think—I would love your view on this, Theresa—but that it’s something that we think that “modern is better.” So something that is manufactured is more modern, and something that comes out of a laboratory is more modern than what farmers are coming up with on their own. And I think about the women in southern India who are doing their own saving and sharing of seeds, and succeeding brilliantly—but it’s not coming out of a laboratory, it’s coming out of their fields.

And so I think there’s a prejudice that is reinforced then by those who do benefit by the industrial model, to convince us that something backward about organic farming, agroecology, for example. And that’s the mindset we have to break. And it has to do with, really, confidence in ourselves and what people are creating in the fields and seeing with their own hands and eyes and working that they have this very close knowledge that is built over millennia—and that yes, it can be amplified by what’s done in the lab, that can be amplified, our knowledge can always be increased, but that we should not privilege that which is manufactured or lab-produced. That’s the faulty mindset, I think, about modern things versus what has grown up from people’s experience.


TM: I was really also moved by one of your stories about the different projects that are trying to, what, re-green, you might say, using trees and agroforestry. And I wonder if you could tell one of those stories of agroforestry, which was just so fascinating, it just seemed like what a great solution.

FML: What we learned is that actually it’s emerging throughout the world. And our favorite story that we share is in the Sahel region, Niger in particular, in Africa, which has been suffering from the desert moving south, so to speak, and increasingly dealing with drought. And how do you deal with this?

And what has happened there is that over the last twenty or so years is that a number of farmers said, “Wait a minute, I’m not leaving. Our ancestors knew how to deal with this. We surely can figure it out.” And they started realizing that trees, rather than being a detriment to agriculture, were a complement to agriculture, because in that area the trees shade and therefore cool the earth; they hold the soil in place; they help create pathways for the sparse rain to get into the soil. They can also provide food—some of the trees have fruits that people rely on.

And so they started combining the planting of the crops with the restoration—because a lot of places had tree stumps that they had continually cut back because they thought they were harming agriculture. They let them grow in this re-nurturing process. And we say that now we can document—and you can see this, actually, in Google Earth—there are now 12.5 million acres of re-greened through this approach of agroforestry and providing food security for 2.5 million people. So it’s quite an accomplishment, and something like 200 million trees involved.

But it’s very different than just tree planting, which can often mean a lot of losses, that trees die. This approach—the re-greening is the term we use—is enabling the natural vegetation to return while you also intersperse the crop yield: the crops that actually produce higher yields in the areas that are using agroforestry.

And the other advantage I didn’t mention is that agroforestry is a very powerful storer of carbon. And so agroforestry is ranked very, very high in all the things that we can do on the earth to make sure that we are using the earth to store as much carbon as we possibly can and keep it out of the atmosphere.

TM: And also, aren’t some of those trees producing fruit, or things to eat? A lot of them, it’s like permaculture, as what we know in permaculture, you know, when we’re integrating perennials into… And of course, perennials sequester carbon. It just seems like a terrific story of, a restoration story, for both feeding people as well as sequestering carbon, et cetera.

FML: Absolutely. I want to tell you one study we cite from the EU. A professor did a study indicating that if the EU converted to agroforestry, that it could sequester 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions as were emitted in 2007, I believe it was. But very significant sequestration could take place.

TM: You’re tuned in to Rootstock Radio. We have been speaking with Frances Moore Lappé, and this is part one of a two-part interview, talking with Frances about World Hunger: 10 Myths, her most current book, written with Joseph Collins. Please tune in next week. It’s an exciting interview.

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