Author & Food Activist Frances Moore Lappé (part 2)
Last week we presented part 1 of our conversation with author and food activist Frances Moore Lappé. Here in part 2, we continue our discussion of topics covered in her new book, “World Hunger: 10 Myths.” Here, we discuss how responsible farming practices can improve soil quality, which improves both yields and crop nutrition, thus addressing both hunger and climate change. We also discuss the concept of “living democracy,” which empowers everyone to have “a say over one’s own livelihood and not just being vulnerable to the corporate decision-makers… It comes back to rethinking power and embracing it. Not as something that is bad, that is done to us or for us, but something that we can participate in that is actually the center of the good life.”
Theresa and Frances pack a lot more into their conversation.
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. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners! You are tuned in to Rootstock Radio. And today, this is part two of a conversation with Frances Moore Lappé on her most current book, called World Hunger: 10 Myths.
Since you did mention climate change, I’ll have to go back to myth 2, “Climate change makes hunger inevitable,” as a myth. And I wondered if you could speak a little bit about that.
FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ: Well, we take this on. It’s a very fine line we walk in this chapter, because of course we don’t want to undercount the reality of climate change and its effect on agriculture. It is very, very real. What we argue here, however, is that within our food system there is such vast room for improvement. There’s so much waste built in, that we can address that insufficiency and the self-destructive elements of industrial agriculture and improve our yields available to people long before we run out of the earth’s actual, absolute capacity to feed us. It’s bad news that we’re so inefficient, but on the other hand, that gives us a lot of room for improvement.
And good farming practices that are healthy for us and the earth, they actually are part of the solution to climate change. So we argue that small, organic farmers are our climate heroes; that they can actually not only decrease the emissions but they can actually help solve the problem.
TM: I really believe that what we’re going to see in this next decade is farms that we can call “carbon farms”—that is, farms that will sequester carbon and also measurably do so, so that we can actually measure how some of our sustainable practices, like perennialization, can feed people and also sequester carbon.
FML: Exactly, exactly. And this is the win-win, so this is the positive of where our need for organic, small-holder agriculture fits exactly with what we need for addressing climate change. So it’s one of these great convergences of solutions.
TM: I’m wanting to dive into, Frankie, one of my favorite topics. Whenever I read something from you, an ongoing theme that you keep coming back to is this idea of a living democracy and how it’s tied into feeding the world. And so I’m wondering whether you would talk a little bit about living democracy.
FML: Exactly. And the key word that I haven’t used enough is the word power. And I’d like us to reclaim power as a positive. It is simply our capacity to act. It is our great human need to have power to shape our lives, and meaning and connection in our lives. So living democracy that, to me, is the solution to world hunger, is a culture of empowerment. It’s a culture of mutual accountability where we’re not just pointing fingers, “those bad guys,” but we are stepping up and being part of the solution ourselves by creating new power and holding accountable those who are now using their power in destructive ways.
So it’s really a way of living together. Yes, it involves electoral politics. Right now I’m heavily involved in the campaign to get money out of our dominant role of our political system, denying us democracy. So yes, it has an electoral dimension, but it’s also what we do every day. It’s our daily act of how we treat our families, how kids are taught from earliest age that they have a voice.
And my favorite example of that is in Maine, something called Apprentice Citizenship, where little kids get involved in dealing with real problems in their communities. For example, I tell the story in one of my books of Ames, Ohio, where the Amesville Sixth-Grade Water Chemists—these are little kids who didn’t trust the EPA to clean up the town creek, and so they constituted themselves as the Amesville Sixth-Grade Water Chemists. And they learned how to test the water and became testers of the local farm wells for the farmers.
So that idea that no matter what our age, almost, we can be part of the problem solving team. And this is not an onerous duty, civics, that it’s not the spinach we have to eat to get our dessert of our rights. It’s, what it is to be fully human is to feel like we are contributing to the solution. We have a voice, we are creative. So that’s my idea.
It’s not just my idea—it’s happening, it is emerging. In the last chapter of the book, but throughout the book, we tell stories of examples that we call living democracy, whether it’s the story I told of the women in the southern Indian village in the Deccan Development Society, or we tell the story of a cocoa cooperative in Ghana that I think is the first coop-based chocolate bar. It’s called Divine Chocolate. They now have their own chocolate bar—delicious! But they went from getting a very small percentage of the actual export price of the cocoa they’re producing and now get quite a significant share of it. And now there are tens of thousands of cocoa farmers who are part of these cooperatives in Ghana. So the economic dimension of having a say over one’s own livelihood and not just being vulnerable to the corporate decision makers—that is part of living democracy. And again, it is emerging.
TM: I was just kind of laughing when you were talking about the children who wanted to monitor their water. Good heavens, they better move to Flint, Michigan!
FML: Exactly! Oh my gosh, it’s just a nightmare, it’s just tragic. And so we really, it comes back to this rethinking power and embracing it, not as something that is bad, that’s done to us or for us, but something that we can participate in that is absolutely the center of the good life and all we care about—you know, protecting our children and the beauty of our incredible fragile earth. So I just couldn’t say more about this shift of understanding power and how it relates to, yes, to politics today, where we have this extreme concentration of wealth in this country and in the world.
Now, the latest statistic—you ready for this? Sixty-two people control as much wealth as the bottom half of all people on earth. Sixty-two people, and a good portion of those live in the United States. So this is a consequence of decisions that we have allowed to happen. And in a living democracy, it’s not just that we’re victims, but we can step up.
And I talk about that a living democracy, healthy food for all, depends on a market that is governed by rules that we as a democracy set—that citizens set the rules that enable the market to work for all of us. And that is the key understanding: that the market doesn’t work by itself. It’s governed by rules, and right now it is one rule: that is, highest return to existing wealth. And we can set value boundaries around the market to make sure that we all can participate in the market. That is really the key—one key.
TM: You know, the era of glyphosate—that is, Roundup Ready, as some of you may know it—is over because it no longer works. I mean, now we have something new that was also developed during World War II, and that is 2,4-D, and it’s a cocktail that is now under the name Enlist Duo. What do you think about that, Frankie? Is there something that we can be doing to try and expose 2,4-D for what it is, another cancer pesticide?
FML: Well, I clearly support getting the information out, the truth out. That is a powerful… And we can all be truth tellers in that way. We have to share this basic knowledge. We have to protect ourselves now and our families.
And, at the same time that we do that, we have to go to the root. And that root is the concentration of power that’s enabled by allowing private wealth to dominate our political system, both during the elections and after the elections. And so getting involved in the money-out-of-politics movement, if you will, that there’s so many… We’re now doing a field guide to that movement here at the Small Planet Institute. So please, if you’re interested, please come to us in another few weeks and we’ll have it available. This is the mother of all those issues, that whatever is our personal passion… I have a friend who says, you know, you can love two children at once, right? So you can have your own personal passion—say it’s healthy food—and you can understand that you can love this other reality to get involved in getting money out of our political system, out of its dominant role.
And there’s going to be a big action in April in Washington, D.C., that I’m participating in and promoting. It’s called Democracy Spring. And we’re marching, Philadelphia to D.C., and almost 2,000 people—almost 2,000 people have already said that “We are willing to commit civil disobedience on the steps of the Capitol to demand action in Congress to remove the power of money, to at least drastically reduce the power of money in our political system.” So that’s in April. So things are happening.
And I just want to underscore that my heart will always be in the food movement andalways be in the democracy movement.
One of the, also, the beliefs that keeps us trapped, I feel, is what we refer to as the myth that greater fairness is a tradeoff with production—that if we had a more fair system for farmers, for example, that it would undercut production. And so in that chapter we really go into what is the evidence? And the evidence is the opposite of that: that particularly in the global south, in poorer countries, that you find that the smaller farmer, the family farmer, is actually more productive, and that indeed the FAO just came out with some numbers that are quite dramatic on the contribution of small farmers to feeding the world. And to disabuse people of the idea that somehow it’s the biggest, biggest people that are feeding the world, these new FAO numbers say that 90 percent of the almost 600 million farms in the world are relying mainly on family labor; they’re mainly individual family farms; and that farms smaller than about five acres control only 12 percent of the land but they make up 84 percent of all farms and probably produce most of the food in the world.
So this idea that it’s the big farmers that are producing it all, and if we broke them up in any way or disincentivized them in favor of small producers, that that would be a disadvantage for production, the opposite is true: that actually we have great evidence that when smaller farmers have more power and have more support, that they do better. And, on the other side today, a figure I just rediscovered is that if you look at the European countries plus a handful of others throughout the world, that overall about a half trillion dollars each year goes in tax money to subsidize mainly industrial agriculture. So what we’re arguing in this chapter is that if we shift that toward helping people move into organic and agroecological practices, that are often the smallest producers, that we can do even better. So that idea that there’s a tradeoff between justice and production is false. And that is one that we really call out in the book.
TM: That would be myth number five, “Greater fairness or more production.” First of all, I want to let those of you have just joined us, this is Rootstock Radio, and we are talking with Frances Moore Lappé. And we are talking specifically about a book that she wrote with Joseph Collins called World Hunger: 10 Myths. You know, just to go back to that number four, “Organic and ecological farming can’t feed a hungry world,” I think you show a tremendous amount of different models that prove that to be a myth. I wonder if you could speak to that.
FML: Yes. And just to start out with the big numbers, I know you know these probably, Theresa. Major, major studies have shown, such as one at the University of Michigan in 2007, that organic farming applied worldwide could more than do the job. And there are others that I could cite, but there’s a lot of evidence that is university-based studies.
And then there are the examples that we describe for example one very poor part of the world is in Tigray, Ethiopia, a region that had been known for absolute hunger. And there, using basic ecological methods—for example, just simple composting was a big piece of it—but moving in the direction of organic farming, that in five years they doubled yields of small farms. And this is something that was achieved by people coming together in groups and committing to help to make some kinds of changes in their practices, but also in building these small earthen embankments that help keep the rainwater from running off the land, and really cooperating with each other to do that sort of thing through their village councils. And now that was so successful in this part of Ethiopia that the government is pushing it out to other districts, other poor regions throughout the country.
So this is the kind of thing we don’t hear about that is so providing us evidence that we can take a deep breath, that as we align with nature’s regenerative powers in farming, that there is more than enough capacity for us.
TM: I’m just so glad that you’ve brought this topic up, of regenerative processes. And I know that a part of your philosophy is that the more we can get to regenerative processes that really mimic nature and are aligned with nature, that we are showing many, many examples of why that works.
FML: Well, what we mean by that, right, Theresa, is simply that which really trusts the natural flow and how the microorganisms in our soil, how they contribute and are central to creating healthy, ultimately healthy food; and that if we support them rather than overpower them, that that is what the key is. And that living soil, if you will, is the key to all of our well-being. And so to do that, we need ways to treat the soil that is not destroying those microorganisms.
And so I was delighted to see a recent study, again in East Africa, of what is known, and somebody got a big World Food Prize for this, the push-pull system, where plants are planted in such a way that insects are sort of repelled by certain plants and pulled out of the field by other plants. And so they call it the push-pull rather than the insecticide approach. And through this, in East Africa, there was a threefold increase in yields, in corn yield, as a result of implementing this. You’re just watching how plants and insects interact, and seeing how you could work with nature’s natural desire to live, and actually not interfere with the healthy soil in the process, not interfere by putting on chemicals that could harm the microorganisms.
So there is a whole, now, as you know much better than I, Theresa, a whole science to this that is building on traditional knowledge but continues every year to add knowledge about this sort of thing, where we can work with nature rather than trying to overpower nature. And that is, when I say we can take a deep breath, to me, when I imagine these farmers in East Africa developing these simple systems—well, they’re not that simple, that they involve some real thought and planning and implementation, of course, of course—but that they do not have to worry about polluting the water, they do not have to worry about skin rashes for their kids. They know that if this works, that all of their farm is healthy, including them. And that’s really our goal. That is our goal.
TM: What we’re seeing in free trade and in the free market right now is, it seems to me like it’s opening up the ability for corporations to go into other markets in ways that aren’t at all beneficial to those particular markets. And they will not end hunger. So I’m just, once again, caught in that—how do you talk about that? How do we answer that?
FML: Well, I like to start with the fact that there is no such thing in the world as a free market. And we quote, I believe it’s an ADM executive, who said the free market only exists in the mouths of politicians, that there’s not one grain traded in the world that’s in the free market. So there are always rules, basically. That’s where we have to start. And it’s just really whose rules, in whose interests are rules made.
And so that’s how we begin to deconstruct this myth that the free market can end hunger. So we show, the big piece of that chapter is showing how profoundly inefficient the “mythology” of the free market is, because it leads to this then one-rule economy, one-rule market, that is highest return to existing wealth. And anyone who has ever played Monopoly should have gotten it. In fact, Lizzie Magie, the lady who invented Monopoly, did it as an object lesson for us, to show us what would happen if we went along this way and all the property ended up in the hands of one person, and then the rest of us were out in the street, so to speak, and we lost the game.
So that’s how it’s working, so that we end up then with these sixty-two people who control as much wealth as about half the world’s population together. And in just a few years, I believe it’s five years, that their wealth has increased by 44 percent. So in that kind of world, hunger is inevitable. Hunger is inevitable. So the free market then is a myth, and the question then is how do we set the rules around it? And that’s why we refer to societies that have made the right to eat the centerpiece of the solution to hunger. And now there are almost thirty countries that have made the right to eat a provision of their constitutions. And how do you make that real?
And in Brazil, which is now going through a lot of difficulties but it still has a lot to teach us, because social movements there, from the 1970s and ’80s onward, pushed for the right to eat as a basic human right. And my daughter and I got to visit one of the largest cities in Brazil, where that right really has come to fruition, and a long way to fruition, because it’s citizen-driven solutions—that people came together from business, from religious groups, from universities, and came up with a whole lot of innovations that could happen anywhere, in any country. Innovations in their city where they, for example, had small farmers who were given access to small plots on street corners—not plots, small little places on street corners to sell their great produce, as long as they would keep it in the price range of the poorest people. So the farmers benefited because they got this great market, and they sold so much more than they could ever imagine, and even if their profit margin was somewhat less they still benefited greatly. And the poorest in the inner cities benefited.
So we tell stories about how that notion of the right to food, it didn’t end the market—it set rules around the market, so to speak. And it amplified the knowledge of people—they knew where to get… They posted the prices of dozens of basic commodities in bus stops so that people knew where to get the best price for that basic commodity, so that reduced the price gouging that could happen in a marketplace. So they made the market fairer. And basically the local officials said there, “Look if you are hungry and you don’t have access to food in the marketplace, look, you’re still a citizen, and I am an elected official. I’m still accountable to you. I’m accountable to make the market fair enough that you can get access to what you need.”
And so that’s the philosophy, I think, that is really working. Food is a basic human right, and then we work with the market to make sure everyone has access.
TM: A beautiful story, Frankie, and I just am fascinated with the kinds of things that Brazil is trying, innovation [that] came out of Lula da Silva’s leadership. That’s exciting to see. And I know that, yes, Brazil is still a place with a lot of problems.
FML: Theresa, can I just say, on Brazil, that nationally they reduced stunting as much or more than any country in the world, something like 70 percent since the 1970s. It’s in that range. It’s huge. The city that we visited, in twelve years, it reduced child mortality by 73 percent in twelve years. That is historic, I believe, in the speed of positive change.
TM: I was taken with the amount of resources in the back of your book. It must be almost a hundred pages of resources that you pulled together to tell the story about the ten myths. So a tremendous body of work that really can help all of us be truth tellers.
FML: And also there are other organizations that you can connect to. Because if there’s one thing that I think we all need to find our courage, it’s buddies. It’s at least one buddy. So any of you listening there who are excited about what Theresa and I are talking about and want to learn more and want to do something, I would say if you don’t have a buddy who’s equally interested and passionate, find one. And I hope that the resources in our book and the Small Planet website can help you do that. But all it sometimes takes is one other person who can share that excitement to keep us going. We’re creatures that we need others to encourage us and to be able to find and express our power and build it. So I really hope that our institute can help you find people locally and nationally that you can align with.
TM: You know, the last two chapters, the myth number nine, “It’s not our problem,” and myth number ten, “Power is too concentrated for real change—it’s too late.” You know, those two chapters, I think, are very, very important. And we all need to say, “Those are myths. It is our problem.” And I think that you state it and give very, very good backup for why that’s true. But I’d also love to at least have you say, you know, why do you believe it’s not too late?
FML: Well, fundamentally, I start with the observation that life loves life, and that as long as there is life, that there is going to be expression of that. And I want to say that just talking to you, for example, Theresa, gives me new courage. And what I do in that chapter is I share that to keep myself in this position of “It’s not possible to know what’s possible,” so I’m free to go for what I really want—that it’s not possible to know. What I do is I keep in mind stories that if somebody had told me that that was going to happen—if somebody had told me twenty years ago that, oh, yes, I would be in rural India and these women who were the lowest caste, that they were beaten and that they were starving, that twenty years later they would be beaming in their gorgeous saris, telling me about their power, and they’re sharing with others. If somebody had told me that I was…you know, “That’s nice, but that’s not going to happen.”
There are so many things that in my life I look back and I think, oh my gosh… I often tell the story of Wangari Maathai, who Anna and I had the pleasure of meeting when we visited her in 2000. And she planted seven trees on Earth Day in 1977, seven trees, and then by the time we visited her there were something like 25 million trees that had been planted as a result of her work in Kenya. And then she got the Nobel Peace Prize, and she hooked up with the UN and started Plant for the Planet. The last time I looked, it was something like 12 or 13 billion trees planted!
So I laugh when I say that, and if somebody had told me, you know, “Oh, seven trees—that’s nice,” you know, who would have known that those could go to 12, 13 billion?
So the point is that life loves life. And as long as there is life, we can be on the side of expanding it and allowing it to emerge.
TM: We’ve just been speaking with Frances Moore Lappé, activist and author, about her new book, World Hunger: 10 Myths, that she wrote with Joseph Collins. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.
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