Realizing Our Power: Farming and Eating for a Small Planet

Emerging people’s movements are producing healthy food as they create democracy and sustain the tapestry of life in the soil, water, and atmosphere.

Listen to editor Maureen Nandini Mitra’s conversation with Frances Moore Lappé about her life’s work on KPFA Public radio.

Writing Diet for a Small Planet 50 years ago, I was appalled. While the world obsessed over food scarcity, I saw the vast waste, destruction, and injustice built into “modern,” corporate, and chemical-driven agriculture then beginning to take hold.

An estimated 8.5 million self-organizing, community bodies aligning their farming and forestry with nature now exist across the world. (Pictured: Indigenous women farmers in Guzhai, China). Photo by Qiubi / The International Institute for Environment and Development.

We were headed in the wrong direction, I felt certain, and today I take no pleasure in noting I was right.

This historic turn towards large-scale, corporate-dominated agriculture continues the centuries-long displacement of Black farmers in the United States and Indigenous and peasant farmers across much of the world. It has poisoned those who work the land and spread an ultra-processed and meat-centric diet that is now implicated globally in our most deadly non-communicable diseases.

I’ll never forget the doctor in rural India who, more than a decade ago, told me that his patients used to suffer from a lack of calories, but no longer. With corporations spreading ultra-processed products globally, now his patients’ leading ailments are heart disease and diabetes.

My daughter Anna and I traveled India reporting for our book, Hope’s Edge. Before we heard his shocking words, we’d seen the evidence ourselves of the encroachment of sources of such diet-related illnesses. One sign? Driving along rural roadways in northern India, we saw groves of trees painted with large Pepsi logos right at eye level.

As this power-and-profit-driven agricultural regime spreads — in tandem with in-country worsening economic inequality — hunger continues. Feed crops and cash crops for export have replaced many indigenous, seasonal food crops, and today, worldwide, have caused severe calorie deficiency for as many as 811 million of us. That’s almost two-and-one-half times the US population. By a broader measure, one in three people on Earth lack access to adequate food, reports the UN’s food policy arm.

This suffering continues even as the world produces plenty of calories and a fifth more calories per person than when I first wrote Diet for a Small Planet.

Despite this devastation, I write now with new hope — evidence-based hope.

Today we have proof not only of courageous resistance to the failing food model but of ingenuity and cooperation creating life-serving pathways. Emerging people’s movements are producing healthy food as they diffuse power and sustain the tapestry of life in the soil, water, and atmosphere.

In other words, they are creating democracy not defined simply as elected governance, but as a way of life — what my young self had imagined was indeed the pathway to ending hunger. However, I didn’t appreciate it then in its existing forms or foresee its current emergence.

Along the way, I’ve been continuously stoked by the research of Professor Jules Pretty at the University of Essex in the UK. But his most recent findings excite me the most.

Last year, Pretty and his team published a 50-year perspective on developments in farming, especially in low-income countries. They discovered that after decades of top-down, neoliberal approaches starting around 2000, a radically different way of being with the Earth was beginning to arise — this time from the ground up.

Sprouting with remarkable speed across 55 countries, they write that bottom-up, collaborative groups began spreading sustainable farming and forestry. Their life-serving practices harken back to ways we humans cared for ourselves and the earth for eons — through “common rules and sanctions” derived from “shared values,” observes the Pretty team. They noted “relations of trust, reciprocity and mutual obligation” as key to their success.

These self-governing groups are part of what I’ve come to call living democracy.

The Pretty team’s astounding overall finding? Whereas in the year 2000 there were about half a million such groups, in the following two decades, eight million emerged.

Eight million in twenty years — whoa!

So, in all, 8.5 million self-organizing, community bodies aligning their farming and forestry with nature now exist — almost all in low-income countries. Together they’re reviving land nearly the size of India. These organizations have helped enact policy changes in many countries, like the recognition of the rights of nature in Ecuador in 2008.

The brilliance of Pretty and his team, I believe, is that they scoured the earth and turned up lessons of self-empowerment, cooperation, and dogged persistence we can all use.

Even I might have been skeptical if I had not had my own unforgettable tastes of this global emergence.

One of the most memorable was when I had the opportunity in Hyderabad, India, to meet women in one of the 75 villages of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), a biodiverse farming initiative I’d admired from afar for years.

Sitting encircled by smiling women wearing gorgeous saris, many eagerly shared their stories with me.

Two decades earlier, hunger was their daily reality, and many described feeling powerless in their own households.

But then a few women began meeting — and dreaming. More joined, and once a week they began gathering at night after their children were asleep. Their “sangham” (women’s group) devised common plans for transforming nearby abandoned, barren land into fertile farmland by growing organic, diverse food crops. A savings circle, with each member contributing modest amounts, made it possible for sangham members to offer each other revolving loans to purchase or lease small plots of this land.

This group self-financing approach towards organization is hardly unique to DDS, as it has been arising in many parts of the world, as highlighted in the 2014 book, In Their Own Hands: How Savings Groups Are Revolutionizing Development.

Today, there is “no hunger in our village,” the women declared, beaming as they guided me into their fields, each no more than an acre or so, to see for myself at least twenty crop varieties — millet, legumes, greens, and other vegetables — all thriving together.

Deeply moved by all I’d learned, I expressed my thanks and began walking out of the village. But suddenly I heard voices. Turning, I saw women rushing toward me calling out: “We forgot to tell you the most important thing!” I stopped, and here’s what I heard: “Most of all, what we get from our sangham is courage.”

Their courage has enabled DDS to change. For example, they influenced state policy to include their healthier grains in school lunches. Their beautiful message goes right to the heart of all I have learned over this half-century: Answers come as we build courage through connections of deep trust.

These women embody the wider rebirth of Professor Pretty and his team’s findings: They estimate that almost 30 percent of farms worldwide are now using ecological practices, like agroforestry, sustaining healthy soil, water, and species diversity along with the families that depend on them.

Contributing to this progress is Via Campesina. Formed in 1993, its 200 million peasant farmers form a network across 81 countries, linking 182 farmer organizations. Together they are creating “food sovereignty,” a powerful expression of living democracy grounded in self-determination, ecological principles, and justice.

Hope has power, so let us all spread the word about what’s not only possible, but what such trailblazers are already creating. Together, let us find our own courage to demand policies that support family and cooperative farming protecting our soil, water, and our people.

THIS ARTICLE FEATURES topics discussed in the 50th Anniversary Edition of my book, Diet for a Small Planet, released September 2021. This version features a brand-new opening chapter, simple rules for a healthy diet, and updated recipes by some of the country’s leading plant- and planet-centered chefs. We are so excited to share this with you; order your copy here now! You can join in the Democracy Movement at www.democracymovement.us.

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