Democratizing Our Food System with Frances Moore Lappé
January 21, 2022
When Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, she helped move vegetarianism into the American mainstream and inspired a generation to see food as a force for political and environmental activism. More than half century and three million copies later, the book’s message is more urgent and relevant than ever as we work to combat the climate crisis, reverse inequity, and feed and heal our communities.
Last year, Lappé released a new 50th anniversary edition of this revolutionary book, including a new introduction to address the current political climate, along with new plant-based recipes. In this passage, she discusses why protecting our democracy is so essential to creating a sustainable and equitable food future.
Promoting the “General Welfare”
We marched in 2016 because we believe democratically set public rules are essential for a livable future. Yet much of our nation has been taught to view government as inherently oppressive and to trust “market magic” instead.
Now, with the clarity that such market fundamentalism is threatening life itself, more of us are motivated to liberate the market from monopoly control by embracing democracy in all its dimensions. In pursuing this goal, we can celebrate our alignment with a core purpose of our nation laid out in the Constitution’s preamble: to “promote the general welfare.”
Appreciating past eras of greater loyalty to this purpose helps me believe it’s possible today. So, let’s remember these turning points:
During the Great Depression, when grain prices hit all-time lows, Franklin Roosevelt stepped up to help struggling farmers—enacting a principle known as “parity.” It supported crop prices to ensure that farmers’ purchasing power stayed on par with non-farmers’, helping to protect family farms especially during the 1930s and ’40s.
In 1944, Roosevelt went much further, calling for an “economic bill of rights” covering health, employment, housing, and more. He argued that political rights alone don’t ensure equality for Americans in their “pursuit of happiness.” Roosevelt died without passing the bill. Though he did pass Social Security, an economic bill of rights remains urgent.
Later advances from the 1940s into the 1970s brought us Medicare and Medicaid, new labor protections, fairer taxation than we have today, advances in civil rights, and more. In 1965 President Johnson declared a War on Poverty. Its provisions ranged from help for farmers to a Job Corps for the unemployed to a Federal Work-Study Program enabling more students to afford college. It launched Head Start and much more.
Note the stunning impact: Between the late ’40s and early ’70s, real family income of all classes doubled, with the poorest gaining the most. In just one decade after the launch of the War on Poverty, America cut the poverty rate almost in half. In social progress, that’s lightning speed.
But two decades after Johnson, Ronald Reagan derided it all, claiming, “We waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.”
Oh, so wrong.
My first job—funded by that “war”—gave me a taste of its empowering approach. Knocking on doors in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood, my assignment was to encourage women receiving welfare to join together for united power in standing up to slumlords and gaining home ownership, with the city’s help.
But, in the early 1980s, the big reversal I decried earlier began, as “market magic” dogma took hold.
In farming, the policy of parity collapsed, and farmland began moving into even fewer hands. Today, public dollars for agriculture no longer serve the “general welfare”; they concentrate on the largest operators growing what we need less of—including corn and soy for feed and ultra-processed foods. Virtually none goes toward producing the fruits and vegetables that remain out of reach for too many.
But “we aren’t doomed to repeat history,” says Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers’ Union. We don’t have to accept today’s stunning inequity, as we step up to remake the public rules that now ensure income and wealth gush upward. One 2020 headline in Time magazine captures the power of that upward force during the previous four decades: “the top 1% of Americans have taken $50 trillion from the bot- tom 90%—and that’s made the us less secure.”
There is nothing inevitable about this outrage. That we know. Building on the best of our history, and with the clarity that democracy includes not just our political but also our economic lives, what do we do?
In food and farming, we work to ensure all voices are heard. We reinstate the principle of parity. We enforce anti-monopoly law to crack the stranglehold of a few companies at every point in the food chain.
As the essence of democracy is “voice”—having a real say in decisions determining our well-being—we make sure all workers, including farmworkers, are protected by labor laws and encouraged to organize. We create pathways to overcome the huge barriers that Black, Indigenous, and low-income people face in becoming farmers. Specifically, we can reverse the land theft suffered by Black and Native people.
We also encourage power-sharing farming models, especially cooperatives with a voice for all. Here, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives offers inspiration. Growing out of the civil rights movement, it’s kept land valued at $125 million under Black ownership.
Plus, we join in the eight “healing steps” celebrated above so they quicken and multiply to help democratize the wider economy.
System reset also means ending the animal-feedlot nightmare. In 2020, more than 300 organizations petitioned Congress to pass the Farm System Reform Act to ban new concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and eliminate them by 2040. It would also toughen anti-monopoly rules to break up the highly consolidated meatpacking industry. Plus, farmers currently running CAFOs would get help in moving to sustainable uses of the land.
We can also shift significant public support to helping farmers to transition to ecological practices and eaters to access healthy food. We start by moving a sizable piece of the $22 billion in annual farm subsidies to these positive ends, and much larger sums are available once we step up to make sure corporations and the wealthiest among us pay their fair share.
Today corporations provide one-tenth of federal tax revenue. But imagine the resources available if we reinstated the share they paid during the 1950s—a third of tax revenue. Plus, $89 billion a year could be used for healing food and farming if we simply ended offshore corporate tax havens. And how about this? We simply make sure all corporations pay taxes, for in 2018 almost 100 Fortune 500 corporations, including Amazon, paid zero federal taxes. Fortifying us for these steps, we can learn from public choices other nations are making, too.
Mexico is helping almost 250,000 low-income farmers adopt agroforestry—mixing trees and crops and restoring the soil. India’s state of Andhra Pradesh is assisting all of its farmers in shifting to ecological farming.
The Netherlands is a tiny country but the world’s second largest agricultural exporter by value. Since 2000, the Dutch have virtually eliminated chemical pesticides and reduced water used for key crops by 90 percent. Others—from Thailand to Austria to Denmark—are also devoting real resources to making this essential shift to healthy farming. And to tackle food waste, a related problem, in 2016 France became the first country to ban supermarkets from throwing out or destroying unsold food, requiring that stores instead give it to food banks.
Let’s learn from the worst and best of our history and also from others as we free our democracy from private power and our economy from the “magical market” mind trap.
From the book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Copyright © 2021 by Frances Moore Lappé. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. Photo by Michael Piazza.
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