April 27, 2015

Changing the Way We Think, Creating the World We Want – Frances Moore Lappe

Eleni Vlachos

Eleni Vlachos

CLF Guest Blogger

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Frances Moore Lappe at EPA event in Durham, NC, April 2015.

Frances Moore Lappe at EPA event in Durham, NC, April 2015.

Over twenty years ago I read a book that would change my world. Turns out, I wasn’t alone: Diet for a Small Planet, first published in 1971, was a game changer for many of us, including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s “Cutting Edge Speaker Series” Catherine, who cited the book as reason for going vegetarian 45 years ago.

In fact, Frances Moore Lappe, along with Julia Child, Upton Sinclair, and other luminaries was named by Gourmet Magazine as one of 25 people whose work has changed the way America eats.

Frances’ contribution to the environmental movement is significant. She was one of the first to connect the environmental impact of growing animals for food, focusing particularly on the devastating amount amount of grain and water needed to produce a pound of meat versus equivalent plant proteins directly.

Now, almost half a century after her groundbreaking work was published, Frances continues to challenge the boundaries of our thinking and explore the connectedness of our causes.

Enter the EcoMind

Connected like sprout to earth, i-phone to status update, collect call to collectee, forever joined; the EcoMind is not a place in your brain, but a state of seeing.

Illustrating its opposite, Frances opened up her talk at the aforementioned EPA “Cutting Edge” event held in Durham, NC (and, coincidentally, Earth Day’s 45th anniversary) with a challenge, saying, in effect: Don’t just open your eyes, but begin to see with them. Then, she clicked to a slide of her bright orange cooking pot she turned her house over to find — though it was right in front of her the entire time (with a plant placed in said pot, thus making it out of context and invisible).

In her latest book, EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, Frances expands the quest she began in Diet […] by questioning the very nature of our exploration itself. Her presentation drew from much of this material, in addition to a forthcoming book World Hunger: 10 myths.

During her presentation, Frances covered many topics in the diverse and complicated world of food, hunger, and environment, ranging from nutrient cycling to a case study of a community in Punjab, India, where a community became self-sufficient through their own organic farming practices.

Three reasons we don’t use EcoMind

The first half of Frances’ talk focused on why it’s difficult for us to change, including the “spiral of powerlessness” which has three contributing factors. Allow me to paraphrase:

  1. Separateness: Our fundamental disconnection from our impact on the world around us
  2. Stasis: Lack of action due to feeling of powerlessness
  3. Scarcity: The idea that there is not enough food for us all

Of these, the first, separateness, creates the second, stasis, and is at the root of the difficulty individuals have in making significant change in diet or approach to food choices.

What Frances described as the “disconnect between nutrition and food production” happens when individuals who wish to eat mindfully make less-than-mindful choices at the supermarket.

It is precisely our disempowerment that creates stasis and the age-old sentiment, “What can I do? The problem is too large.”

Indeed, what can we do? In many cases, nothing. But the EcoMind begs to differ.

In this mindset which Frances urges us to adopt, we see connection, not separation. Continuous change, rather than stasis. And we’re not running out of options or supplies: we can create surplus. In fact, according to the UN’s FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) report Frances cited, the world produces the equivalent of 2700 calories per person per day – far enough to feed everyone.

All burgers are not created equal

Yet it’s not simply a matter of calories. What we eat is just as important as how much, if not more, both in delivering these calories and in producing our food sustainably.

Consider the following infographic:


Almond: Joyless?

Yet it is easy to get distracted. Again – stasis. What can we do? You may have heard the argument that growing almonds is a cause of the current drought in California. What is stunning is not that almonds are water intensive but what is *not* being relayed – that almost half — forty-seven percent — of California’s water is used to raise animals as food. Yet there is almost no messaging on the drought relating it to meat reduction, while almonds are demonized.


Three is the magic number

Given the environmental impact of food choice, and the knowledge that producing plant protein is far less ravaging on the earth, it’s incredibly empowering, in fact, what individuals can accomplish.

Three times a day, we can choose impact when we choose our food.  Not ready to make the change daily?  If US residents participated in “Meatless Monday” — plant-based meals one day per week — it would be equivalent to removing 7.6 million cars from the road.

And, bonus: by choosing animal-free foods one day a week you can prevent 1 billion farm animals from suffering the heart-wrenching conditions they face in factory farms and give yourself a collective pat on the back for chipping away at the 9 billion farm animals raised and killed for food each year in the US alone.

Fitting for a talk about food and the environment, the EPA kindly provided a meatless meal using locally distributed Delight Soy’s fantastic BBQ heaped into a bun with coleslaw and baked kale. The soy, like almost all tofu, is non-GMO (in fact, roughly 88% of soy is grown to feed animals for food). And – it’s delicious.

We applaud the EPA’s promotion and celebration of meat-free options, and gotta love the Texas BBQ signage:


Last chance for the “possibilist”

On our trip to the airport, I told Frances that I used to think people didn’t care, but after interviewing countless people for a documentary on animals and food, and a decade of outreach, I concluded they do care. She lit right up, and said, “I am so glad you feel that way. That is what I believe.”

And it is hope, or the state of being a “possibilist” as Frances described herself, that keeps her actively advocating for change even in what she called her “final lap.”

Every bit counts, and even the EcoMind can be fostered in ourselves and our community through incremental change.

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