Food and Culture


by | Apr 13, 2001

Thirty years ago I followed my intuition, and it led me to food. I figured that if I just understood why hunger in the world I could untangle the complexities of the political and economy order. I would know what to do.

More than that, I sensed that because food is a primal need as well as our most direct, daily link to the earth and to one another it had unequaled power to affect our consciousness. Through food, I believed we might begin to understand the root of our global predicament. Through the eyes of Annapoorna the Indian goddess of food I thought we might be able to see the world anew.

From that intuition Diet for a Small Planet was born in 1971. Now, 30 years later, I have just completed a sequel Hope’s Edge: The New Diet for a Small Planet–written with my daughter Anna, who at 27 is precisely the age I was when I wrote the first book. We set out to see for ourselves what has changed in 30 years. We became more convinced than ever of the power of food to illuminate the changes we must and can make to heal our relationship with the earth and one another.

This issue “Food, Culture and Nutrition” intrigues me because it touches on so many elements of an intricate reweaving taking place. Throughout most of human evolution, food production and consumption was not a distinct realm but deeply embedded in community, culture and nature. Several authors in this issue Ester Shapiro and Nina M. Scott among them examine the grounding role food has always played in culture. They remind us that only in a blink of historical time food has been ripped from community and reduced to a mere commodity. Anna and I traveled to four continents to witness signs of the re-imbedding of food within a nexus of values and relationships far beyond the strictly economic. This emergence, we found, is everywhere yet remains largely invisible.

We talked with coffee farmers in Central America who are part of what’s called the “fair trade” movement and quickly realized that they see themselves as doing more than simply fighting for better, more stable prices for their product. They spoke of a different kind of business relationship with traders and consumers, one that is open and rooted in mutual respect. They talked of growing coffee organically motivated by multiple levels of awareness their own health, the health of those who drink their coffee and the health of forests.

In Brazil we sat with Landless Workers Movement (MST) activists in their tiny settlement shacks with nothing but sheets of black plastic to shield them from Paraná’s bitter winter wind. We heard the hardships they’ve endured to further their goal of creating communities in which the end is the individuals’ well being, not production itself. How their farming and marketing practices are linked to deeper what they called non-consumerist values they are consciously imparting to their children through curriculum based on Paulo’s Freire’s insights.

In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, we talked with city officials who decided that access to good food for all has nothing to do with charity; and it’s not something the market alone can provide. Food, good food, is a right of citizenship, they told us. That one shift in approach, beginning in 1993, has unleashed dozens of innovations throughout the city, making fresh, organic food available even to the poor.

As we traveled, looked and listened, we realized that none of the positive developments emerging could I have realistically predicted thirty years ago. Many, it’s true have sprung not from new insight but from sheer desperation. In this issue, for example, you’ll read about Cuba’s rejection of chemical and fossil-fuel intensive farming, not in response to suddenly acquired ecological consciousness but from necessity. Nevertheless, this and many examples we observed demonstrate the productive potential of learning from and working with nature rather than attempting to override it in a single-minded focus on production.

Thirty years ago few questioned this productivist stance that failed to ask whether hungry people actually had access to what gets produced in India, for example, Anna and I saw mountains of rotting grain “surplus” the same day a leading nutritionist there told us half of Indian children are stunted from lack of food– or whether our technologies of production were destroying long-term fertility.

Yes, some still insist–as Professors Paarlberg and Solbrig do in this issue– that we must place maximum output first. But over this period, whether by necessity or new insight the realization that post-war productivism has destroyed as much as one-third of the earth’s arable land–a profound shift of understanding has begun to take hold as well. More and more people now see that productivism has blinded us to ways we human beings actually create the very scarcity we say we fear: most dramatically by allowing the market to shrink our potential food supply as it drives an ever-greater share now almost half of the world’ grain supply into livestock. In our travels, we met many people, across diverse cultures, climates, classes and cuisines, who now perceive the ecological and health hazards now painfully evident in fast-spreading animal disease of highly concentrated factory farming.

Letting go of the reductionist, mechanistic model of farming, they are showing us how we can create abundance by learning from nature’s wisdom and rebuild even severely depleted soils. They allow us to see that the biggest obstacle to overcome is not scarcity but our dominant “mental map,” one that has driven us to detach food production and consumption from non-economic values and to generate scarcity from plenty.

Spring/Summer 2001


Frances Moore Lappé is the author of twelve books and co-founder of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), now in its 26th year. Presently she is a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where with her daughter Anna Lappé she completed Hope’s Edge: The New Diet for a Small Planet (Tarcher/Putnam 2002).

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