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The Lappés: Big Solutions for a Small Planet

The Lappés: Big Solutions for a Small Planet

Despite the billions of dollars spent by mega-corporations in an effort to promote and keep the unsustainable industrial food system in place, there is growing recognition of the need to radically change the way we produce and consume food. A good part of the responsibility for that insight rests squarely on the shoulders of pioneers such as author, speaker and self-described "possibilist" Frances Moore Lappé. Frances sowed the seeds of a food revolution with her best-selling Diet for a Small Planet back in 1971 and has published some 17 books since that time, in addition to having traveled and spoken all over the world. Frances's daughter, Anna Lappé, has become a best-selling author, speaker and food activist in her own right. Anna's most recent book, Diet for a Hot Planet, empowers readers to fight climate change with their dietary choices and advocacy for sustainable food systems.

Together, Frances and Anna founded the Small Planet Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to identifying and addressing the root causes of the many ecological, food-related and economic problems of today. Through that organization they are waking people up planetwide to the real possibility of a sustainable future.

The Institute

Small Planet Institute was the result of a remarkable mother-daughter odyssey. "It came about after a life-changing journey that my daughter and I took around the world in 2000," Frances Moore Lappé told Organic Connections. "We had no idea what we would find, and it was the most pure example I've ever had of just taking the leap. We went to Kenya, Brazil, Bangladesh, India and Western Europe. We wrote about those people most inspiring us, people who were connecting with the land, and also who operated with a process of honoring human relationships in a way that is empowering to all-creating new decision-making forms that really were inclusive, in which people are holding each other accountable instead of just looking to the market or to the boss or to the CEO.

"We wrote about our experiences in a book that changed our lives, called Hope's Edge. Anna had her very clear voice, and there was my clear voice; but both of us felt that the mother-daughter team was just extra powerful, that we could do more together than we could each do separately. So we joined forces, and are constantly giving each other feedback and supporting one another in every way we can."

Since then, the Small Planet Institute has become a clearinghouse of hope-instilling information from mother, daughter and many other sources. On the site can be found books from both Lappés, interviews, solution-based resources and campaigns, videos, and even recipes.

Inspired by that same journey, the Lappés also started the Small Planet Fund. Frances explained: "We started a fund, administered by RSF Finance, through which we collect money from others and distribute it to democratic social movements around the world-especially those related to food and sustainability. That's been enormously satisfying. They are very small grants, in the $5,000 category. Every year we have a big event where we raise money, and I think it's more than just a fund. It really has become sort of an annual institution where people from various social movements come to New York City for one evening, and we have a big party with a live auction."

Solution-Based Approaches

In her career Anna Lappé has seen a great deal, and today she is more hopeful than ever about practical solutions to turn our planet around. "Since I wrote Diet for a Hot Planet, the most encouraging work is being championed by the office of Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food," Anna told Organic Connections. "These efforts globally are demonstrating the mutual benefits of education for-and promotion of-agri-ecological farming systems to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. These systems include the climate benefits of storing more carbon in the soil, of reducing reliance on petroleum chemicals, and of cutting out reliance on synthetic fertilizer and all the environmental impacts associated with its use. Such voices as Olivier De Schutter's are saying, 'Look, this isn't just theoretical-this can be done; it is being done.'"

Anna spoke of specific examples she is seeing of remarkable change around the world to assist in feeding a burgeoning population with purely sustainable solutions. "There is a great study commissioned by the UK government called the Foresight Project on Global Food and Farming Futures. One of the specific studies they commissioned was an analysis of agricultural projects across Africa that meet the standards of being agro-ecological and helping smallholder farmers. What struck me about the study is that so many of the innovations really have to do with building power in communities, educating farmers themselves with techniques that can be very simple and also use what's known as 'appropriate technology'-in other words, they don't require these farmers to be dependent on chemicals or fertilizers bought from companies halfway around the world.

"For instance, there are a lot of pilot projects being done in Africa with a particular type of acacia tree, called Faidherbia, which has nitrogen-fixing qualities, building soil fertility where it's planted. It also drops its leaves during the season when the plants around it most need sunlight, so it doesn't compete with other plants for sunlight. The dropped leaves provide great fodder for livestock, at a time when other crops aren't growing. This one tree has all these incredible benefits: helping increase fertility in the soil, helping to increase productivity of crops, and helping create access to food for livestock. A number of projects are training farmers about how to plant it, how to care for it, and how to educate each other about it. That's an example of the kind of innovations we're talking about."

Such changes are lasting, and don't create dependency on foreign corporations. "The other benefit of these types of innovations is that they don't rely on patented seeds that have to be purchased year to year, or the deployment of synthetic fertilizers that leave farmers vulnerable to incredible price volatility," said Anna.

Education is a major factor when it comes to assisting such farmers-for if they aren't made self-sufficient, the assistance won't be of lasting benefit. "The other great development that I've been reading about is one of creating farmer-to-farmer education opportunities," Anna recounted. "This means creating farm schools and ways for farmers to educate each other about these appropriate technologies and about these ecological innovations on the farm."

Frances has also seen many inspiring advancements. "One fantastic example of change is in Switzerland and Austria," she said. "Well over 10 percent of agriculture there is organic, and there is real support for this transition. Another story I've been telling recently is about agro-ecology and agro-forestry in Niger. In recent years it has been the poorest country in the world, yet small farmers there have re-greened that area of 12˝ million acres with 200 million flourishing trees. This is in a place in which previously there were just stubs. They had not realized-and now have-that they could integrate cropping with trees that also supply food, along with fodder for their livestock. This process has now provided food security for about 2˝ million people, in an area that had become so barren it was almost a desert."

The Changing of the Mind

In addition to finding and forwarding positive practical solutions, Frances has, for many years, been searching for the root of problems in helping individuals to become empowered and work together to create the world we actually want. She has discovered that much of the solution lies in the area between our ears. In her latest book, EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, Frances argues that a good deal of what is wrong with the world, from our eroding soil to our eroding democracies, results from ways of thinking that are out of sync with human nature and nature's rhythms.

"EcoMind is really trying to share the core inside that dawned on me 40 years ago," Frances related. "It's been 40 years since I wrote Diet for a Small Planet. Back then, a light bulb went on when I was sitting at the Giannini, the UC Berkeley Ag-Library. At the time all the experts were telling us that we had reached the limits of the earth's ability to feed us. Paul Ehrlich's book Population Bomb had just exploded, and there was another book by William and Paul Paddock entitled Famine 1975! I sat there and put the numbers together and realized, 'Wait a minute! There's more than enough for all of us to thrive-and worse than that, we are actually creating the scarcity that we say we fear.' So my life has been a journey of exploring that phenomenon in many different ways.

"In EcoMind I am challenging how we think about our environment, how we think about ecology, and really fundamentally identifying the problem in the human mind: the way we've been trained to see scarcity. The whole book is based on the idea that it's not 'seeing is believing,' but 'believing is seeing.' We are starting out with a premise of lack-that there are not enough goods and there's not enough goodness in us, there's not enough energy, there's not enough food. This makes us distrust, and that's the beginning of the end. We distrust ourselves, and we distrust our capacity to come together to make common decisions for the whole, for the good of all."

The book is built around seven widely held environmental messages and related ideas-some of them largely unspoken assumptions-that now shape our culture's responses to the global environmental and poverty crises. In each case, Frances challenges their limiting premises and offers a reframing that she believes can help free us to find our power to create a more livable and sustainable world.

Small Planet Institute:
Today and Tomorrow

Through the Small Planet Institute, Frances and Anna, together and separately, have been taking many measures to bring about badly needed change.

Currently, Anna is involved in a major project to reshape broad thinking about our food system, utilizing the power of the Internet. "In a coalition of thirteen groups, I'm working on a popular education project," Anna said. "This project is to develop a series of short online videos as well as other educational materials and grassroots workshops to help people understand some of the core benefits of sustainable farming. The project is also geared to respond to some of the myths that are still out there about industrial agriculture. The videos are going to examine questions such as, 'Is industrial agriculture the path to feeding the world?' and 'Does industrial agriculture really provide affordable or cheap food?' Ultimately I hope to build a powerful case that shows that the only way we are going to feed the world and feed it well is if we fundamentally rethink how we grow food, and turn away from the industrialized food system.

"And I will argue that one of the best ways to ensure people can feed themselves and their families is through promoting sustainable food and farming systems-regional foods."

Via the institute, Frances has been working schools and organizations to help bring her empowering ideas for change to everyone. "We reach out through any channel-radio, the web, and a lot of public speaking and workshops," she said. "I'm developing a workshop now at UC Santa Cruz on EcoMind, because changing our mindset is a little bit more than just reading one book. So we're hoping to develop a workshop that we can put on the website eventually, that anybody could take and adapt to a class, group of friends, church group or NGO. EcoMind is already being adopted into several schools, and Anna's book Diet for a Hot Planet is in the curriculum of quite a number of universities, so that's a real excitement for us."

To the People

By being on the front lines and talking directly to people, both Frances and Anna have learned much about bringing their positive messages home to the general public.

As is exemplified in the project she is currently engaged in, Anna sees the problem in reaching the public at large as countering the propaganda of industrial agriculture. "I think the average person is primed to be receptive to our messages-unfortunately," she said. "You look at the statistics-one in three kids born in America today will at some point develop diabetes in their lifetime-and the skyrocketing rates of diet-related illnesses. The President's Cancer Panel estimates that 30-40 percent of cancers could have been prevented through food consumption choices. So these questions about what's wrong with our food system are playing themselves out on our bodies, and if not our bodies, then those of our husbands, wives, partners and children. It affects all of us or touches all of us.

"Because of this, when I start talking about problems with our food system, I've never had somebody say, 'What are you talking about? There's no problem!' They do realize there's a problem, but we need to educate people about the source of the problem. The food industry profiting from this unhealthy and environmentally destructive food economy is very savvy about spinning the story, with messages such as, 'Oh, but we produce the safest food,' 'We produce the cheapest food,' and 'There's no alternative, because if we tried any other way we would starve the world.' Those are powerful messages, and the extent to which we can work on countering those statements with our own powerful messages is really important."

Frances is constantly inspired by the response to her "possibilist" message. "I'm just thrilled by the reaction so far to EcoMind. When I first wrote the draft of this book and sent it out for reactions, I was terrified that I was really goring sacred cows, that people were going to be angry. And I'm sure that I am making some people angry, but in general the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It's a response that shows that something isn't working in the way that we're approaching these problems, and so they welcome a fresh way. Just two days ago I did my first college class that has been reading the book. The students there were saying exactly what I was hoping to hear, which was, 'Until I read your book, I felt like I had to browbeat my friends and make them guilty. Now I realize I can just invite them into this most exciting thing that I'm doing with my life. It totally changed how I approach and think about it.' So that was a huge reward for me."

While our planetary population wrestles with one crisis after another, the Small Planet Institute strives to illuminate a path to a future that is both certain and bright.

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