Food, Dignity, and the Commons: Frances Moore Lappé

Charles W. Elliott

Common Dreams has published an insightful interview with activist and author Frances Moore Lappé that illuminates the foundations of the struggle for a just global food economy: democracy and human dignity. Ms. Lappé is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking work on global hunger, recognizing that world hunger is not the result of insufficient food supplies but rather our industrial model of food production and the inability of the poor to access the available abundance of food or its means of production. In short, the problem of global hunger is the problem of poverty, the mal-distribution of political and economic power, and inequality. Acting upon this recognition, rather than a myth of scarcity, undermines multinational corporate attempts to more deeply entrench industrialized control over the global food supply.

Lappé argues that a solution to this inequality-driven hunger is the expansion of “living democracy”, exercised individually and collectively by each person’s daily choices of how we live, thus “infusing the power of citizens’ voices and values throughout our public lives.” 

In the interview, journalist Christopher Cook explores the trajectory of Lappé’s work since the 1971 publication of her pioneering work, Diet for a Small Planet. Lappé explains why we now stand at the divide between hope and despair on these issues and her personal conjoining of optimism and realism:

On the one hand, things are so much worse than I could have imagined in terms of the concentration of power in the world, and the destructiveness of industrial agriculture. Never could I have imagined the extent of the dislocation, the extent of the cycles we are in with industrial agriculture. On the other hand are the things we’ve been documenting in our new book—the emergence of people aligning their lives with the laws of nature, human nature included. There is a deeper understanding of what it takes for people to thrive[.]

She identifies her concept of “living democracy” as the common theme that connects all of the varying food movements – agroecology, the anti-GMO/seed-patenting movement, community gardens, reduction of meat consumption, and others. Implicit in this idea of living democracy is that each person possesses fundamental human dignity, is worthy of a meaningful voice, and is a co-creator of our common interconnected experience. Equally important is Lappé’s recognition that food is not merely a private commodity, but a public good. As it is essential to human life, and access to it is a fundamental human right, it should be viewed as part of the commons. In the same way that public education benefits an entire society, so too we all benefit when everyone is well-fed: we all enjoy better health, child mortality is reduced, and productivity increases.

Lappé offers specific proposals for change in the United States, including a massive public education campaign that advocates moving our agricultural system into what is healthy and that explains how wasteful and destructive is our grain-fed meat centered diet. She also advocates reallocating agricultural tax supports toward food production that is healthy and sustainable:

We need to shift public subsidies toward diversified food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. People have no idea how distorted and inefficient and unhealthy it is, what we are producing, and with their tax dollars. It would really be an effort to try to engage people in a positive way, that this is a win-win-win: It’s a win for you to be healthier; your costs of healthy food could go down if we shifted these subsidies; and our Earth’s soil could be sustained.

At Buddhist Global Relief, consistent with Lappé’s vision, we aspire to promote food justice and sustainable agriculture, encourage personal action that accords with basic human values, and support full participation in this “living democracy” that offers hope for a world where no one goes hungry.

Other resources:

Food First

Small Planet Institute

(Credit: photo of Francis Moore Lappé by Choconancy1 on Flickr.)

One response to “Food, Dignity, and the Commons: Frances Moore Lappé

  1. Lappe’s work is so valuable, a big voice and a profound one. Thank you for this post.