A bowl of vegetables and alternative proteins. Credit: Anna Pelzer / Unsplash

I am on a quest to learn more about veganism, particularly considering my support for agro-ecology, rural community revival and concern over climate change.

Plus, a close family member, who loves to debate and practice his “conversational activism,” keeps reminding me that as an individual what I eat will make a lot of difference. Just ask Earthling Ed. So for the love of my family member, I am digging deeper into veganism.

Of course, this has reminded me of my past. And so has the 50th edition of Diet for a Small Planet — which I read in the late 1970s for the first time.

Harken back to 1971, when author Frances Moore Lappé created her hopeful “booklet” on the importance of vegetarianism in fighting global hunger. Lappé’s research journey in the early ‘70s into the roots of global hunger when she was a university student spawned the publication of the first edition of Diet for a Small Planet. Back then, the common belief was that hunger was due to over-population. Lappé dug deep and ended up challenging that myth, and others, as she shared with her readers the importance of our individual diets, alongside agricultural policy change, in eradicating global hunger. The book included recipes for a vegetarian diet, and called for system change in how we produce food and engage in agriculture.

Fast forward 50 years, and we have had several revised and updated versions of the  1971 publication. The most recent is the 50th Anniversary Edition, just released in October. It too is hopeful and full of research and tips to help us transition our role as eaters. Some things have changed and some have not since the 1970s . One thing is clear — the audience for what was called a niche or fringe movement five decades ago has grown, and particularly fast in just the last few years, as a new generation adopts veganism. (For a time veganism was also called strict vegetarianism — but now the definitions are more precise.)

Meanwhile, some things have stayed the same. Monsanto is still around, though Bayer is trying to change its stripes. Agribusiness has continued its land concentration and encouragement of overconsumption and environmentally damaging practices, and food distribution systems are that much more concentrated in the hands of transnationals which insist on flying food back and forth around the world.

One of the main messages in the 50th anniversary edition is “hope” — and the power to make change that comes from having hope. But the book backs the possibilities of making change with concrete information and a challenge to change both our food system and our individual lives.

Lappé does not mince words.

“It’s now clear that to feed ourselves we are killing ourselves and our planet,” writes Lappé in the introduction of the 50th anniversary issue. “But equally true is that food and farming solutions are arising, some in surprising places, and proving transformative beyond all expectation.”

From there, Lappé notes that there is still hunger in the midst of plenty; that how we are feeding ourselves worsens climate change; that soil degradation continues at alarming rates, along with nitrogen overload and the “mining” of precious water for meat production; that food is now our biggest health threat; and that hazardous chemicals, genetically modified organisms, and a meat-centred diet is both destructive, cruel and dangerous for all animals, including human animals. Quite the top 10 list of reasons to go plant-based.

If there is one major change between the 1971 and the 2021 editions it is also terminology. No matter the editions, Lappé has never considered herself a vegetarian or the increasingly common term “vegan.” In the 50th edition, she uses the term plant-based and notes she is against is a meat-centred diet (and in particular grain-fed meat). She blows away the notion that we need to consume our current amounts of meat to get protein, and notes that much of the meat-based protein consumed is overload and cannot be absorbed in our bodies, and so is passed as waste. Switching to a plant-centred diet, she notes, would help even the scales.

But beyond the terminology, the importance of a healthy diet, or the shame of continued global hunger, Frances Moore Lappé challenges the system of food production based on increased meat production, the land and water degradation that occurs to fuel it, and the incredible impact a plant-based diet can have on stemming climate change.

Whether for reasons of health, environment, or care of animals, Lappé showed great leadership decades ago. And the proof is now coming home.

For example, in a recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated:

“A shift to diets with a higher share of plant-based protein in regions with excess consumption of calories and animal-source food can lead to substantial reductions in emissions, while also providing health benefits … Plant-based diets can reduce emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emission intensive western diet.”

This echoes a 2018 report published in the journal Science which shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18 per cent of calories and 37 per cent of protein, its production uses 83 per cent of farmland and produces 60 per cent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. The authors conclude that “avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.”  

So while Frances Moore Lappé’s 50th Anniversary Edition of Diet for a Small Planet is a great reminder of what we should have started doing in the 1970s, it is also a great primer for moving forward now — faster.

The time seems to have come for many. Despite the pandemic, or perhaps because of it, studies show that an increasing number of people are looking to change how they eat and live. Many are considering plant-based diets, others are reconsidering how they travel, whether by car or plane, and reducing their consumerism overall. The recent COP 26 meetings in Glasgow were also a stark reminder.

Am I going vegetarian? …Or perhaps vegan? Or will I have a plant-centred diet with a bit of meat…will I call myself a flexigenarian? As I ring in the New Year re-reading Diet for a Small Planet in its 50th anniversary edition and watching Earthing Ed on You Tube, I know my plate and palate are changing. I am gathering up new plant-based recipes, markedly reducing my meat and dairy consumption, reducing my carbon footprint, improving my health, and renewing my energy to support small farmers and campaigns for serious agricultural policy change. And being open to new ways of doing things… constantly.

I have hope, and that will increase the odds of success…I hope. Happy 2022!

BW Lois Ross - Version 4 (1)

Lois Ross

Lois L. Ross has spent the past 30 years working in Communications for a variety of non-profit organizations in Canada, including the North-South Institute. Born into a farm family in southern Saskatchewan,...