Food and Power: a Need for Diversity, a Call for Courage

Margaret Riche is GRACE’s Public Service Scholar. Riche is in her final year at Hunter College, where she is studying public service, creative writing and is participating in the interdisciplinary Thomas Hunter Honors program. Vegan since 2008, Margaret believes that a sustainable future begins with compassion, educated choices and ethical consumption.

On the evening of September 22nd, an eager audience filled the historic Great Hall of Cooper Union, where the stage was dotted with blooming flowers and potted plants. Addressing the crowd where Abraham Lincoln, the suffragettes and the founders of the NAACP had spoken before her, Francis Moore Lappé quoted Cezanne and told us: “The day will come when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”

We were gathered to celebrate “four decades of the food movement” and among the foliage were good food legends Frances Moore Lappé and Dr. Vandana Shiva. The event, “Feeding Hope: Living Democracy,” marked the 40 year anniversary of the release of Lappé’s book, Diet for a Small Planet. This revolutionary work was the first of its kind to highlight the connection between human practices and worldwide hunger. Her startling statistics, which demonstrated the wasteful, unsustainable nature of current livestock production,  often serve as my talking points in the “why are you vegan” conversations I seem to always be having. Lappé’s insights have proven critical to the movement for food justice and 40 years later, I was curious about what she suggested moving forward.

Vandana Shiva told us that “the agricultural tools of industry come from the mindset of war, where diversity is seen as the enemy” and she railed against the “false promises of GMO (genetically modified organisms).” She warned us that “if we don’t make change, there’s only one future. No future.”

The dynamic Lappé did not disappoint and offered up to the crowd a contagious optimism. Author of 18 books, co-founder of Food First,  the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund,  Lappé is an eloquent, tireless advocate for the planet and its inhabitants. Standing before a crowd of supporters, she drew battle lines in the war for sustainability and equity, telling us “we can chose life or we can chose death.” As if reading my mind, she reflected on the recently executed death row inmate Troy Davis. She told us that “the dominant mental math of the day is fundamentally life-denying.” Her words rang true for several head-nodders throughout the crowd.

The concept of living beings as dispensable objects (where cows are referred to as “protein disposal units”) is just one example of the filter through which humans understand (or misunderstand) concepts of biodiversity and interconnectedness. Lappé refers to this lens as the “scarcity mind,” where relationships built on fear and distrust support a system of inequitable power distribution. It is exactly these power relationships which inform access (or lackthereof) to abundance. Lappé called on us to cultivate an “eco-mind,” where we constantly strive to understand the interconnected nature of social, environmental and ecological issues. She spoke of food’s ability to forge these connections and of the movement’s goals of equitably dispersing power through acts of creating and sharing. Lappé advocates for what she calls a “living democracy,” which includes a “culture of engagement, aligned with nature.” This living democracy requires that those in the movement “work on our backbone” in taking on influential institutions that monopolize power. According to Lappé, “nature abhors a monopoly.”

It is this nuanced understanding of power relationships that make Lappé and Dr. Shiva such vital leaders in shifting the dominant paradigms of consumption. A true legend and orator, Dr. Vandana Shiva’s perspective is one of a philosopher, physicist and feminist. She is the founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India.  Born in the city of Dehran Dun, located in a valley at the bottom of the Himalayas, Shiva has advocated brilliantly for women throughout the Global South and for the thousands of Indian farmers disenfranchised at the hands of corporate agri-business. Dr. Shiva recalled organizing seed banks throughout India through a famers' network she founded, known as Navdanya. She told us of her work preserving the much needed biodiversity of native Indian seeds, as well as reclaiming traditional agroecological practices.

Addressing the underlying issues surrounding food production, Shiva drew a similar parallel to Lappé’s between dominant psychology and perceived scarcity. Shiva warns against the “monocultures of the mind” that come from the “systemic flaws” that favor corporate control of resources. She told us that “the agricultural tools of industry come from the mindset of war, where diversity is seen as the enemy” and she railed against the “false promises of GMO (genetically modified organisms).” She warned us that “if we don’t make change, there’s only one future. No future.” As a researcher, author and pioneer, Vandana Shiva could say from experience that “food is the site of new freedom” but she warned that it is “also the site of new dictators.” In looking to the future, she reminded us of the power of the commons, where shared resources of food and knowledge could mutually benefit everyone. Even in the face of the current unbalanced concentrations of power, she assured us that life always triumphs over death.

In the question and answer portion of the evening, Lappé and Shiva addressed some issues of strategy. According to Francis’s daughter Anna, who moderated the panel, sifting through questions passed to the stage on notecards, many people asked if there are too many distinct groups and whether the movement needs a larger organization. Lappé took the mic and repeated one of the themes of the evening- the need for diversity. She warned us that a large organization would depend on outside support, as opposed to self-organizing power. This self-organizing power is emblematic of Lappé’s vision of democracy.  She likened all of the different efforts to beads on a necklace, and said that all we really need is a string. What is the string, she asked? “The string is life. The string is freedom. It is the connection between the farmer, the chef, the butterfly and the earth worm.” When asked how she maintained her optimism, Lappé smiled and cryptically replied, “if we really are living consciously as an ecosystem, it’s not possible to know what’s possible.” I found myself smiling too as the evening began to wrap up, with Lappé making one last call for courage. Surrounded by flowers and illuminated by stage lights, she called on us each  to be that “small flame in the dark room, where one lamp lights the next.”

Here’s to forty more years of wisdom and to a freer future of sustainable food.