"What if we reconceive good eating as not just 'plant-based,' but 'planet-healing'?" asks Lappé.


“Vegetarian”…Why Not “Planetarian”?

Only with democracy—specifically a living democracy—can we transform our wasteful, destructive food system to ensure everyone’s fair access to healthy, ecologically grown food.

"Planetarian. What’sthat?”

I am eager to explain. In the late sixties, as I struggled to find my path, Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb had just exploded, admonishing humanity for overpopulating the Earth and creating food scarcity. Soon, several friends even pledged never to have kids.

So, I had to know: Was Ehrlich right?

I dug in at U.C. Berkeley’s agricultural library with my dad’s slide rule in hand, asking: Is it true that we’re running out of food?

No. Emphatically no, I soon learned.

We did then—and do now—produce enough food for all. Yet decade after decade we turn abundance into scarcity for too many: Today, 1.3 billion people—1 in 6 of us—lack consistent access to the calories we need. And safe and healthy diets? They’re out of reach for almost 40 percent of humanity, and the crisis is predicted to worsen.


Simply put, our world’s gross power inequities—political and economic—are the root cause. As the richest 1 percent control about half the world’s wealth, food policies serve elite interests, not commonsense or our planet’s health.

When our dietary habits incorporate environmental, justice, and health awareness as well as animal welfare, might we be "planetarians"?

One result? Staggering inefficiency.

Humans directly eat only about half the calories we produce. And the other half? While some become biofuel, in the U.S. we devote three-fourths of agricultural land to livestock production. And, of every 100 feed calories that cows eat, we get only three calories back in that burger or steak on our plate. With dairy cows, we get less than half the calories they’re fed.

The big picture?

Worldwide, almost 80 percent of our agricultural land produces livestock that give us only 18 percent of our calories.

Other costs include vast environmental harms: Producing animal foods generates greenhouse gas emissions 10 to 60 times greater than producing plant-based foods. Plus, 60 percent of biodiversity loss worldwide is caused by livestock. Moreover, livestock grazing is responsible for almost 40 percent of global deforestation, worsening the climate and biodiversity crises. Natural historian David Attenborough warns us we are facing the 6th great species extinction, which requires a dietary shift toward plant food.

Plus, “industrialized livestock” generate 85 percent of soil erosion, also a major threat.

Next, water. Our heating climate diminishes fresh water supplies; yet to produce just one pound of beef we use 1,800 gallons of water. Globally, “animal agriculture” accounts for nearly a fifth of all freshwater use. Here in the U.S. cattle farming uses more than half the water drawn from the Colorado River, for example, even as area’s current water crisis already threatens many farms and puts dozens of fish species at risk.

Meat-centered diets also directly damage our health: In 2015, the WHO declared red meat a probable carcinogen and processed meat a carcinogen.

In sharp contrast, plant-centered diets have been shown to lower body weight, boost the immune system, and decrease cancer risk, coronary heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. So, no surprise: A plant-centered diet is associated with “lower risk of all-cause mortality” in U.S. adults.

It makes no sense. Why would we humans—supposedly the brightest species—actively shrink our food supply?


Because the deeper scarcity we’ve failed to address is that of democracy. On political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House—confounded by Eleanor Roosevelt—ranks us way behind nations we think of as peers. The U.S. comes in 59th between Panama and Samoa. Yet, only with democracy can we transform our wasteful, destructive food system to ensure everyone’s fair access to healthy, ecologically grown food.

Thus, much of my life energies have gone toward what I call “living democracy” in which we each have both economic and political power.

So, how does shifting my diet serve democracy?

In nourishing ourselves we make multiple choices daily. That alone gives food special power. With each choice I know I am sending signals back through the food chain for sane, fair use of our Earth.

Suddenly, my every bite has delicious purpose. As a vegetarian, I’ve loved knowing I was protecting animals and avoiding massive waste. But now I wonder whether “vegetarian” captures the full impact of such food choices. So, what if we reconceive good eating as not just “plant-based,” but “planet-healing”?

When our dietary habits incorporate environmental, justice, and health awareness as well as animal welfare, might we be "planetarians"?

I believe that with every step aligning our lives with our deepest truths, we become more convincing to ourselves and thus to others—and more likely to take our next step and the next…with ever greater courage. And that’s exactly what our planet needs now more than ever.

So, “planetarian” feels great.

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