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Small garden plot

"In addition to inequality," the authors write, "our corporate food system is so broken nearly 60 percent of the calories Americans eat now offer us zero nutrition; and virtually no Americans meet dietary guidelines." (Photo: Karl Hendon/via Getty Images)

Hunger Is Over, If We Want It

Globally, in this now-or-never moment, we can remake governance to answer to all of us, to finally make policy with the understanding that hunger will only be uprooted if we tackle the anti-democracy forces at its roots.

Frances Moore LappéAnna Lappé

The United Nations Food Systems Summit in New York City this September called on humanity “to end hunger and protect the planet.” Sounds noble—even uplifting—until we acknowledge this sad truth: Nearly fifty years ago at the United Nations’ first World Food Conference, governments also set out such a lofty goal, declaring a vision for eradicating “hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition within a decade." A decade?

You could say we missed that mark, big time. Even before COVID-19, undernourishment had been rising. As many as 811 million are now hungry, defined as not even getting enough calories, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). And by a wider, more useful  measure, the FAO estimates a staggering one in three of us worldwide lack “access to adequate food.”

The second tragedy is that so many world leaders still don't get it. The Food Systems Summit for the most part kept the focus on what corporate-chemical farming offers—as if supply were our problem. Yet, the world food supply per person has been climbing for decades; and at almost 3,000 calories for each of us, it is plentiful.

However, within the UN, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is one group that may be taking a different tack: focusing on human rights—i.e., on who has power, not narrowly on production.

Some are hopeful that the Committee’s annual meeting next month will finally grapple with root causes and system-solutions. A coalition of governments, international agencies, food producers, labor unions, and Indigenous peoples will hold an online, preparatory meeting September 30th, open to all, to arrive at globally coordinated response.

We hope this dedicated group—finally—brings down one mighty barrier: The long-held, disempowering untruth that food scarcity is the cause of hunger. When Frances’ Diet for a Small Planet was released 50 years ago, fear of food scarcity was palpable. Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s Population Bomb had exploded. Many assumed we’d simply hit the earth’s limits.  

Fear of scarcity diverted eyes from deepening inequalities in economic and political power. So, here we are: Today, 70 percent of humanity lives in nations where economic inequality is worsening. The tight grip of those at the top is staggering. Just over 2,000 billionaires control more wealth than 60 percent of all 7.7 billion humans on earth. In only one decade, worldwide, billionaires’ wealth has doubled, and among them are titans of agribusiness. 

As unaccountable corporate power has tightened, it’s corrupted democratic governance. Here in the US, a thousand agribusiness lobbyists are paid to convince those we elect to listen to them, not us—that’s two-thirds more  than even the oil and gas industry’s gaggle of persuaders. 

As a result, in addition to inequality, our corporate food system is so broken nearly 60 percent of the calories Americans eat now offer us zero nutrition; and virtually no Americans meet dietary guidelines. Diabetes rates have risen  fourfold over the past 25 years, and our corporate-supplied diet is implicated in most noncommunicable diseases.

So, may the Committee on World Food Security name this crisis of democracy: Concentrating economic and political power not only ensures hunger and ill health, but vast waste as well.  Worldwide 80 percent of agricultural land, including that for grazing, now goes to producing livestock for the better off, while livestock provide just 18 percent of our calories. And beef? We get just 3 percent of the feed calories the cow consumed.

Robbing people of their power is a global economy driven overwhelmingly by the logic of maximum return to existing wealth.

So, millions of citizens worldwide are challenging corporate-and-chemical-dominated food systems that deepen injustice, vast waste, disease, and ecological damage. Many of these courageous citizens are embracing plant- and planet-centered diets that protect, and much more efficiently use, our precious soil and water, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while improving our health and addressing economic inequity, too.

Land-based social movements for social equity, healthy food, and farming have taken off worldwide. In just 30 years, the ecological, small-farm movement La Via Campesina has grown to 182 member organizations, representing 200 million food producers in 81 countries. Scholars at the University of Essex have documented that across the globe—just in the last two decades—eight million new self-governing, farmer groups have arisen, all embracing sustainable practices.

Let us celebrate these breakthroughs. But at the same time may such awareness trigger outrage that here at home, extreme income inequality—greater than that of over 100 nations—still denies access to healthy diets for so many. 

Fifty years ago, in 1971, just as Frances published her first book Diet for a Small Planet and launched her life’s work challenging myths about the roots of hunger, the Vietnam War was raging on. In the midst of the mounting anti-war movement, Yoko Ono and John Lennon launched their iconic “War is Over” campaign. Billboards and ads from New York to Rome provocatively declared: “War is Over… If You Want It.”  

At that time, nearly 40,000 Americans had died and an untold number of Vietnamese. War was decidedly not over. But as Lennon exhorted Americans: “You’ve got the power… All we have to do is remember that.”

These words echo in our ears, fifty years later. We, too, have the power to end something as seemingly intractable as hunger. Globally, in this now-or-never moment, we can remake governance to answer to all of us, to finally make policy with the understanding that hunger will only be uprooted if we tackle the anti-democracy forces at its roots. 

Hunger is over, if we want it. 

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of nineteen books, beginning with the acclaimed "Diet for a Small Planet." Most recently she is the co-author, with Adam Eichen, of the new book, "Daring Democracy: Igniting Power, Meaning, and Connection for the America We Want." Among her numerous previous books are "EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want" (Nation Books) and "Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life." She is co-founder of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Small Planet Institute.

Anna Lappe

Anna Lappé

Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, most recently of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It and a contributor to the 50th anniversary edition of her mother’s Diet for a Small PlanetShe is a founder of Real Food Media and works with funders to support food system transformation around the world. 

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