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Changing How We Eat Starts with Changing How We Think

by Anna Lappé

A nationally recognized writer and food activist with a deep passion for social justice, Anna Lappé has dedicated her life to addressing the root causes of hunger and poverty. She has visited more than 70 cities, offering her unique experience with and perspective on food politics, globalization, the fair-trade movement, sustainable farming, farm-to-school programs, and many other topical areas related to food, agriculture, and the environment. She is coauthor with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, of Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. In the following article, Anna reflects on the power each of us has to affect the politics of food.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending a first-of-its-kind global food summit, bringing together 600 delegates from more than 90 countries, spanning the globe from Iran to India, Bangladesh to Brazil.

Almost everyone attending, with a few exceptions (like myself), were family farmers, fishing peoples, consumer advocates, and pastoralists—people representing the billions on the planet responsible for growing, harvesting, and foraging for food. For five days, these delegates talked, debated, and strategized in a village outside of Bamako, the capital of Mali, in 100-degree heat.

In these conversations, bridging diverse cultures and languages, core themes emerged again and again. It was an undeniable chorus that reminded me that transforming our food and farming system starts in our heads. And I don’t mean our mouths, I mean our brains. It starts with how we think about food and the system we have in place to grow it and get it to us.

Our industrial food system is responsible for nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s also a system that is hooked on drugs, reliant as it is on the antibiotics ubiquitous in feedlot feed and the billions of pounds of pesticides sprayed annually. It’s a system that creates processed foods, such as soda and fast food, and meat that is raised in what are known as concentrated animal feeding operations (or CAFOs). It’s these processed foods and factory-farmed meat that are giving rise to unprecedented diet-related illnesses, including diabetes, morbid obesity, and heart disease. It’s a system that is also responsible for the lost lives of farm workers poisoned in the fields and meat packers injured on the job.

Producing food hasn’t always been a deadly process; eating food hasn’t always been a risky act. Listening to the advocates in Mali, I was reminded it need not be this way. There are millions around the world embracing a more sustainable, sane, and healthy relationship to food. The following three core themes are their rallying cry, touchstones of this disparate, global movement. They might just hold the key to help us shift our consciousness enough that we reverse this completely odd human predicament: we are making ourselves sick, even killing ourselves, with the very sustenance—food—that is supposed to be life-supporting. Through embracing these concepts, we might just be able to put food back in its rightful place in our culture—as life-giving, nurturing.

The first core theme is the idea of “food sovereignty.” While the term might sound obtuse, it’s really quite simple: everyone should have the right to wholesome food, producers should have the right to fair wages and access to resources, and communities the world over should have the rights over their natural and genetic resources, like water and seeds. An African delegate from Sierra Leone said: “Food sovereignty is the ability for our people to be able to feed ourselves.”

Yet, increasing corporate control of natural resources, including water and seeds and land, are threatening food sovereignty in every cranny of the globe. Despite the dozens of languages spoken at the forum, a few words needed no translation, among them Coca-Cola, Kraft, Wal-Mart. As one delegate in Mali, a mayor from Norway, said, “Food is power, and we need to decide who has that power: food producers or large corporations.” Promoting food sovereignty means calling into question this corporate takeover of our food system, and calling for thinking of food differently than as commodities in the marketplace—it means calling for thinking of food as sacred.

The second concept drummed home among the delegates is the idea of “multifunctionality.” Agriculture, the delegates stressed, serves multiple functions. Part of what has set us on such a destructive path has been completely forgetting this basic and fundamental truth. In the industrial mindset, agriculture is simply a process to produce a certain product; it doesn’t even really matter what it is. Food, in this mindset, is just a widget, and productivity is narrowly defined as widgets per acre, regardless of the social or ecological impacts of this widget production.

The farmers in Mali have a different worldview: To each of them, agriculture is a fundamental part of culture, of history, of storytelling. Farming matters for more than just food—though that is central, too—it matters as a way of life, as a cornerstone of community, as a function of keeping biodiversity thriving, and as a way to connect with our ancestors and extend our lines of humanity down through future generations, too. Once we forget these multiple functions, we are lost.

Finally, all the delegates—from the Palestinian farmers to the Thai fisherfolk and West African shepherds—stressed the importance of relationships: the relationship between the producer and the land, and between the producer and the person who eats. Here at home we call these folks “consumers.” But stop and think for a moment and you realize “consumer” doesn’t quite capture what we do when we eat. We don’t just consume. Every time we eat, we are also making a production choice. Think about it: When we drink that soda, we’re supporting our farmland being used to grow the corn needed for our high-fructose corn syrup addiction. And, when we eat that farmers’ market tomato, we’re really saying, “Yes, I’d love our rural communities to be healthy, thriving places where small farmers can survive on the land and produce delectable foods.”

So, no, we’re not just consumers, we’re coproducers, as Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini likes to say. Every choice we make about what we eat supports specific production choices. We can either align ourselves with industrial production or sustainable production—the choice is ours to make.

*****

I returned home from Mali with a new outlook on our planet, a new vision of food. Despite many years thinking about these issues, for the first time I really understood the power of thinking differently about our relationship to food in farming—the folks I met in Mali showed me.

Underneath the hot sun of the Sahel, I came to realize that all across the planet, movements of people—of eaters and farmers, of workers and fishermen and women—are saying that food shouldn’t be treated like any other commodity. They’re saying that traditional foods and farming practices matter; they’re saying agriculture matters. They’re thinking differently.

Shifting our consciousness and embracing these three core ideas—food sovereignty, multifunctionality, and consumer as coproducer—is a first step toward creating a food system aligned with our values of sustainability and fairness.


Anna Lappé is the coauthor of Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen. With her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, she is a founding principal of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.