Saturday, September 16, 2006

ITB Book Review: Diet for a Small Planet

I finally managed to finish this book after reading it periodically for the past few weeks. This does not reflect on the quality of the book, but more on my lack of time.Here is my opinion about it:
Diet for a Small Planet was written by well-known food activist Francis Moore Lappe more than thirty years ago. The book I read was the 20th anniversary edition from 1991 which includes a new preface by the author explaining how the book was created and what she has experienced since it’s publication. It should be noted however, that the scientific and other nutritional data in the book seem to be updated only up to about the year 1980.
I have read several books about vegetarianism and the first thing that struck me is that this is not that kind of book. First and foremost this is a book about the politics of hunger. In fact, the author herself is not a vegetarian, and does not try to convince the reader to be one. She is focused on showing the connection between our daily choices, our government’s policies, and the resulting world hunger and health problems. I think that she does so very convincingly. Using a very large array of sources, especially considering that the Internet did not even exist at the time, she proves that all of us are responsible for the way the world is. As author of the Tikkun Blog, which has the exact same idea in mind, I must applaud both the sentiment and the diligence she displays in proving the connections. So, for people interested in a better understanding of the world we live in, especially in relation to the food we eat – this is an excellent book. I learned a lot of interesting stuff, and I really cannot wait to read the sequel to this book called Hope’s Edge , published just a few years ago.
For instance, I learned about the ratio between grain and meat – how much grain it takes to grow one pound of meat, poultry, and pork. The proportions are 16 pounds grains to grow 1 pound of beef, 6 to 1 for pork and 3 to 1 for poultry. Interestingly, I actually grew poultry once, and that ratio was always important for me but in a completely different manner – it was an indicator of how well I was managing the farm. The point being that the less grain the chickens ate, and the more poundage I got from them – the more profitable I was. I never thought about it from the viewpoint of how many non-renewable resources are being wasted here, including water, and I am sure that other growers don’t do so either, or else they would not be able to continue growing meat in good conscious.
One of the main arguments in the book is that world hunger is caused not only by our wasteful meat-centric diet, but mostly, and first of all , by a lack of democracy, by a concentration of power in the hands of a few, unaccountable elites:

“Brazil is an extreme and tragic example…black beans, long the source of cheap protein for the poor are now expensive and out of reach of many. The reason? Landowners have shifted from growing black beans to what is more profitable – growing soybeans for livestock feed.”

Inevitably, of course, the meat produced in this manner is even more expensive than the grains used to feed the cattle, and the beneficiaries are the few local rich people and foreign markets in the First World. The local poor just go without, and sometimes die because of it. According to Lappe, all over the Third world, landed aristocracy have started to grow what is more profitable, usually exporting the expensive food, leaving the local, landless population on the brink of hunger. In many instances the U.S. supported these governments at the expense of the local population. (to be fair – European policies are as much to blame, the offenders being mainly France, Belgium and England, mostly in Africa, not to mention that President Bush is doing his best to reverse that policy, 30 years later).
The book covers the origins of the new rich meat centered diet, the marriage of government policies and food industries to the detriment of the general public, the health risks inherent in this new “experimental” diet as it is called, and the ways to combat them.
In the second part of the book Lappe offers a kind of starters kit for the beginning vegetarian cook and lots of tips and easy recipes, none of which I have tried yet. The recipes include dairy products, which I prefer to avoid and are in English, which is really weird for me, cause I’m used to Hebrew recipes and ingredients. In any case, if you are looking for a vegan cookbook - this would not be your first choice.
The book also includes several interesting appendixes, the best one being, for me, the list of food additives and their properties compiled by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This has always bothered me but until now I haven’t found a reliable and clear source of information. The Center has an updated list of additives on it’s site here.

All in all I am very happy to have read this book, I learned a lot, and I am sure to read it’s sequel. Lappe is undoubtedly committed to the truth and she endeavors, and succeeds, in serving up a very good, nourishing helping of the truth about the food we eat and what it is doing to us, and to every other human being on this planet.

1 comment:

Russell said...

Good review. I linked to it on my new Edible Politics blog.