In Thatcher’s Britain of the early 1980s, eco-vegans were about as welcome everywhere as they are on GB News today. Nutrition, let alone finding a diet to suit your needs ecologically, just wasn’t a thing in common discussion. Yes, there were lots of ‘fad’ exploitative diets, but there was little that took a hard look at the lifestyle consumer culture was telling us to lead. First published fifty years ago, in 1971, and revised in further editions, I think this is still the most revolutionary book on food available today – and its message is even more relevant in today’s world than when it was written.
‘Diet for a Small Planet’ series:
Cover of my UK 20th anniversary edition
‘Diet for a Small Planet ’, First Edition, 1971. ISBN 9780345023780.
‘Diet for a Small Planet’, Revised & Updated Edition, 1982. ISBN 9780345295248.
‘Diet for a Small Planet’, 20th Anniversary Edition, 1991. ISBN 9780345321206.
‘Diet for a Small Planet’, 50th Anniversary Edition, 21st September 2021. ISBN 9780593357774.
Go to the ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ website.
Today people are talking about: The need to eat less meat for the planet; the problems of clearing land to graze cattle; and the impacts of growing grain and soya to feed to farmed animals. This book was talking about this fifty years ago.
One day at a free festival, around 1984, I was talking with some people about food. I’d been trying to go vegan, which was a bit of a chore due to conflicting ideas about organic versus macrobiotics versus animal cruelty. Someone went away and came back with a copy of the first edition of, ‘Diet for a Small Planet’. On just a quick scan it was revelatory.
Later, I think the following year, I got a copy of the revised second edition. The copy I have now is the revised ‘Twentieth Anniversary’ edition, from 1991. It contains a lot more than the first two versions, and is very much ‘wiser’ in its approach.
First published by Frances Moore Lappé in 1971, the core of its message is about how protein has been misrepresented in the human diet. As the book says:
“When I first wrote Diet for a Small Planet I was fighting two nutritional myths at once. First was the myth that we need scads of protein, the more the better. The second was that meat contains the best protein. Combined, these two myths have led millions of people to believe that only by eating lots of meat could they get enough protein.”
The cover page, ‘Recipe for a Personal Revolution’ (20th Anniversary Edition)
The greatest idea I took from the book, though, was that how and what you eat defines you – as in the famous line by Jean Brillat-Savarin two centuries ago, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Finding a diet that expresses ‘you’ as an individual is a truly empowering, revolutionary act; or as explained in the book:
“In 1969 I discovered that half of our harvested acreage went to feed livestock. At the same time, I learned that for every 7 pounds of grain and soybeans fed to livestock we get on average only 1 pound back in meat… The final blow was discovering that much of what I had grown up believing about a healthy diet was false. Lots of protein is essential to a good diet, I thought… But I learned that, on the average, Americans eat twice the protein their bodies can even use. Since our bodies don’t store protein, what’s not used is wasted. Moreover, I learned that the “quality” of meat protein, better termed its “usability,” could be matched simply by combining certain plant foods. Thus, the final myth was exploded for me.”
The heart of the book is not recipes; they are confined to a section at the back. It is about nutrition, how the modern diet is produced, and why there is a conflict between a good diet, modern farming, and a healthy planet. I’m not even going to attempt to summarise that because it’s just not possible.
The whole framework of the book, from nutrition to world trade, provides an analysis of why food is innately political – both in who controls it, and who makes the choices in this system. As it says:
“The first struggle for me and for so many of my friends has been to reconcile our vision of the future with the compromises we must make every day just to survive in our society. If we attempt to be totally “consistent,” eschewing all links between ourselves and the exploitative aspects of our culture, we drive ourselves – and those close to us – nuts!… If the solution lies in the redistribution of decision-making power, we must become part of that redistribution. That means exercising to the fullest our power to make choices in our daily life.”
That theme continues throughout the book, containing observations that, reading in the middle of the 1980s, enabled me to make a whole lot more sense of the world around me. Such as:
“The disturbing discovery is that there is no single change that could alter the self-destructive path we are on. Many things will have to change. But this does not mean that we can wait until they can all happen at once!… The first step is uncovering the right questions. As long as we focus single-mindedly on increasing production and then on finding ways to dispose of it – through livestock, exports, or gasohol – we can neatly avoid asking the most critical social questions.”
Perhaps the book’s greatest influence has been on the way I cook. As I say in my other blog, ‘An Anarchist’s Cookbook’, I do not measure, I do not have strict recipes, I just cook with what I have in the most creative, nutritional way possible. Whether I did this consciously or not, that is the approach stated in the book:
“Once meat is no longer the centre of the menu, then the whole pattern of habit falls apart. Anything goes. We are free to respond to our own appetites in planning menus… Therefore, the majority of the recipes in the book… are not merely main-dish ideas but really “meal-dish” ideas – meals in themselves.”
Three fresh-baked loaves of my own-made wholemeal sourdough – made during the writing of this blog post
Fifty years after its publication, and about to be reissued in a new ‘Fiftieth Anniversary’ edition, ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ remains completely relevant and up-to-date because it was so ahead of its time. It’s not simply about food or nutrition; it’s about how food and nutrition are the core of lifestyle – and to have a good life is to express your values and beliefs through the diet that you eat.