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Commons for a Small Planet

Frances Moore Lappé on why today’s food shortages are not caused by a shortage of food

When the idea of the commons comes up— meaning a shared inheritance that belongs equally to each of us—people naturally think first of the basics of life: air, water, the environment, our bodies, language. These are the things that touch us every day.

Even the most ardent free marketer would not go so far as to say that Bill Gates or T. Boone Pickens has the right to own the oxygen we breathe or the words we use. Although some forms of water privatization and genetic patenting have become issues, popular opinion still demands the fundamentals of life should be shielded somewhat from the realm of buying and selling. (That’s why prostitution and the selling of organs for transplant are illegal most places.)

With one notable exception: food. As essential to our lives as air or water, food nonetheless has been widely accepted as a private commodity. It is grown, processed, packaged and sold for a profit, usually by large corporations. Few look upon it as a commons, of which everyone rightly deserves a share.

But for more than 35 years, one woman has courageously carried the message that food is more than simply another consumer product.

She is Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet and founder of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, who overturned the conventional wisdom that hunger and starvation are caused by a shortage of food. She has patiently but forcefully made the case that people go hungry because of inequality and greed in the distribution of food.

Lappé’s influence has been immense—in promoting vegetarian and whole grains diets, in broadening the scope of democracy, in opening up thinking about international food production and marketing systems. Yet she’s not convinced everyone.

A lot of news coverage on the recent food shortages around the world did not discuss agriculture, trade and social policies that keeps food out of the hands of people, but rather blamed the crisis on “not enough food to feed empty stomachs.”

That phrase came from a reporter for National Public Radio, who in a 4-part series championed pesticides, artificial fertilizer and genetically-modified seeds as the solution to food shortages and the impoverishment of small farmers around the world.

“NPR misses the real story,” Lappé writes in a blog on the Huffington Post. “On every continent one can find empowered rural communities developing GM-free, agro-ecological farming systems. They’re succeeding. The largest overview study, looking at farmers transitioning to sustainable practices in 57 countries, involving almost 13 million small farmers on almost 100 million acres, found after four years that average yields were up 79 percent.

“All over the world,” she continues, “poor farming communities are discovering their own power to work with each other and with nature to build healthier, more secure, and more democratic lives.”

Although Lappé doesn’t use the c-word, that sounds like a good working definition for an international food commons.

For more information see the Small Planet Institute