Insights by Goldie: Still mindful of eating for a small planet

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in January 2006

For more than 30 years I’ve tried to understand what has been happening throughout the food production and distribution system. My admitted obsession was triggered in a college survey class — but has developed a life of its own.

A professor in an anthropology class at the University of Washington in 1973 put Frances Moore Lappé’s just-published first book, “Diet for a Small Planet,” on a reading list. He challenged students to examine social and health consequences to humans whose lifestyles and diets had undergone extraordinary changes in less than a century, which is just a few generations.

The topic was eye opening and profoundly disturbing, and ultimately changed my life’s direction personally and professionally. It quite literally brought me to PCC. The book’s transformational nature attracted legions of others, selling more than two million copies in the first 10 years alone. The 30th edition still is on the shelves and moving.

As a Quaker, Lappé was steeped in concern for social injustice in whatever forms it took. She was determined to confront the root causes of hunger — especially in the United States, the richest country in the world. She did no original research but followed her instincts, digging out buried facts and figures from libraries and dusty university basements, and pouring over seemingly unrelated facts from government reports, trade journals, agricultural sources, economic reviews, and nutrition and public health studies.

Lappé exposed the worst aspects and unsustainable nature of what had become standard industrial agriculture, especially the massive tax subsidies that enriched corporate agribusiness, further disadvantaging and bankrupting thousands of struggling small family farmers.

She hammered away at a practice she termed the “protein factory in reverse,” the feeding of soy, corn and other grains to hogs, steers, dairy cows and poultry in confined and filthy conditions that typically disallowed grazing on pasture and used antibiotics and other drugs to keep the animals “healthy.”

Lappé revealed that 12 to 20 pounds of plant proteins, fed to confined animals, yielded only one pound of meat. Lappé argued for direct personal action against this unsustainable, inequitable and unhealthy situation. She challenged concerned eaters to eat less meat — or none — to free farmlands to grow grains, beans, vegetables and fruits for direct human nutrition, reducing environmental damage and hunger.

Nutrient charts were provided to demonstrate “protein complementarity” — the combining of grains with beans, nuts and seeds to maximize total usable protein. She provided recipes and meal planning advice to get started.

My husband and I and our three children, in 1973, ate meat every day, but new knowledge changed our appetite. I felt our three kids, age 5 to 11, would be a challenge to change, but we were determined to cut back on meat. In the winter of 1974, with my “Diet for a Small Planet” firmly in hand, I found PCC.

The ease with which we transitioned to eating a mostly plant-based, whole foods diet amazed and pleased us all. We planted a large garden, made trips to regional farms and orchards, and generally ate more fresh and local foods than ever before. Within a few years, as PCC offered high-quality, organic and range-grazed meats and free-range poultry, we began enjoying some meat again, in addition to the wild salmon and other seafood we had continued to enjoy.

Food First, the Institute for Food and Development Policy, a unique and extraordinarily valuable organization co-founded by Lappé, just celebrated it’s 30th anniversary. I highly recommend it if you’re searching for answers to hunger and injustices in food production and distribution. Learn more at

Frances Moore Lappé has continued to write articles and books, inspiring millions around the world. A few years ago she and her daughter, Anna, co-wrote the highly acclaimed “Hopes Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet” (see

Her most recent book, published just weeks ago, is “Democracy’s Edge.” It’s filled with hope as Lappé’s writings always are. I have my copy on order.

Also in this issue

News bites, January 2006

Cambodia goes organic, Lost pounds worth cash, Too much of the real thing, and more