Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "Farming for a Small Planet"

Frances Moore Lappé

I am deeply grateful to the many thoughtful respondents to my essay. You have helped me identify aspects of my articulation that are unclear and areas I want to explore more deeply, and I am honored by the thought you have given to my piece. I have included by thoughts below, organized loosely by theme.

The Spread of Agroecology, Its Capital Models, and Farmer Empowerment—Including Income Gains

Spreading agroecology requires capital. What capital models are congruent with agroecology? Certainly, public investment is one, as is often the case in Europe. In the United States, it takes three years for a farm to transition from chemical agriculture to be certified organic and able to benefit from its premium price, so public support during the process is critical. The 2014 US farm bill provides for public financial and/or technical assistance to help farmers with conservation practices and transition to organic agriculture: up to $20,000 per fiscal year, totaling no more than $80,000 over six years.1 In India, I have also encountered small-scale revolving loan funds providing capital. I assume they exist in many parts of the world.

Cooperatives also offer a powerful capital model, and two weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of getting familiar with what a fast-expanding organic cooperative feels like. Speaking at the annual meeting of Organic Valley, the world’s largest organic dairy cooperative, I learned that it assists aspiring organic farmers financially, as well as with advice from veterinarians and grazing experts, during their transition. Once they are certified, members get help in making energy improvements in solar and wind that can reduce costs and GHG emissions. I was told by an Organic Valley representative that its farmer members receive 51 cents of every consumer dollar, whereas a typical American dairy farmer receives only 10 cents.

Learning all this, I was not so surprised, though greatly encouraged, to learn that US farmers’ desire to move to organic production is so strong that this cooperative expects to double its membership in the next decade. From a handful of dairy farms in 1988, Organic Valley has grown to a membership of 1,800 today—all encouraged to engage in guiding the cooperative they own. Clearly, the growth potential for agroecology and organic farming is vast. In the United States, less than one-half of one percent of farm acreage is organic, and it is highly concentrated, with just six states accounting for about half.2

Tim Wise’s contribution helpfully reminds us that agroecological approaches “enhance control” for small and medium farmers “over their production and livelihoods.” He quotes a farmer in Mexico explaining that extension agents with ANEC (an association of such farmers) helped him reduce input costs by two-thirds by relying on composting and other ecological methods, instead of purchased inputs. The result was a significant boost in net income, even accounting for an initial drop in his yields. And to defuse any mystification of what only agribusiness can accomplish, Wise also mentions a Mexican cooperative able to produce its own hybrid maize at a third of the cost paid to a multinational purveyor.

Within this theme, I also want to note Ashish Kothari’s important comment that government and civil society procurement of sustainably grown food can greatly aid the success of “localization of agricultural cycles.” I agree, and my favorite example is in southern India, where poor farmers using ecological practices have banded together to create the Millet Network of India. It has successfully lobbied state government to procure millet, which is much more nutritious than rice, for use in school meals and elsewhere as part of India’s Public Distribution System.

Biodiversity, Women’s Rights, and Community Tenure

Thank you, Ashish Kothari, for calling our attention to these three additional critical pieces of the map to fulfilling the right to healthy food via truly regenerative practices. In longer pieces, I have done a better job of giving at least the first two, biodiversity and women, their due place. On the role of women, I have used and highly recommend the work of Dr. Bina Agarwal, especially Gender and Green Governance. On community tenure, in Food Crises and Gender Inequality, Dr. Agarwal describes women engaged in “group farming” as a viable example of beneficial community tenure.3

Food as a Commons Rather Than a Commodity

This distinction—latent in my essay—between food as a commons and as a commodity—is a key one. The question I pose in, for example, World Hunger: 10 Myths, is how food can be both a human right—a responsibility we all hold in common and that is now spelled out in the constitutions of almost thirty nations—and at the same time a market commodity. Elimination of the market exchange of food seems unnecessary and unwieldy.

Attempts to fulfill this right now include a range of approaches: one is the direct distribution of a subsidized staple, with the world’s largest such effort being India’s rice distribution system. But only a fraction of the grain gets to its intended beneficiaries, and its nutrient value is very low. Other avenues to meet the right to food now being attempted in many nations include a floor under wages that is high enough to ensure income for purchasing adequate food. “Safety net” measures include “conditional cash transfers” now operating at some level in about two dozen countries.4 Policies subsidizing small farmers to market healthy food in urban centers at prices accessible to low-income people have been proven effective in cities such as Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Of these approaches, conditional cash transfers are viewed by many as particularly effective because they have broad reach, are directed to women, and minimize transfer costs by being sent to electronically accessible accounts.

I thus appreciate Fred Magdoff’s position that all basic human needs, from food and clean water to health care and education, should not be understood as mere market commodities. They are essential human rights. I agree and believe most Americans do as well, which might surprise a lot of people. For example, in 2007, 69 percent of us agreed that health care is a right, but the share has since fallen to 51 percent, indicating perhaps that such views are strongly shaped by public discourse and economic hardship. As to food, most Americans (68 percent in a 2007 poll) view it as a human right, yet we link its fulfillment to access to “fair pay” enabling one to buy food.5 Given the partial successes of such approaches, to me it is clear that human rights will only be fulfilled as citizens challenge the now-dominant political systems I call “privately held governments” that make rules to favor the wealthiest.

Still Untouched, Farmers in Assam

I was delighted by the report from Sujata Dutta Hazarika about Assam in northeast India. There, while the tea industry moved to the chemical/corporate model, “food crops were fortunately not tampered with, and communities were allowed to carry on their traditional practices.” My strong hope is that, as she writes, “haphazard adoption of organic agriculture” will not “jeopardize” the evolution of agroecology from the longstanding practices of the tribal peoples you applaud. Her contribution is a critical reminder that in most parts of the world there are traditional cultures that have not been destroyed and from which we have much to learn.

Rural Push or Urban Pull Undermining Life in the Countryside?

I also appreciate Dutta Hazarika’s perception that rural life is increasingly “unattractive to the youth,” noting the psychological dimension that my essay fails to mention: the challenge of ubiquitous media now presenting urban life as “the” exciting place to be at “great loss to the self-esteem of rural India.” This is a very troubling dimension. However, as I do note, there is considerable evidence that where rural youth can see a pathway for a rewarding rural life they do want to stay in their communities. I note instances, for example, where many are risking greatly to defend their communities against “land grabs.”

Yogi Hendlin rightly identifies a gap in my essay: that I did not highlight permaculture’s particular contribution. Thank you. Permaculture’s contribution is its focus on “nutrient systems” and “compositional science.” I clearly have much to learn. Many understand permaculture as a philosophy of aligning with nature while viewing agroecology as the verifiable science with the same intention.

The Root of the Crisis: An Economic System or a Thought System? (And a Global Industrial Food System, to Boot)

Thank you, Fred Magdoff, for clarifying a key contrast in our perspectives. I have learned a great deal from you, so I find our differences especially interesting. You place our economic system—capitalism—at the root, with the dominant thought system arising from it, and I tend to see the thought system as itself a driver. The two certainly create a self-reinforcing pattern, thus I’m sure we could have fascinating (endless?) discussion about which is primary.

I understand capitalism as itself the product of an assumption of scarcity—with neoliberal economics defined as the science of allocating of scarce resources. Elsewhere, I argue that much of Western culture grows out of a presumption of lack of both “goods and goodness”—with the perception of scarcity the norm, from energy to food to human compassion—leading us to believe that we must seek an automatic, infallible force to sort out who gets what. From there, we grasp the mythical “free market” as that force and fall for the improbable notion that a market driven largely by one rule—that which brings highest return to existing wealth—will bring forth benign outcomes for all. Monopoly capitalism becomes inevitable, with all its antidemocratic and human-and-nature-destroying power.

Also relevant here is Vicki Assevero’s comment that corporations really do “register their destructive impacts,” and they try to hide them. She distinguishes this observation from my analysis. I agree completely with this important point. Going forward, I will strive to be clearer that I am saying only that the dominant economic model, and thus the rules following from it, does not incorporate this critical feedback (illness along with soil, biodiversity, and groundwater loss, for example) and therefore offers no inherent impetus to stem the losses.

The case of the failure of the Dhekiajuli Tea Estate, mentioned by Dutta Hazarika, is a powerful and sobering reminder that, as long as production operates within a market that does not account for its true costs to humans and to nature, companies attempting to “do right” will typically be unable to compete.

I also greatly appreciate Jennifer Clapp’s clarification, which I fail to emphasize, that ours is a “global industrial food system” increasingly integrated via what I see as essentially stateless mega-corporations. She notes rightly, therefore, that solutions must involve fair trade and investment rules.

The Question of “How” We Bring to Life Solutions That Now Seem So Clear

Many respondents state or imply that the most critical question is “how”: How can humanity make the shift that my essay advocates? I agree. In this vein, I especially appreciate the sentiment and insights of Jahi Chappell. He notes that, while capitalism as we know it can feel fixed, so in their day did previous world orders. But, given the unworkability of the current model and the “continuing experiments, examples, and imaginaries draw us ever nearer to what will later look like a sudden switch to a better way.”

Democracy as More Than an Instrumental Value

In closing, please forgive me for diverting from direct responses to a more general reflection.

Many I know appear to view democracy as a means to an end, such as justice, environmental health, and other goods. I have, however, come to understand democracy as an absolute, or inherent, value for a number of reasons. I believe it is the only pathway enabling the meeting of human physical requirements but also the fulfillment of essential needs beyond the physical: our need for connection, meaning, and power (efficacy). If these needs are not met constructively, many humans do not merely wither or “make do.” We seek to meet them in any way we can—including, today, through the rising tide of terrorism.

Evidence suggests that only democratic processes—characterized by the dispersion of power, transparency, and mutual accountability—create the context in which we humans can find positive fulfillment of these foundational needs. Though, of course, nothing is guaranteed.

Turning now to a more personal note, my life’s work has kept me swimming in a stream with two currents—one food and hunger; the other, democracy itself. Beginning with Rediscovering America’s Values in the 1980s, I have tried to understand and share a vision of democracy strong enough to address the roots of hunger. Ultimately, positive transformation of the misery and threats to life we are discussing here depend on democratic (i.e., inclusive, transparent, and accountable) governance at every level.

For this reason, I am now increasingly engaged in efforts to remove the barriers to “living democracy” and to define and pursue democratic pathways that make possible the alignment of farming with the earth and access to healthy food for all people, among other essential ends. In the last few weeks, for example, I have benefitted greatly from participating in the citizen movement Democracy Spring, via a march from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, and sit-ins at the Capitol involving 1,400 arrests. My handmade sign read “End Hunger, Fight for Democracy: Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but by scarcity of democracy.” Democracy Spring calls for restoration of voting rights now being suppressed and for policy changes to remove the overwhelming power of private wealth within the US political system. In so doing, I felt I was not deviating from but continuing my half-century obsession with ending hunger.

1. Andrea Johnson, “Interested in Organic? Federal and State Programs Can Help with Transition,” Minnesota Farm Guide, October 19, 2015.
2. US Department of Agriculture, “Organic Farming: Results from the 2014 Organic Survey,” September 2015,
3. Bina Agarwal, “Food Crises and Gender Inequality,” DESA Working Paper No. 107 (working paper, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York, June 2011),
4. "Conditional Transfers: Country Overviews and Project Information," World Bank, 2011, accessed April 20, 2016,

5. "Healthcare System," Gallup, accessed April 20, 2016,; Loren Siegel, Kate Stewart, and Nora Ferrell, Human Rights in the U.S.: Opinion Research with Advocates, Journalists, and the General Public (Washington, DC: The Opportunity Agenda, 2007),

Frances Moore Lappé
Frances Moore Lappé is the co-founder of Food First, the Institute for Food and Development Policy, and the Small Planet Institute. She is the author of eighteen books, including the three-million-copy Diet for a Small Planet and, most recently, World Hunger: 10 Myths, co-authored with Joseph Collins.

Cite as Frances Moore Lappé, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Farming for a Small Planet," Great Transition Initiative (April 2016),

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