News, Systems Thinking

Q&A with Anna Lappé: Panta Rhea Foundation joins the Global Alliance

28 September 2021

This week, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food welcomes Panta Rhea Foundation to its strategic alliance of philanthropic foundations working together to transform global food systems now and for future generations. Ruth Richardson, Executive Director, speaks to Anna Lappé, Director, Food & Democracy Program at Panta Rhea Foundation about its work and the 50th anniversary of Diet for a Small Planet.


Ruth Richardson: Anna, welcome to the Global Alliance, and congratulations on the launch of the special, 50th anniversary edition of Diet for a Small Planet! Before we dive into the book, can you tell us a little bit about the Panta Rhea Foundation and who you work with? Tell us a little about the origins of the name too. 

Anna Lappé: Panta Rhea is a family foundation, founded by Hans Schöpflin in 2001. We have a sister foundation in Germany, the Schöpflin Foundation. The Foundation has always been guided by a commitment to long-term relationships with our partners in the field, a dedication to working “with the Davids against the Goliaths,” and a vision of a more just and sustainable world. The family brought me on board in 2016 to help design and lead a grantmaking portfolio focused on food systems transformation. The name, Panta Rhea, is inspired by Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. It roughly translates to “All things change, all things flow”— and that philosophy guides our emergent strategy approach. 

RR: How did you come to find out about and join the Global Alliance? What do you hope to bring to – and to take away from – the membership? 

AL: When I joined the foundation, I did a scan of food philanthropy, which brought me to both critical literature of philanthropic institutions (see Lindsey McGoey No Such Thing as a Free Gift and Mark Dowie’s American Foundations, for example) and also to networks like the US-focused Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders Network and internationally, groups like the Agroecology Fund as well as the Global Alliance. Through my own experience as a grantseeker and an activist and in my reading of the field, I have always felt that funders needed ways to share learnings, strategy, and collectivize their voices, including a critique of philanthropy itself—and see institutions like the Global Alliance play this critical role. 

RR: It’s the GA’s 10 year anniversary next year and as part of the celebrations, we’ll be taking stock of what we’ve learned and all that has been accomplished. As an established commentator on food systems and advocate for social justice, what trends and issues do you see coming for the years ahead and what should an entity like the GA do in its next decade?

AL: I am assuming all of you share my sense of urgency for bold action. I see the triple crises of our era—the climate crisis, biodiversity collapse, and needless hunger alongside epidemics of diet-related illnesses—as deeply interlocked to food systems transformation. The kind of change our grantee partners are fighting for—from taking on the pesticide and fertilizer industries and the stranglehold of corporate interests over public institutions to promoting agroecology, peasant, and Indigenous rights and land reform—are not just “good ideas” they are vital for planetary survival. I am excited for the Global Alliance to continue to listen to the field about how to best use our collective voice, collective resources, and collective power to address the root causes of these crises. 

RR: In the spirit of anniversaries, Diet for a Small Planet will be available to buy all around the world in an updated new edition on the 50th anniversary. Tell us a bit about what motivated you and your mother, Frances Moore Lappé, to return to do this anniversary edition?

AL: Yes, we are celebrating an anniversary, too. 50 years!?! It’s hard to believe. When the publisher reached out with interest in an anniversary edition, I encouraged my mother to go for it: The book’s core message—about the waste and destructiveness of the industrial meat model and the benefit of plant-centered diets—has never been more relevant. 

RR: What surprised you about content 50 years later?

AL: How relevant it is! Fifty years ago, my mother was trying to raise the alarm about the destructiveness of industrial agriculture, particularly industrial livestock systems. We know so much more about the true cost of our food production systems. The UNEP, UNDP, and UNFAO just released a report that found a staggering 87% of global public dollars for food systems, particularly in the form of subsidies, goes to “harmful” practices, especially meat and dairy. That’s nearly half a trillion dollars pushing us in the wrong direction. A 2019 FOLU report estimated that just 1 percent a year in subsidies was actually going to help farmers adopt practices to benefit the environment. As pioneering work in True Cost Accounting has found, the costs of our food system now outrun its benefits. I’m sure like so many at the Global Alliance, I feel it’s completely insane that the systems that should nourish us are actively undermining our health and well-being. 

RR: As you know, one of our seven Calls to Action is focused on promoting nutritious, sustainable, whole-food diets as a pathway to transformation. This call to action speaks to food environments, dietary guidance, controls on ultra-processed foods, and minimally processed plant-based, animal and aquatic proteins. What’s your perspective on what a Diet for a Small Planet means considering these challenges and controversies? 

AL: When my mother Frances Moore Lappé penned Diet for a Small Planet, her contention—that we could survive, indeed thrive, on plant-centered diets—was heretical. Today, we know this diet is not only good for our bodies, but the planet, too. Decades after my mother wrote her book, Michael Pollan would summarize the essence of her dietary message simply as “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” A clear message, yes, but challenging for too many of us to act on because of the food industry’s ability to distort our food environments and tilt the political playing field in their favor. 

RR: Another one of the Global Alliance’s Calls to Action is about ensuring inclusive, participatory governance, which we consider to be a crosscutting imperative to systems transformation. In the 1971 book, Frances argued that hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of power among those who go hungry—in other words, a scarcity of democracy. Reflecting on this insight and this call to action, what is the role of philanthropy in the context of power, democracy, and good food governance? 

AL: The origin story of philanthropy is inherently undemocratic. As Mark Dowie details in his book American Foundations, philanthropic institutions were created as legal structures designed to pull resources away from public control and into private hands. Because of the very undemocratic nature of our institutions, I feel all the more compelled to reflect on how we can bring democracy into our work, through being responsive to our grantee partners, through giving decision making power over to field partners, and through using our private dollars to incubate “big bets” on policy changes to bring more dollars into the public sphere for the public good.  

RR: Through Real Food Media, you work with a lot of changemakers, what gives you hope about the future of food? 

AL: When my mother and I wrote my first book, Hope’s Edge, more than twenty years ago, we travelled the world to seek out communities, movements, and regions that were addressing the root causes of hunger and bringing real food democracy to life. In the research, I met inspiring leaders, people who I found to be full of hope, despite the very real odds they were up against. Through our journey, I realized hope doesn’t come from determining the probability of winning; the inevitably of our success. Where we find my hope, instead, is in the work itself. Hope, my mother and I like to say, is more verb than noun. What feeds my hope is shared action—and when it comes to the Global Alliance, through being engaged with creative and bold funder partners and grassroots partners around the world.