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The Standard American Diet’s Effect on our Environment and our Health

Posted by tinako on July 20, 2010

Leo Horrigan

I read this accessible paper, “How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human
Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture
” (by Leo Horrigan, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker
Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore), which delivers a crushingly broad indictment of the effects of our industrial diet.

Robert S. Lawrence, M.D.

It concisely discusses the unsustainable and often irreversible effects on the environment of intensive use of water, energy, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, and genetic manipulations, and modern agriculture’s astonishing increases in topsoil loss, water pollution, animal waste, and greenhouse gas emissions.  The paper also makes the point very clearly that eating meat intensifies all these industrial uses and effects by its inefficiencies.  Ruining the environment doesn’t just mean messing up our nest, it also means messing up our food supply – if we don’t take care of the land and water, inevitably there will come a day when we can’t grow enough food – in the past farmers just moved on to new land, but what happens when even the marginal land is useless?

Then the paper moves on to the effect of all these chemicals and the foods themselves on our bodies.

They sum up:

These phenomena are due, in part, to production and processing methods that emphasize economic efficiency but do not give sufficient priority to public health or the environment.

Some things that surprised me:

The average U.S. farm uses 3 kcal of fossil energy in producing 1 kcal of food energy (in feedlot beef  production, this ratio is 35:1), and this does not include the energy used to process and transport the food.

Thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make one calorie of food energy!

Barnard et al. estimated that meat consumption costs the United States roughly $30–60 billion a year in medical costs. The authors made this calculation (which they considered a conservative one) on the basis of the estimated contribution that eating meat makes to the diseases discussed above, plus other chronic diseases common in affluent countries and foodborne illnesses linked to meat consumption.

The United Nations has estimated that about 2 million poisonings and 10,000 deaths occur each year from pesticides.

One meta-analysis found that in nine comparison studies, vegans had an average cholesterol level of 158 mg/dL, vegetarians 182 mg/dL, and omnivores 193 mg/dL….  Whereas the average cholesterol level among heart attack victims is 244 mg/dL of blood serum, heart attack risk falls to virtually zero when the cholesterol level is less than 150 mg/dL.

The authors make the point that unsustainable farming is nothing new – many civilizations have collapsed because of their farming methods.  Sustainable methods will consider long-term effects on topsoil, biodiversity, and rural communities, instead of just short-term profit.  Sustainable agriculture will change from place to place and over time.  Sustainable methods might include crop rotation and soil conservation, among others.

So why don’t we do this?  Because farm input required by modern agriculture methods (think fertilizer, pesticides, and the kind of seeds farmers can’t save and replant)  is a huge, powerful business that influences government subsidization of large-scale unsustainable farming.

One thing that would help, they say, is to convince farmers that sustainable farming can be just as profitable, and they give a large-scale example in Gallo Wine.  Urban agriculture is good, and this is about the fourth paper I’ve read that says that farm markets and CSAs are a really important way consumers can make an impact.

They conclude:

Coupled with energy- and resource intensive food production methods, rising population and rising per capita consumption are bringing us closer to the limits of the planet’s ability to produce food and fiber for everyone.

These problems are complex and have no single solution, which leaves many people feeling powerless to affect them.  One personal act that can have a profound impact on these issues is reducing meat consumption.

The Center’s book “Putting Meat on the Table” is available for free download.  Lawrence and Walker offered a course, “Food Production, Public Health, and the Environment” through John’s Hopkins which sounds similar to the Yale course I’m auditing (and from the same semester).  Although JH’s course is less user-friendly (you have to synchronize MP3 audio lectures with PDF slides), it does have a list links of readings which seemed different than those required by Yale.

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