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Fewer cows, more vegetables: too many food animals harms people and the planet.


Robert Lawrence is the founding director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. Prior to that, he was the first director of the Division of Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and director of health sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation. Lawrence spoke to Nutrition Action's David Schardt from Baltimore.

Q: How does the way we produce our food affect the environment?

A: The most important impact of the industrialization of agriculture in North America is the progressive consolidation and concentration in the way we raise animals for human consumption.

In the United States, we now produce 9 billion animals for food every year: about 100 million hogs, 35 million head of cattle, and slightly more than 8 billion broiler chickens. That's 1 million broilers per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Raising animals this way degrades our environment and consumes our resources.

Q: But doesn't it also provide much of our protein?

A: Yes, but in a very inefficient way. It takes about 7 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, and about 6.5 pounds of grain to produce a pound of pork. Even poultry, which is the most efficient animal, requires about 2.6 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.

Q: How does that tax our resources?

A: It contributes to the growing scarcity of water, for one thing. To grow the grain to produce one pound of beef requires 840 gallons of water. That's clearly not sustainable.

Water tables throughout the country are declining. Take the Ogallala aquifer under the Great Plains. It supplies about 30 percent of the nation's ground water used for irrigation, and it is being pumped down several feet a year.

Q: What other problems does it cause?

A: Concentration of animal waste. Our industrial agriculture system produces about one ton of animal waste solids--what's left of their excrement after the water has been removed--for every single person in this country. That's 40 times as much waste as humans produce. Animal waste, which was once a rich source of organic fertilizer, has now become a major polluter of surface water, soil, and air.

Q: How has our emphasis on producing meat affected farming?

A: We have lost diversity because of the large concentrations of row crops, particularly the corn and soybeans that feed the animals we eat.

As one example, in the mid-1950s there were more than 25 different commodities--things like potatoes, cherries, popcorn, oats, and plums--that were commercially viable in Iowa, meaning that they were grown in Iowa and either sold within the state or shipped out of state. Today, Iowa is reduced to essentially four: corn, soybeans, hogs, and cattle.

Q: Does that increase the need for long-distance transportation?

A: Yes. It means, for example, that the grain grown in the Midwest is shipped a thousand miles to the eastern shore of Maryland to feed the 500 to 600 million broilers that are produced on the Delmarva peninsula each year.

Q: And that requires more energy?

A: It does, and not just for transportation. We have also come to rely more and more on fossil fuels to produce synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

The net effect is that we have compromised the resilience of our food system. Our heavy dependence on fossil fuels puts our nation at risk as the cost of energy goes up and the cost of food follows.

Q: What can consumers do? A: Eat less meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the average adult American male consumes about 70 percent more protein every day than he needs. For women, it's about 25 percent more.


What's more, 67 percent of the dietary protein in the North American diet comes from animal sources, compared to a worldwide average of about 30 percent.

So not only are we eating more protein than we need, but we're eating more of our protein in the form of meat protein as opposed to high-quality vegetable protein.

Reducing the amount of beef, pork, and poultry that we consume would immediately ease our footprint on the environment.

That's a very tough message to sell to people, though, because culturally we have developed this taste for meat. And out biological evolution probably prepared us to enjoy eating fatty foods.

Q: Is that where Meatless Mondays come in?

A: Yes. The Meatless Monday campaign, which began in 2003, is a movement to cut meat consumption by going one day a week without eating meat. Its goal is to improve the health of people and the planet. The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, where I work, has been the campaign's technical and scientific advisor since its beginning.

Q: What inspired Meatless Mondays?

A: One of the objectives of the Surgeon General's Healthy People goals for the decade 2000 to 2010 was to reduce the saturated fat in the American diet by 15 percent. And we thought that even a skilled nutritionist would have a difficult time figuring out how to cut back saturated fat by 15 percent over the 21 meals in a week.

It turns out that one day is about 15 percent of the week. So, since the biggest source of saturated fat in the U.S. diet is meat, Americans could go far toward meeting the Surgeon General's recommendation by going one day a week without meat.

You would also have to include one day a week without cheese and whole-milk dairy products, because they are the other major sources of saturated fat. But for simplicity's sake, we focused on the Meatless Monday concept. We picked Monday because studies suggest that people are more likely to stick with changes in behavior if they begin them on a Monday.

Q: What can people do beyond eating less meat?

A: They can buy more locally grown foods. That helps decrease our reliance on long-distance transportation and the fossil fuels that requires.

Locally produced foods are available at farmers markets, which are increasing dramatically in number.

We've also seen an encouraging increase in the number of small farming operations that participate in consumer supported agriculture, or CSAs.

Q: How do those work?

A: You buy a share, which helps the local farmer up front with the cost of seed and other inputs for their farm. Then the farmer provides you, on a weekly basis, with a certain amount of fresh fruits and vegetables for up to six or seven months, depending on the length of the growing season.

Q: How much can Meatless Mondays and farmers markets help?

A: They would not

solve all of our problems, but they would be a big step in the right direction.

Q: How else does our industrial agriculture system harm our health?

A: It has led to a steady increase in processed foods, which are manufactured from relatively inexpensive rats and sweeteners like corn oil, soybean oil, and corn syrups.

For every one of those calorically dense but nutritionally weak processed food items, we're sacrificing the opportunity to eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other whole foods that are rich in nutrients, lower in calories, and delicious.

Q: Don't processed foods sell because people want to eat them?

A: The food industry has used our evolutionary preference for fat and sugar very effectively by formulating processed foods that are high in fats, sugars, and salt.

It takes a conscious effort to stay on the perimeter of the supermarket, where the fresh fruits and vegetables and the dairy products and the whole foods are, and to avoid the center of the store, where the highly processed foods are displayed.
U.S. Greenhouse
Gases from Food

Red Meat                 29%
Dairy Products           17%
Cereals/Carbs            10%
Fruit/Vegetables         10%
Chicken/Fish/Eggs        10%
Other                    10%
Beverages                 9%
Oils/Sweets/Condiments    6%

Source: Center for a Livable Future.

Note: Table made from pie chart.
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Title Annotation:FOOD DAY 2011; Robert Lawrence on food
Author:Schardt, David
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2011
Previous Article:A day's worth of food.
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