Fifty years ago, when Frances Lappé wrote her ground-breaking book, Diet for a Small Planet, the idea that the food we eat was significantly affecting our health and that of the earth was a novel, if not radical, idea. Not only did Lappé’s book overturn popular myths about the deficiencies of a vegetarian diet, but it brought into public focus the idea that our food choices were contributing to environment degradation and food scarcity. People generally didn’t connect their decisions in the grocery store and in their kitchens with the state of their bodies and the planet. With the natural food movement in its infancy in 1971, our society was still heavily invested, both culturally and economically, in a meat-based regimen. Lappé was ahead of her time in pointing out how we can feed more people and better by reducing our dependency on animal protein.
Fast forward to 2021 and we now have a growing body of research indicating that too much animal protein, too many harmful fats, and too much sugar is connected to the deadliest diseases in our society – heart disease, cancer, strokes, and diabetes. Global institutions have been organizing campaigns to reduce chronic diseases by increasing vegetable and fruit consumption. Recent studies also show that the livestock industry produces more greenhouse gases emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined and that massive deforestation for meat production is accelerating the negative impacts of climate change.
Knowing is obviously just the first step. In wealthier countries, some people are reducing their meat consumption and the number of vegans is increasing rapidly in the last few years. However, change has generally been slow in coming — the actual numbers are small and the effects are minimal. Diet-related diseases are on the rise, and food production patterns are exacerbating the greenhouse effect. Professor Christopher Murray, from the University of Washington, one of the leading investigators of the recent Global Burden of Disease Study (Oct 2020), astutely summed up the challenge of unhealthy diets: “Most of these risk factors are preventable and treatable, and tackling them will bring huge social and economic benefits. We are failing to change unhealthy behaviors, particularly those related to diet quality, caloric intake, and physical activity, in part due to inadequate policy attention and funding for public health and behavioral research”.
It’s not difficult to understand today that we need to make significant changes to achieve health for ourselves and the planet. According to Murray, governments can do a lot more to educate and encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles. But it also depends upon each of us to listen to the science and improve our diets for our survival and that of future generations. As producers, we need to think carefully what and how we are growing food. As consumers, we need to make good decisions about our diet. Most of us continue to buy the foods that we ate at home when we were growing up. Some of it is healthy, and some is not. And some of what we consume is directly harming the environment. It’s time to become conscious eaters and choose a diet for a healthy planet.
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