By Kathryn Hayward, M.D. and Elle Stetson-Dibble
There are few activities that affect our individual health and well-being more than what we put in our bodies for nutrition. When we make daily decisions about what to eat, we usually think about how that food is going to taste and make us feel, and how it is going to affect our health and our weight.
However, we often do not think about how the production of the food that we eat affects the health of our planet.
In this blog post, we explore how our environment is affected by what we eat. We approached the research with curiosity and openness, eager to read about this theme from a variety of perspectives to learn more about a subject that is one of the underpinnings of 4 COS4S. Our conclusion from scratching the surface of this critical topic is that there are few activities that affect our planet’s health and well-being more than the food that we eat.
From prior posts, you will recall the 4 COS4S initiative led by International Integrators Facilitator Caty Genestra Villalonga in Spain. 4 COS4S started by inviting restaurants on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca to add to their menus “4 things” whose ingredients are whole food, plant-based and do not include any animal products and at most a small amount of refined products such as oil, sugar and salt. 4 COS4S now includes a Restaurant Project, an Education Project and a Medical Project.
The expression “cuatro cosas” (“four things”) is used frequently in Spain. For instance, you might invite a friend over, saying, “I want to show you four things that we have done to our house”. The number of things usually is not four, but the literal translation of the expression is “four things”.
4 COS4S is a way of encouraging people to incorporate more whole, plant-based foods in their diet. Last week, we focused on health benefits. This week’s blog post offers added inspiration by focusing on how eating whole, plant-based foods is good for The Earth. Future posts will explore Animal Welfare and World Hunger. We then will have shared “four things” that are good about eating plant-based, whole foods – it’s good for our bodies, for the earth, for animal welfare and for alleviating world hunger. Through this blog, we are sharing some of the resources with which we engaged, so that we can continue our journey of learning as an International Integrators community.
There is a vast array of strong views and scientific research about food production. Whether we were reading material produced by scientists from across the globe, or by representatives of the meat and dairy industry, or by vegan environmentalists, we see common acknowledgement that food production affects four key environmental factors:
- Land – through soil degradation
- Climate – through global warming and air pollution
- Water – through shortages and water pollution
- Life – through a loss of biodiversity
These are vast and complex problems that each of us can contribute to solving. Scientific evidence shows that eating plants contributes less to environmental destruction than eating animal products does.
Every meal we eat that does not have animal products in it is an action in favor of the health of Planet Earth.
- Land Degradation: Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of all the land surface of the planet.
- Climate: The livestock sector contributes more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined.
- Water: More than 60% of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas by 2025. Livestock production is a key contributor to water shortages and pollution.
- Life: The livestock industry contributes greatly to the loss of biodiversity on the planet by changing or imperiling ecosystems.
You may be interested in reading the primary sources for these points in Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Since their statistics are more than 10 years old, it likely presents a conservative picture of the impact of animal production on our planet. The Food Choice Taskforce’s fact sheet has more recent facts and statistics.
The deforestation associated with clearing land to support such a large animal agriculture system contributes 12-17 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. (World Resources Institute). Deforestation has also caused massive extinction of animal and plant species. Through burning and bulldozing practices, trees and plants are destroyed, and the animals that had previously occupied that land have nowhere to go and often starve to death.
A Blanket Around the Earth
Animal agriculture increases the release of greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. (Graphic from Nasa.gov)
From Farm to Table
Four steps bring food to the table. Food is produced, then transported, then packaged and stored, and then prepared for eating, usually involving cooking.
At each step along the way, a significant amount of food is wasted. All of these steps contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect include: (Graphic from NASA.gov)
Carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) used to create electricity, heat and transportation. In producing food, fossil fuels power farm machinery and transport, store and cook foods.
Methane is produced by the intestinal fermentation in ruminant (cud-chewing) livestock like cows.
Nitrous oxide is released from tilled and fertilized soils.
Both methane and nitrous oxide are many times more potent GHGs than carbon dioxide, and all are more potent than water vapor in creating the greenhouse effect.
Research by ecologist and entomologist David Pimentel, PhD of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, includes a 22-year study that looks at the economic and environmental considerations of organic and conventional farming. Its conclusion is decidedly in favor of organic farming on all counts.
Dr. Pimentel has written several books and scholarly articles that analyze the energy consumption of meat eaters and plant eaters. He concludes that eating a whole food, plant-based diet allows us to reduce our energy consumption by about 50%.
His work also focuses on world hunger. “If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million,” Pimentel reported in Scientific American December 28, 2011.
The effect on habitat and species is not confined to land. In the world’s oceans, runoff from animal manure, farming chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones are causing ocean dead zones that are depleted of oxygen and cannot support life. (The US Environmental Protection Agency). According to onEarth, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s magazine, dead zones in our oceans can be reversed in a matter of years if pollution from agriculture ceases.
Commercial fishing with nets unintentionally kills a significant amount of ocean life. Nets not only catch fish but also an array of bycatch, which Oceana, the largest international ocean conservation organization, estimates accounts for 40% of the world’s total annual catch. Fishing nets also injure and kill thousands of whales, dolphins, seals, sea turtles and sharks every year, and bottom trawling, a popular commercial fishing practice, can wipe out entire habitats. (Ocean Health Index)
By minimizing our consumption of animal products, we can decrease our greenhouse gas contributions, as well as minimize our support of deforestation, habitat destruction, extinction and endangerment of wild animals. At the same time, we address land degradation, climate change, air pollution, water shortages, water pollution and loss of biodiversity.
Our children are attuned to the health of the environment. One exciting initiative to expose children to healthy eating and how what we eat affects the health of our planet is the MUSE school in Los Angeles, founded by Suzy Amis Cameron and film director James Cameron. The school teaches children and families about sustainable, delicious and healthful eating. MUSE became entirely plant-based for the first time in the 2015-2016 school year.
“The way we eat is the easiest and most impactful way we can alter our carbon footprint as a school,” MUSE’s head of school Jeff King said in a statement. “The largest consumers of water are not people but cattle. To truly deliver our mission of sustainability, we had to find a sustainable way of eating. The answer was to create our ‘One Meal a Day for the Planet’ program—plant-based lunches and snacks—for our students.”
The 4 COS4S Project similarly seeks to help children and their families become more conscious of the effect of their food choices. And more broadly, 4 COS4S seeks to make a whole food, plant-based lifestyle easier to choose in restaurants and seeks to reach patients in hospitals when they may be at a teachable moment. As more and more people around the globe become aware of the issues and begin to eat more whole, plant-based foods, we will see a positive effect on our health, the Earth, animal welfare and world hunger.
By acting as conscious consumers and adopting a plant-based lifestyle, we can support a healthy planet. A healthy planet in turn supports our own health and balance, and supports nature as a whole. During Living Whole Ávila, Spain, our next immersion retreat, we will delve into these themes. We will learn how to enfold into our daily lives whole food, plant-based deliciousness, infused with Spanish flair. One appealing feature is that all participants have the opportunity to work in the kitchen alongside Caty Genestra, David Thomas, Andoni Nieto and Teresa Jiménez for hands-on experience in preparing simple, delicious, nourishing meals. Register here and join us June 12-17. You also may register for a full two-week experience including the retreat and at least eight days in Madrid with guided day tours of the city and the near-by towns of Segovia, Toledo, Ávila, El Escorial and Valley of the Fallen.
Kathryn Hayward, M.D. was a primary care internal medicine specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School for 20 years. She now lives in Mallorca, Spain, where she practices Integrative Health in the United States and elsewhere through Odyssey Journey: A Collaborative Approach to Wellness, and is co-founder of International Integrators, a community devoted to the global promotion of Integrative Health.
Elle Stetson-Dibble first began to explore vegetarianism in middle school after making the connection between animal welfare, the animal agriculture industry and a meat-free diet. Elle is the cofounder of Veg Heads, a student-led initiative at her high school, Concord Academy, in Massachusetts. The club aims to raise awareness about animal agriculture and the importance of adopting a lifestyle that supports the well-being of animals, the environment and humans. She is an activist dedicated to pursuing a future where people love and respect animals, the planet and the health of all.