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, going to 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 has on the health of our planet.
HappyCow helps with this vital issue by offering us resources to eat healthfully, both for ourselves and for Planet Earth.
For 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: 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”.
This week’s blog post focuses on how eating whole, plant-based foods is good for The Earth, the second of the four areas of interest that we identified in our last post on Our Bodies. Future posts will explore the remaining two areas of interest, Animal Welfare and World Hunger. We then will have shared “four things” that are good about eating plant-based, whole foods. 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 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; and
- Life – through a loss of biodiversity.
These are vast and complex problems that each of us can to contribute to solving. It is indisputable that eating plants contributes less to environmental destruction than eating animal products does. Every meal we eat that does not have animal product in it is an action in favor of the health of Planet Earth.
- Land Degradation: 26% of ice-free land is committed to grazing livestock PLUS 33% of land is committed to feed crop production = 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of all land on our planet is dedicated to livestock production. Deforestation provides most of this land.
- 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 may well be the greatest contributor to the loss of biodiversity on the planet.
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. 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). The deforestation has also caused massive extinction of animal and plant species. Through burning and bulldozing practices, trees and plants are ripped from the earth, and the animals that had previously occupied them have nowhere to go and often starve to death.
In our efforts to nourish and feed ourselves through animal agriculture, we have polluted and damaged the Earth. Animal agriculture has caused a boom in the release of greenhouse gasses, which contribute to global warming, and has limited resources for other animals through deforestation and habitat loss.
A Blanket Around the Earth
A layer of greenhouse gases (GHGs) – primarily water vapor, and including much smaller amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – acts as a thermal blanket for the Earth, absorbing heat and warming the surface to a life-supporting average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). Since the Industrial Revolution, GHGs have been accumulating in the atmosphere, increasing the Earth’s temperature. Nine of the ten hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000. 2014 was the hottest year on record. 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, in looking at sustainability themes, has written several books and scholarly articles that analyze the energy consumption of consumers of meat and consumers of plants. He concludes that eating a whole food, plant-based diet allows us to reduce our energy consumption by about 50%.
“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. He adds that the seven billion livestock in the U.S. consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire U.S. population.
The effect on habitat and species is not confined to land, however. 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.
In addition to pushing out wild animals from their natural habitats, 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. While the environmental effects of animal agriculture and eating animal products may seem daunting, through diligence and commitment, we can change our diets and withdraw our support of environmental degradation. We can eat a whole food, plant-based diet and actually help reverse it.
It is important to begin to sensitize ourselves and our children to the relationship between what we eat and the health of our planet. One initiative in this area 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.”
James and Suzy Cameron also founded the Food Choice Taskforce referred to above.
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 with nature as a whole.
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 in restaurants and 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.
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 near-by towns and sights like 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.