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Diet For A Warm, Parched, Crowded Planet: Where's The Beef?

06/10/2016 10:18am ET | Updated June 11, 2017
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I am just back from UMass in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the 2016 Chef Culinary Conference. The conference is in fact still on-going as I write this, but my day job beckoned, and I could not stay through to the end. My loss! The conference is a fabulous gathering of experts in food science, nutrition, public health, and the environment- as well as the art, and business, of food service. The audience is mostly chefs overseeing university dining programs, with the potential to influence the diets, and thus health, of many tens of thousands of students.

I was pleased and honored to speak on one of my recurrent themes: knowing what to eat, but refusing to swallow it. The theme of the conference this year is "food is medicine, food is love," and thus my wife, Catherine S. Katz, PhD, founder of Cuisinicity.com, fit in beautifully. Catherine's freely available recipe offerings, inspired by her Mediterranean upbringing, her love of both our family and good food, and the delight she takes in nourishing the one with the other- come with the tag line: love the food that loves you back. I acknowledge my bias in noting that her talk, and cooking demonstration, were a highlight for me- but I heard much the same from many who lack my bias.

A reality check about protein, what happens to it in the body, how much more we all get daily than most of us need, and its availability in plant sources by my good friend, the witty, knowledgeable, and always insightful (if sartorially challenged...) Christopher Gardner from Stanford was another highlight. So, too, were presentations on the timely, practical implications of the stellar Menus of Change program by Greg Drescher of the Culinary Institute of America, and the shock waves of change being generated by the Compass Group, responsible for feeding some 8.5 million people in the U.S. daily, as told by Christine Seitz. And yet another was a coffee table conversation with the inimitable Alice Waters, who shared a bounty of experience-based wisdom that was as provocative as it was gentle.

And this was all in just a day and a half. So, kudos to Ken Toong and colleagues at UMass for so rewarding a convocation.

There was clearly a theme, reinforced by nearly every participant. That theme was, in the proverbial nutshell: more plants, less meat.

To be clear, this is a culinary conference. We academics with nutrition expertise were just visiting. The prevailing devotion among the assembled, and the bar to clear, was culinary excellence and satisfied customers. The mix included chefs from successful, high-end restaurants. Devotion to good food was simply not negotiable.

But the theme was embraced by all just the same. All assembled acknowledged the overwhelming evidence of human health benefit from diets placing greater emphasis on vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and fruit. But the greater sense of urgency clearly issued from concerns about the health of the planet. That the environmental impact of meat-centric diets was unsustainable, and untenable, was the common call to action.

This is compelling, because this was not, in particular, a gathering of nutritionists. This was not a gathering of environmentalists. This was a gathering preferentially of chefs, food service executives, restaurateurs, and business leaders.

But they all live here, too- here being: Earth. And they see what's going on.

This was not a gathering of vegans, or vegetarians, although there were a few in the mix. Mostly, these were people who had enjoyed being omnivores their whole lives, and who were pledged to make food enjoyable for others. Most were committed to keeping meat in the culinary mix, even while reducing its prominence. But they were all, either because or perhaps despite what they learned in chef school, literate to the writing on the wall, and embraced the need to change. The goal for all concerned was food we can continue to love, but that loves us, and the planet back. It's a new day.

There are, inevitably, those who prefer old days, good for them if not the rest of us. There are those who refute established fact about the environmental impact of foods, and the weight of evidence regarding human health effects. They are, of course, selling something. They are selling meat, and overcooked tales about it.

But so what? We aren't actually naïve enough to believe that Coca Cola would be the best place to get objective information about the weight, health, happiness, or environmental effects of soda consumption, are we? No more so is the beef industry and its allies (or, more bluntly, propagandists) with regard to their wares.

For whatever it's worth, I side with those who acknowledge and respect the consensus of paleoanthropologists: we Homo sapiens are traditional, constitutional omnivores. But I side with those who concede we are not in the Stone Age anymore, and that what worked for scattered, roaming tribes is all but moot for a global horde of 8 billion. We can be informed by studies of the Stone Age, but we can't live there.

Participants in the UMass conference clearly understand and embrace this. They have joined ranks to create a recipe with all the right ingredients: culinary delight, human health benefit, environmental stewardship, sustainability, ethical treatment of our fellow creatures, and business opportunity. It's a recipe for our world in our time.

Those who oppose this adaptive response to our ever warmer, drier, more populated world oppose change against the weight of evidence from diverse domains, and a global consensus. They oppose change that will do much needed good, simply because they are doing so well with the status quo. Those who have a prominent beef with the confluent themes of human and planetary health and the responses to them, want meat at the center of the plate often because it is at the center of their profits. They are, simply, on the wrong side of history in a changing world, and the diverse constituencies assembled in Amherst invite them to catch up, or be left behind.

For those paying attention, and honest about the warm, parched, crowded planet they see- meat is ceding the center of the plate, and moving to the margins.

-fin

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Senior Medical Advisor, Verywell.com