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Earth: Cruise Ship or Life Boat?

With more than seven billion of us established here, with California drying up, with climate changing and traditional crops failing, with extinctions accelerating and with environmental stresses globally near the breaking point, earth is no longer an unsinkable, titanic cruise ship.
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As I write this, I am returning to the U.S. from Stockholm, Sweden, where I was privileged to participate in the EAT Stockholm Food Forum. EAT is dedicated to advancing healthy, sustainable eating, with particular attention to the environmental impacts of our food choices. Along with the usual suspects- academics with relevant expertise- EAT, directed by Dr. Gunhild Stordalen, a veritable force of nature- convenes heads of state and captains of industry. Among the participants in this conference were the royal families and prime ministers of both Sweden and Norway, and the CEOs of Nestle and National Geographic, among many other notables.

My own quite modest mission here, in the eight minutes allotted to any of us speaking, was to point out that the world is far from united around the concept of 'healthy' eating. Even as attendees at EAT discussed and debated the best strategies to get "there" from here, the public - here, there, and everywhere - is prone to reimagine where "there" is, all but weekly. The enlightened, knowledgeable congregation at EAT seemed to accept as a given that predominantly plant-based eating is established as a bedrock principle of feeding more than 7 billion Homo sapiens well, sustainably and without further, intolerable devastation to the planet. Meanwhile, back at the proverbial ranch, the meme that we should eat more meat, butter, and cheese- misguided though it is with regard to human and planetary health alike- continues to garner adherents. Fixations shift perennially from fat to fructose; gluten to grains; calories to carbs; intermittent fasting to avoiding GMOs.

So I made the case that we cannot take even the fundamentals of healthy eating for granted. The public does not know that we know what we know, and for good reason. Confusion and profit go together. If we all accepted the evidence and consensus-based fundamentals of healthy eating, there could never again be a best-selling fad diet book. We can well imagine the reasons for resistance to that proposition, and those elements of society among which they prevail.

But we should imagine as well the stunning benefits to the rest of us such a communal revelation would confer. While we have abundant cause to question our native wisdom, we have equal cause for faith in human ingenuity. We wanted our footprints on the moon, and since we agreed where to find it -- were able to get there from here. Were we to agree on where to find healthy, sustainable eating -- we could, I believe, get there, too. My worry is that unless we agree, we never will.

The prize awaiting us there is years added to lives, life added to years, and the residual splendors of this planet not already squandered as the birthright of our children, and their children. If ever there was a consummation devoutly to be wished, this is it.

Confusion is profitable for the few, but calamitously costly for the rest of us. We can, and must, and will dispel the pertinacious, profit-driven myth that we are substantially clueless about the basic care and feeding of Homo sapiens. We are not. Were we to rally around the fundamentals of healthy eating, and rail collectively against the promulgation of confusion and the propagation of diversions, we could induce a rush of wind beneath the wings of EAT, and related laudable movements such as Food Tank, and One Health, and MyPlateMyPlanet.

This would not be so were optimal diets for human health at odds with sustainability, conservation, climate stabilization or biodiversity. Were that the case, we might have a difficult choice. The evidence, however, suggests just the opposite; what's best for us is generally also best for the planet and the creatures with whom we share it, although the sheer numbers of us -now, and projected- pose a challenge. At some point, there may simply be so many human mouths to feed, that we devour our planetary resources no matter how carefully we manage them. I hope we muster the resolve and allocate resources to avoid this doom, although our seeming disinclination even to talk about it bodes ill.

For now, though, we can feed everyone and preserve the planet if we commit to the confluence of the two. My one other task at EAT was directly related to this convergence: participation in a working group addressing dietary guidelines, and their relationship to sustainability. We reviewed and discussed emerging guidelines from around the world, with clear indications that the inclusion of sustainability is both the new norm, and prominently so.

We also discussed the fact that in the U.S., we are currently waiting to see if the recommendation of scientists to include sustainability in our dietary guidelines will weather the storm of corporate protest, and lobbying. We noted with concern that our Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, chastised the scientists comprising the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for, in essence, coloring outside the lines. Their mission, according to the Secretary, whose work I have admired before, was to address nutrition (i.e., human health), not planetary stewardship.

But this view is objectively wrong, and for reasons that are as self-evident as the distinction between the Titanic, and the lifeboats in which survivors huddled. On a titanic cruise ship, there is a seeming, endless bounty- with food and water selected and consumed accordingly. Transition to crowded lifeboats, however, and that same population is indisputably obligated to look at water and food supplies quite differently. Consider how absurd it would be for, say, a preventive medicine specialist in such a lifeboat to insist that he get the optimal nutrition to which he is accustomed, and rationing be damned!

Our current situation is just so. With more than seven billion of us established here, with California drying up, with climate changing and traditional crops failing, with extinctions accelerating and with environmental stresses globally near the breaking point, earth is no longer an unsinkable, titanic cruise ship. To treat it as such is benighted folly. Earth is now our lifeboat. In it, we can ration our resources rationally, or we can eat our children's food. The notion that guidelines for healthy eating can be dismissive of whether or not the food in question exists, or will for much longer, is like eating on a lifeboat as if still on the mother ship. It approximates slow suicide, and worse.

That, then, is my view. More importantly, it is the global view, fresh from Stockholm. Our Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee did not color outside the lines. They were looking at the bigger picture. They recognized... that the lines have moved.


David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP and Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, have never shared crayons, nor been on a lifeboat together. But you never know...

Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity