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Eating Matters

If we are to stabilize the environment, have better health, and see less hunger in the world, we can make at least one small change that will affect it all: eat a more plant-based diet.
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For people living in Louisiana's Gulf Coast, waiting for Gustav to bear down on them has been pretty alarming. Earlier in the year we watched in disbelief as the Midwest suffered severe flooding which enveloped whole towns and nearly wiped out much of the already strained corn and soy supplies; the terrible devastation of extreme climate change is hard to ignore. As global warming tampers with the temperature of ocean waters, scientists warn that hurricanes are likely to barrel in with greater force and frequency. And with this being the most deadly tornado season in years, coupled with drought conditions and wildfires in the West, the issue of climate change is coming sharply into focus.

One of the main contributors to global warming is the meat industry, which creates about forty percent more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the planes, cars, trucks, ships, and every other form of transportation combined, according to Livestock's Long Shadow, a 408-page United Nations (U.N.) report.

It seems like only yesterday that the World Meteorological Society warned, "Recent scientific assessments indicate that, as the global temperatures continue to warm due to climate change, the number and intensity of extreme events might increase." In fact, it was five years ago that this warning was issued, and top scientific bodies have echoed the dire prediction repeatedly since. Sadly, the predictions have proved true all over the world, including in the U.S. this year.

The growing concern about how much meat and animal protein we eat is being taken a lot more seriously lately, whether it's the latest case of food poisoning, a behind-the-scenes investigation of cruelty from one of our nation's animal protection groups, or economists discussing the effect of more and more people in the developing world starting to eat like Westerners, thus accentuating the global food crisis. If we keep eating the way we have been, it looks like things are going to get a whole lot worse.

In the arena of health, the evidence in a great deal of recent peer-reviewed medical research shows that a diet rich in animal protein is likely to cause cancer, heart disease, and a whole host of other degenerative illnesses. Even as these illnesses and the complications of obesity have reached epidemic proportions in this country, more and more people are unable to get proper health insurance -- an estimated 75 million Americans are either uninsured or under-insured. As a nation, we're getting sicker, and many people are less able to pay the expenses that might help them to get better.

As for the increasingly critical issue of world hunger, although many economists bemoan the increased consumption of meat in the developing world, it seems to me that we should look closer to home -- at our own diets. Indeed, right now much of the grain grown in developing countries is diverted from human consumption to feed factory-farmed animals, so that we in the developed world can eat animal products. Even as Jean Ziegler, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the right to food, called using cropland for biofuel "a crime against humanity," more than seven times as much corn and grain is used fed to farmed animals, the vast majority in the developed world.

In addition to stealing food out of the mouths of the global poor, funneling crops through chickens, pigs, and other animals so that we can eat their flesh and eggs or drink their milk doesn't make sense in a world where resources are becoming more and more expensive. Most of the calories ingested by the animals go toward simply keeping the animals alive, and some of the calories go into creating non-edible parts of the animal as well -- only a small percentage is converted into meat, eggs, or dairy products for human consumption.

And lastly, animals are killed in such egregious ways, now more than ever, that our very identity as a humane and rational civilization is in peril.

My principal point is this: as a society, we no longer live under the illusion that the government can (or will) solve all our problems, that corporations will be fair, or that decency will prevail over profit. There are too many complicating issues: industry lobbies, shareholder expectations, and global wage and resource competition, to name a few.

But there is a common-sense survival mechanism that says if we want change, if we want to live in a safe and stable world that transcends our old and primitive ways, it will have to start with our own personal decisions. If we are to stabilize the environment, have better health, and see less hunger in the world, we can make at least one small change that will affect it all: eat a more plant-based diet. As we make that shift within our families and in our places of business, the culture will change. Governments and corporations follow the will of the changing societal consciousness -- it's not the other way around.

Choosing to eat more whole grains, beans, vegetables, and faux meats instead of chicken breast or pork may seem like a small step, but the effects are massive and multi dimensional. These shifts in personal choices can create societal shifts that governments and markets will have to support. I have no doubt: we have the ability to change the way that the world works, one bite at a time.