what we eat
by Jan Milligan
The connection between people and their food choices reflects an emotionally biased and often unethical relationship.
Don't you just love your grandmother's apple pie recipe? Mmm isn't it just so delicious, you could eat it every day! She always made it and lived till 90, so it's obviously good for you! ... Hold on. Is it really healthy or environmentally sustainable? "Oh shut up", you say, "Live and let live. Life is short! Who cares about that? It's just one apple pie!"
Well, about that one apple pie... if we take just one third of the US population, or 100 million people, and each of those people makes only one apple pie each with 1x 8oz stick of butter, that's 50 million pounds of butter. Taking numbers from the USDA (1) for an average of 19,474 lbs of milk produced by one cow per year, with the average dairy cow used for an average of 5 years before being sold to the meat industry, this amounts to an average of 97,368 lbs of milk per cow in a lifetime. One gallon of milk weighs 8.6 lbs (2) so one cow produces an average of around 11,500 gallons of milk over a lifetime. We need 2.47 gallons of milk per pound of butter, so we need 123,500,000 gallons of milk, which equates to the life of around 10,700 cows. In addition, if it takes 665 gallons of water to make 1lb of butter (3), that equals a staggering 33,250,000,000 gallons of water just for those buttery apple pies. And we haven't even talked about how much farmland is required, or the fact that this is just one apple pie made only once in a lifetime by only one third of the US population. Think of all the meat and dairy produced for the rest of the world's population every day. So yes, you should care. This involves the lives and ecosystems of other animals, connected vastly beyond the boundaries of a farm pasture. Everything is connected. "Live and let live," is exactly right.
To be clear at the outset, I’m not necessarily advocating for a vegan world, our species has evolved on a more-or-less omnivorous diet - which forms the most common basis for those opposing the view I am taking - but I am saying that there is excessive consumption of certain foods and products, especially meat and dairy, and these excesses are causing serious environmental problems. It's not just literal consumption of animal products: the leather industry for example is closely linked, pouring toxins into rivers and landfills during the curing and other processes of leather production. Do we value a more ethical world? Yes. So the connections are clear. We don't need to drink the milk of a cow every single day, or need to consume such huge amounts of animal products. My opinion is not a vain attempt to coerce others, I simply believe, and evidence shows, that people benefit from healthy, conscious and ethical eating. There are other food products on the list of excess consumptions, one of which is cane sugar, but I won’t get into that just now, except to say that I avoid it like the plague because it is in everything, even organic products claiming to be healthy. The food industry is trying to fool us, all the time, for a profit.
My own quote is this: If it isn't healthy to eat, it isn't food. Most people are wholly misinformed about the food they eat. Much of what people believe is based on unscientific ideas, hard-to-let-go emotional connections, hand-me-down information, nostalgia, tradition, and plain and simple lack of thought. Granted you could calculate things like I just did with a lot of foods, but meat and dairy farming involves the lives of other animals which are often brutally maltreated, not to mention the detrimental effect this all has on climate change, overuse of land, the effects of all the antibiotics and hormones, pesticides, toxins and runoff disrupting natural cycles to grow just the feed for the animals, etc. Corporate farming and agribusiness is a filthy industry. Food, Inc. and Forks Over Knives along with some of those other documentaries mentioned above are a must watch if you haven't seen them, whether you eat meat or not. You should know where your food comes from, you are putting it in your mouth. Never in history have people grown so removed from their food sources. Gatherers and hunters may have had a tough time but at least they knew for the most part what they were eating.
The older I get the more I realise I have a fairly unique viewpoint on food since I have never eaten or tasted meat (that includes fish, I really cannot see why there is a separation between the two, since they are both animals). I stopped eating dairy about seven years ago. I buy and eat only organically grown food and cook at home. This still amounts to being significantly cheaper than eating out. To some, this could sound extreme, and any extreme behaviour can be psychologically unhealthy, but the truth is I find this lifestyle choice effortless. I happen to be lucky enough to embrace it, but we should all embrace it if we can because the higher the demand for organic and ethical foods, the more pressure there is on food production processes and businesses to meet these demands. If one meal in a restaurant costs the same as a week of organic homemade food, the choice should be clear. People complain about lack of time in their lives etc, but diet and health should take precedence, for what is more important? I am left with no dietary deficiencies, including vitamin B12. At my most recent blood test less than 6 months ago, my doctor said she was surprised and happy to see someone so healthy. I’m very athletic and do a lot of relatively extreme sports. I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back, to be honest this is not about me specifically, I am just using myself as example of proof that eating meat is not necessary to be fit and healthy. When I tell someone I'm vegetarian – or now vegan – without fail the response is, "Oh really, so where do you get your protein?” Unsurprised by the lack of novelty in this question I explain quite simply that protein appears in more than sufficient quantities in so many foods; that question is based on a myth at best.
This question, along with a few notable others, which I can’t keep track of how many times I have been asked, is also proof that most people have very little knowledge of nutrition or health. Why? Why don't schools stop spending so much time on such excessive studies of so many subjects? Mathematics for example, though I personally really enjoy it, is not entirely necessary to understand at the level required, for a basic well-rounded education; or religious education; or history; etc, there is so much room for a new vision to revamp this old education system to include more coverage of subjects like nutrition and health, politics, environmental science, psychology and philosophy and critical thinking etc. If nutrition and health were studied from a very young age, from elementary school all the way up; an intelligent course in understanding food and diet and all that it entails, including its environmental impacts, people would have a better understanding about what they are putting in their mouths, and the need for such a superfluous supply of artificial, mass-produced medicines would naturally plummet; the environmental degradation and land-use for meat production would decrease, and we would all be better off - except of course those with their hands in their pockets.
It's easy enough to debate about meat being necessary and perfectly normal, and that’s fine I'm not blaming anyone for having their reasons, that’s how they grew up so of course they will say that, just like I am saying this partly because of how I grew up. I say 'partly' because I was not forced, and to my credit I have done a lot of research on food and food production because it genuinely interests me. Based on all I have learned, I can only deduce that I am on the healthier and environmentally-friendlier side of this dietary divide. Of course an indigenous rainforest tribe may have a vastly different diet that better suits their lifestyles; it may include animal products and be in some ways healthier than my own diet as it relates to their needs, but we must not suggest that this type of indigenous omnivorous diet in any way compares to or represents, by any stretch of the imagination, the omnivorous diet of the typical Westerner. Little research on this topic is conclusive but once you bring ethics into even peripheral concern, the debate is conclusive. Coupled with the remaining scientific evidence available, we are left to conclude, like it or not, that plant-based diets are likely to be healthier than those that incorporate animal products. We also know with confidence that they are better for the environment. They are also a more efficient energy source as we learned based on trophic levels. It would be wrong to suggest that we are controlling populations by eating meat, since we are creating populations, causing them to suffer, and then destroying them to our own unhealthy ends. Health is not just about food, though I would say that it plays the biggest role, it is also about how you relate to the food you eat, the psychology of eating, exercise, etc: it is very much interdisciplinary. What of the few basic life needs are more important than health and the health of the surrounding environment, when without it you are rendered worse off?
What is in our food, matters.
Obesity in the United States increased to around 14% between 1960 and 1980. From 1980 to 2000 it increased to 30%. Why the sudden change? Two thirds of that increase is attributed to people eating out, and eating fast food. We have to step forward from this obsession with disgusting and unhealthy eating habits. It is true there is an unfortunate pattern of environmental injustice between poorer neighbourhoods and fast food locations and this biased targeting of those who cannot fight against it, is wrong. Fast food is not even worthy of the name food, I don’t even know what it is besides mostly chemicals and artificial ingredients by the time it reaches your plate. Many of the huge fast food corporations are financially invested in pharmaceuticals. They know what they are doing. And it doesn't stop there. We need to remember that eating restaurant food is not necessarily better than eating fast food; in a lot of cases it’s the same cheap food disguised by cleaner and more expensive dining architecture, and more expensive dishes. It’s not even debatable, it’s just basic logic that the food business is profit-driven just like any other (minus a few honorable exceptions) and that they are, in most cases going to exploit us by sourcing the cheapest options to gain higher profits while still serving food that is ostensibly very expensive and delicious. Taste alone should not and cannot continue to determine the value or health of a meal notwithstanding the environmental impact of certain "delicious" foods. My girlfriend and I almost never eat out. We don't trust restaurant food, and this not some cynical weird thing or being picky, it's just common sense that we want to know what we are eating. Not only is it overpriced in the wrong direction (this is not full-cost pricing since the added cost goes to profits) but it also almost never tastes as good as home-cooked meals and it can hardly ever be as fresh or nutritious. 99% of restaurants couldn’t care less about my personal health. I can hear some people laugh and say this sounds “hippy-ish”, to which I would completely disagree since what we eat is what makes the cells that make up our bodies. Everything is connected. The better the fuel given to the body, the better the body and mind: it's simple.
Adding to these widespread, unhealthy, non-environmentally-friendly food consumption habits, our lifestyles have grown steadily sedentary with the advent of technology and computers, withdrawing from us our mobility and once-active lifestyles. We really need to be more accountable and aware of our food because statistically, outside of a few health-conscious hotspots, few people appear to be concerned enough to make a notable difference. All the time I talk to people going on binge diets for a week or doing a big “juice cleanse” expressing grand feelings of accomplishment - and then go back the very next day to eating vast quantities of unhealthy food. I commend the effort, but come on, do you really think that’s enough?
Individual consistency and self-awareness are key to moderating the devastating effects of the food production industry. By more people acknowledging their connection to the damages being done, we can all play a bigger part in protecting animals, and the natural ecosystems that sustain our lives.
Miller, Tyler M. Spoolman, Scott E. Environmental Science 15th Edition. 2016. Print.