Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” So begins Micheal Pollan’s recent manifesto, In Defense of Food. It sounds ridiculously simple, and actually, it is. But, we have reached a place and time in our culture where we need to re-learn these simple actions that were once just a way of life. Our food system has become very complex, and we as consumers need to be thoughtful and intentional about our food choices–that is, if we really care about our health and the health of the planet.
Given the impact of our food choices on our own health and that of the planet, eating lower on the food chain can significantly affect our ecological footprint. Essentially the concept of “eating lower” is that the higher on the food chain, the less efficient the choice. Picture in your mind the food ladder. Starting at the bottom rung, we have the most abundant and free source of energy on the planet: solar, which is consumed by plants (next rung) to make plant energy, which is consumed by animals (next rung) to make protein, which is consumed by humans. Except in a few rare cases-involving bears, lions, sharks, wild dingoes, or cannibals-the food ladder ends with us humans. According to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivores Dilemma, each rung on the ladder represents about a 90 percent loss of resources; in other words, it takes nine calories of resources to produce one calorie of food. Plants waste 90 percent of the sun growing things the animals will not eat, like stalks or roots. The animals waste 90 percent of the plant energy by growing things like feathers, fur, and bones that humans will not eat. The more chains there are, the exponentially greater the impact. By eating lower, you lessen the ecological impact.
Embedded in the choice of the ladder rung that each consumer eats is the effect of processing, transportation, and overall health of the food. The animal industry is damaging in several ways, from the major use of natural resources to the production of excessive waste and greenhouse gases. Roughly 70 percent of the grains are grown in the United States to feed animals who eventually become food. This takes up a large portion of land that could be used to feed people directly. The United Nations determined that animal agriculture contributes more to global warming than all transportation sources combined. And the Environmental Protection Agency found that animal waste causes more pollution than other industrial resources. In simple terms, the production and consumption of cheeseburgers every year roughly equals the amount of pollution emitted by about 10 million SUVs.
In addition to the environmental impact, there are many health issues related to eating animals. Most toxins are fat soluble: the fatter the food, the more toxins it will absorb. Plants that are grown naturally are the safest and cleanest food we can consume. Not only are they nutrient rich, low fat, high fiber, colorful, and tasty they protect against a range of health woes, including cancers, heart disease, and stroke.
One of the biggest political actions we take every day is the decision of what to eat. By buying locally produced, minimally processed plant-based foods we can minimize our environmental impact while enjoying delicious, fresh, and wholesome foods. Eating lower on the food chain reduces impact while creating a connection to the earth, the people who grow our food, and our own health. Everyone wins!
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan, Penguin Press HC, 2008.
Minnesota farmer’s market association