By Jenn LaVardera
“You either pay the hospital or pay the farmer,” Dr. Robert S. Lawrence declared at TEDx: Changing the Way We Eat held at The Times Center in Manhattan on January 21, 2012. The professor, whose motto is “Learn, engage, reform,” presented on the impact of a high meat diet on the nation’s health. Revealing startling facts and statistics, Lawrence urged the audience to become involved in the sustainable movement and to decrease personal consumption of meat.
TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading that hosts TEDx, events designed to give communities an opportunity for dialogue on a wide array of issues. Changing the Way We Eat was intended to stimulate discussion on sustainable food and farming. The event was broken into three sessions by theme: issues, impact, and innovation. Viewing parties were held nationwide to watch the live broadcast of the event; Tufts student had the opportunity to attend the viewing hosted by the MIT Food and Agriculture Club. Speakers covered an array of issues related to the modern food system, yet all were adamant that the system must change to become healthier, more regional, and more sustainable.
According to Lawrence, 65% of protein consumed in the United States is derived directly from animal products, as opposed to the global average of 35%. High meat consumption not only presents a nutrition-related health risk to consumers, but the modern meat industry poses numerous other threats to society. Farm families and surrounding communities face exposure to sprayed liquid waste, which can often end up on driveways and homes. There are also numerous “hidden ingredients” in meat products, such as arsenic, originating from feather meal. Feathers stripped from birds during processing are fed back to other animals, and often contain remnants of organoarsenical drugs; the process directly feeds arsenic into the food system.
The modern meat industry is in serious need of reform not just because of health concerns, but for financial and political reasons as well. The Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) of the USDA recently proposed a rule that is expected to raise the cost of meat at grocery stores and restaurants due to limitations placed on who farmers can sell their product to. The rule also includes an unfunded mandate requiring farmers to submit the details of their commerce to the government for review.
The proposed rule will be financially detrimental to both the consumer and the farmer. The GIPSA rule would make the working environment even more expensive to the already suffering farmer, and could cause farmers to ultimately close down their businesses, driving food production and accompanying jobs overseas.
Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food and Water Watch, advises Americans to take personal action against the rule and “keep voting with our forks” to prevent further “washing out” in the food system, a concept described by Patty Cantrell, a journalist focused on local and regional food business. “Washing out” refers to the absurdity of designing people out of the food system (a likely result if the GIPSA rule is passed), as well as the contradictions that some people do not have access to food while others have over-abundance, and how it is easier for growers to send potatoes across the world to be packaged into a potato chip bag rather than send the fresh produce to a local school.
Consumers also face trouble in the realm of food labeling. Urvashi Rangan, director of the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group for Consumer Reports, spoke on “labels and fables” and the current threats to credible labeling systems. Among the most confusing labels to consumers is the term “natural,” which manufacturers can decide when and how it will be used, rendering the term nearly meaningless. However, consumers often confuse this term with “organic,” a regulated label, and trends show that consumers place higher value on “natural” labeled products. Another misunderstood term is “free range,” which only means that the animals were given the option to go outdoors for an unspecified amount of time; it does not necessarily mean they exercised this option.
Rangan also brought up one of the most controversial topics in food labeling: the term “corn sugar,” currently an FDA approved alternate label name for glucose or dextrose. In other words, manufacturers can use this term to describe high fructose corn syrup, an ingredient that has developed a bad nutrition reputation over the last few years. Though high fructose corn syrup is biochemically equivalent to sucrose, the main defense for this alternative label, it is extremely unlikely that use of an alternative name will have a positive effect on public misunderstanding and will rather further confuse and mislead the average consumer.
In 1996, Norman Borlaug, the “father of the Green Revolution” and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, was asked what would happen to food security when the population reached 8 billion. Borlaug estimated that if people ate mostly fruits, vegetables, and grains, there would be enough food for 9.5-10 billion people. However, if the high meat diet typically seen in America continues, only 3.5-4 billion could be fed worldwide.
Food production is a global responsibility, and it will take efforts by farmers, manufacturers, government organizations, consumers, and many other stakeholders to fully change the way the world eats. Though this is a vastly large-scale issue, reform can begin today at your table. Dr. Robert S. Lawrence suggests engaging in “Meatless Monday.” You can also sign petitions against injustices in the food system, such as the GIPSA rule or the corn sugar label. Simply put, we cannot change the way we eat if you do not change the way you eat.
Jenn is a first year Nutrition Communication student. Outside of class she loves going to Dave Matthews Band concerts, doing anything outside, and traveling to places with great food.