Mark Bittman: What’s wrong with what we eat (TED)

Mark Bittman, a food writer for the New York Times and the author of  a book Food Matters: A guide to Conscious Eating, did a talk on TED. Here are some fascinating facts (these are direct excerpts from his presentation):

After energy production, livestock is the second-highest contributor to atmosphere-altering gases.

Nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gas is generated by livestock production — more than transportation.

Livestock is also one of the biggest culprits in land degradation, air and water pollution, water shortages and loss of biodiversity.

There’s no question, none, that so-called lifestyle diseases — diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers — are diseases that are far more prevalent in North America than anywhere in the rest of the world. And that’s the direct result of eating a Western diet.

The world consumes one billion cans or bottles of Coke a day.

Our demand for meat, dairy and refined carbohydrates – not our need, our want – drives us to consume way more calories than are good for us. And those calories are in foods that cause, not prevent, disease.

Overconsumption of animals, and of course, junk food, is the problem, along with our paltry consumption of plants.

The evidence is very clear that plants promote health. It’s not the ingredients in plants, it’s the plants. It’s not the beta-carotene, it’s the carrot.

You eat more plants, you eat less other stuff, you live longer.

What do animals and junk food have in common?

1. we don’t need either of them for health. We don’t need animal products, and we certainly don’t need white bread or Coke.

2. both have been marketed heavily, creating unnatural demand. We’re not born craving Whoppers or Skittles.

3. their production has been supported by government agencies at the expense of a more health- and Earth-friendly diet.

The sad thing is, when it comes to diet, even when well-intentioned Feds try to do right by us, they fail. Either they’re outvoted by puppets of agribusiness, or they are puppets of agribusiness.

Instead of substituting plants for animals, our swollen appetites simply became larger, and the most dangerous aspects of them remained unchanged. So-called low-fat diets, so-called low-carb diets — these are not solutions.

There’s no way to treat animals well, when you’re killing 10 billion of them a year. That’s our number. 10 billion. Just the United States.

A “locavore” is a term for someone who eats only locally grown food — which is fine if you live in California, but for the rest of us it’s a bit of a sad joke.

How we got to this place is the history of food in the United States.

A hundred years ago, guess what? Everyone was a locavore: even New York had pig farms nearby, and shipping food all over the place was a ridiculous notion.

There was no snack food and no frozen food. There were no restaurant chains. There were neighborhood restaurants run by local people, but none of them would think to open another one.

Back in those days, there was no philosophy of food. You just ate. You didn’t claim to be anything. There was no marketing. There were no national brands. Vitamins had not been invented.

There were no health claims, at least not federally sanctioned ones. Fats, carbs, proteins — they weren’t bad or good, they were food. You ate food.

Hardly anything contained more than one ingredient, because it was an ingredient.

It’s hard to imagine. People grew food, and they ate food. And again, everyone ate local.

From the ’30s on, road systems expanded, trucks took the place of railroads, fresh food began to travel more. The South and West became agricultural hubs, and in other parts of the country, suburbs took over farmland.

Eventually, California produced too much food to ship fresh, so it became critical to market canned and frozen foods. Thus arrived convenience.

Many of us grew up never eating a fresh vegetable except the occasional raw carrot or maybe an odd lettuce salad.

Meat was everywhere. But by then cattle were already raised unnaturally. Rather than spending their lives eating grass, for which their stomachs were designed, they were forced to eat soy and corn. They have trouble digesting those grains, of course, but that wasn’t a problem for producers. New drugs kept them healthy. Well, they kept them alive. Healthy was another story.

Between 1950 and 2000, the world’s population doubled. Meat consumption increased five-fold.

By the ’70s, food production had become industrial. Perhaps because it was being produced rationally, as if it were plastic, food gained magical or poisonous powers, or both. Many people became fat-phobic.

At the same time, masses of women were entering the workforce, and cooking simply wasn’t important enough for men to share the burden.

70 percent of the agricultural land on Earth, 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface is directly or indirectly devoted to raising the animals we’ll eat. And this amount is predicted to double in the next 40 years or so.

No diet on Earth that meets basic nutritional needs that won’t promote growth, and many will make you much healthier than ours does.

We don’t eat animal products for sufficient nutrition, we eat them to have an odd form of malnutrition, and it’s killing us.

Less meat, less junk, more plants. It’s a simple formula: eat food. Eat real food. We’ll reduce not only calories, but our carbon footprint. We can make food more important, not less, and save ourselves by doing so.

Listen to the full presentation on TED.com.

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