Saving Lives and the Planet with Our Forks
The brilliant work of doctors like T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn, Dean Ornish, and Joel Fuhrman, along with many other dedicated health professionals, has made it increasingly clear that for the vast majority of people, a plant-strong diet is indeed a path to health and vitality.
Dr. Campbell and his son Thomas wrote the bestseller The China Study, describing the groundbreaking research that led them to conclude that the more nutrients we get from plants and the fewer from animal products, the healthier we are likely to be.
Dean Ornish, MD, president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, promotes a program focused on a lowfat, whole foods, near-vegan diet. Dr. Ornish has published a long series of peerreviewed studies in the most prestigious medical journals, demonstrating that three-quarters of the patients who follow his program are able to not just arrest but actually reverse heart disease without surgery. Medicare has joined many insurance companies that now pay for patients to adopt the Ornish program. Nearly 80 percent of patients with severely clogged arteries are able to avoid bypass or angioplasty through the program.
Caldwell B. Esselstyn, MD, director of the cardiovascular prevention and reversal program at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, reported in the American Journal of Cardiology that in his study, “Patients became virtually heart-attack proof.” Dr. Esselstyn’s results were phenomenal. All the patients in his study had severe heart disease at the outset, and most were expected to live less than a year. Yet after 12 years on the program, 95 percent of them were alive and well. At the core of his program is a diet nearly identical to that advocated by Drs. Campbell and Ornish – a nutrient-dense, whole foods, low-fat, near-vegan diet.
Even Bill Clinton was impressed. He loved hamburgers and doughnuts. However, in 2004, less than four years after leaving office, the 58-year-old Clinton underwent quadruple bypass surgery to restore blood flow to his heart. In 2010, Clinton underwent another heart procedure. Two stents were placed inside one of his coronary arteries that had once again become clogged. Then Clinton made a decision that transformed his life, and made him the world’s most famous vegan. He lost more than 25 pounds and felt healthier than ever. He proudly told the press that he was now following the guidance of Drs. Campbell, Ornish, and Esselstyn.
Some say that this kind of a diet is too radical, but Bill Clinton obviously doesn’t think so. And neither does Dr. Esselstyn. He writes: Some criticize this exclusively plant-based diet as extreme or draconian. Webster’s dictionary defines draconian as “inhumanly cruel.” A closer look reveals that “extreme” or “inhumanly cruel” describes not plant-based nutrition, but the consequences of our present Western diet. Having a sternum divided for bypass surgery or a stroke that renders one an aphasic invalid can be construed as extreme; and having a breast, prostate, colon, or rectum removed to treat cancer may seem inhumanly cruel. These diseases are rarely seen in populations consuming a plant-based diet.
Dr. Ornish speaks similarly: I don’t understand why asking people to eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet is considered drastic, while it’s medically conservative to cut people open or put them on powerful cholesterol-lowering drugs for the rest of their lives ... Animal products are the main culprit in what is killing us. We can absolutely live better lives without them.
The growing awareness of the health value of a plant-strong diet is inspiring. So, too, is the movement toward food that is organic, sustainable, locally grown, minimally processed, and produced with respect for human rights.On the darker side, though, recent years have seen the widespread application of genetically engineered foods (aka genetically modified organisms, or GMOs). As the agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto and its allies have sought to control the world’s food supplies, they have ferociously fought every attempt to require labeling of foods made from their genetically modified seeds. They recognize, correctly, that if people knew, many wouldn’t buy these “Frankenfood” products.
Monsanto says there is no reason to be concerned, but I think there is. Genetically modified foods have been linked to toxic and allergic reactions in humans; sickness, sterility, and fatalities in livestock; and damage to virtually every organ studied in lab animals. Although it is difficult to be certain to what extent there is a causal connection, the spread of GMOs has exactly coincided with a substantial increase in food allergy rates, particularly in children.
Genetically modified crops such as Bt corn and Bt cotton produce pesticides in every cell of the plant. This kills or deters insects, but the plants themselves are living pesticide factories. They are toxic, and not just to insects. Farmers in India who let their sheep graze on Bt cotton plants saw thousands of sheep inexplicably die.
Currently, the primary genetically engineered crops in the United States are soy, cotton, canola, corn, sugar beets, and Hawaiian papayas. Products derived from these crops are widely found in processed foods that include corn, soy, canola or cottonseed oil. Soy protein, soy lecithin, cornstarch, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and many other ingredients are made from these plants. If you want to avoid GMOs, a great resource is www.nongmoshoppingguide.com. And if you want more information about GMOs and the effort to get them labeled, a terrific source is www.responsibletechnology.org.
A Step We Can Take
In late 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released a seminal report, titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” Stunningly, the report found that “livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger share than that of transport.” That is, the production of meat and other animal food products accounts for a far greater share of global warming gases than all the cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes in the world.
The study found compelling evidence that “livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.” Industrial livestock production, researchers found, is shrinking the earth’s forests, eroding its soils, depleting its aquifers, collapsing its fisheries, elevating its temperatures, and melting its ice sheets. Strikingly, every single one of the serious ecological problems threatening to undercut human civilization would be made dramatically and rapidly better by a shift to a plant-strong diet. This is true, most centrally, of global warming.
The costs of truly addressing the implications of what we are doing to the climate have been seen as insurmountable. But a follow-up study was published in the journal Earth and Environmental Science, titled “Climate Benefits of a Changing Diet.” Researchers came to the spectacular conclusion that a “global transition to a low-meat diet” would by itself reduce by 50 percent the anticipated costs of stabilizing the climate. They found that cutting back on industrial meat from feedlots and factory farms could save a staggering amount of money, wiping “$20 trillion off the cost of fighting climate change.”
If people gave up meat for one day a week, would it really do any good? The Centre for Agriculture and Environment in the Netherlands found that if the people of the U.S. were to make one day a week meatless for a year, it would save the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 90 million passenger airplane flights between New York and Los Angeles. A 2007 study by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan found that a single kilogram of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt lightbulb for nearly 20 days. The take-home message? It’s far more important to change your diet than to change your lightbulbs.
A feature article in Times magazine asked the provocative question, “Which is responsible for more global warming: your BMW or your Big Mac?” The answer: “Believe it or not, it’s the burger.” This means you need to get more of your nutrients from plant foods and less from meat, dairy products, and eggs. It means eating mostly, if not exclusively, plants.
These studies show us where our power lies and how we can really be effective. Of course, reversing global warming will require far more than a change in our diets. We need to replace fossil fuels with solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable and nonpolluting sources of energy. We need to create economic policies that take into account the ecosystem on which all economic life depends. We need to invest our genius and our resources less in making war and more in reforestation, soil conservation, education, and family planning. We need to halt the liquidation of the planet’s natural assets. We need to develop food systems with a lower carbon footprint that are more local and more organic.
In 2009, the prestigious Worldwatch Institute published a landmark report that made the FAO report seem understated in comparison. The staggering conclusion: Animals raised for food actually account for more than half of all human-caused greenhouse gases. Eating plants instead of animals, the authors conclude, would be by far the most effective strategy to reverse climate change, because it “would have far more rapid effects on greenhouse gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations – and thus on the rate the climate is warming – than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”
Whether the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock is 18 percent, as the FAO found, or more than 50 percent, as the Worldwatch Institute’s research indicates, or perhaps somewhere in between, it is without question a staggering amount. And because changing our diets is something we all can do today, it is almost certainly the single most important key any individual holds to stabilizing our climate before it is too late.
It’s also worth saying that this is not a call for asceticism. It’s not a value judgment on anyone’s choices. Going vegetarian might not be as effective as going vegan, but it’s better than eating meat, and eating meat less is better than eating meat more. It would be a whole lot better for the planet if everyone eliminated one meat meal a week than if a small core of die-hards developed perfectly virtuous diets. If we’re going to take global warming seriously... there’s no reason to ignore the impact of what we put on our plates.
Unlike shifting to hydrogen- powered vehicles or setting up electrical grids whose energy source is wind power, eating a plantstrong diet takes no new expensive infrastructure. Unlike putting solar panels on your roof, it requires no up-front investment of money. Shifting to a plantstrong diet actually saves you money (while also improving your health and sparing animals needless suffering).
I often see very well-intentioned people spending significant amounts of money and going to all sorts of lengths to live a greener lifestyle. It’s sadly ironic that they sometimes ignore what would be the most effective thing they could be doing. If we are really committed to saving the environment, we need to know where our leverage is. We need to know which of the actions we can take will be the most effective, and we need to focus where we can get the most benefit. Eating a plant-strong diet is a potent and profound point of leverage for everyone who longs to make a positive difference in this world. It is probably the single most immediately effective thing you can do to take a stand for life on earth.
Excerpted from the 25th Anniversary Edition of Diet for a New America ©2013 John Robbins. Published with permission of New World Library www.newworldlibrary.com.