By Robert Grillo
Lessons from family
I am an independent writer and marketing consultant who has lived in Chicago all my life. I was raised in an Italian-American home with parents who both loved to cook. My father grew up in a very poor immigrant family where meat and cheese were considered a luxury. Perhaps that was why he was so insistent that every meal be centered around meat. On the weekends, he would plan elaborate dishes inspired by Julia Child that would take him all day to prepare. My father’s life was taken by cancer at only 49, while his father lived until 92.
I grew up during a time when it was fashionable to replace red meat with poultry and fish. This shift from the meat of mammals to birds and fish was pitched to us as healthier. Ironically, this also meant that cheese somehow became much more ubiquitous, as if it were a “reward” for eliminating red meat. Cheese is now the single largest source of saturated fats in the American diet. I’m convinced that our addiction to cheese is partly due to this evolution in eating habits away from meat. Today there are several clinical studies linking that addiction to certain chemical reactions in our brain triggered by compounds present in cheese.1
Growing up in the 70s I thought I was more informed than most kids on the subject of nutrition and food. My mother was an early adopter of such pop nutrition figures as Adele Davis who was perhaps the first to point out the absurdity of a generation raised on processed foods. And to a large extent, I credit her for having instilled in me a deep respect for real, whole foods.
But in 2009, what I began to learn completely transformed not just my thinking on food but more importantly my actions. It took me completely by surprise to learn how much is at stake by the daily food choices we make. The standard American diet—rich in meat, dairy and eggs and low in whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables—is not only sending us to an early grave or a life of surgeries and drugs. It is quickly depleting our land and water resources, causing mass extinctions of wildlife, hastening climate change and pollution, increasing global poverty and of course dooming billions of farm animals to factory farms and needless suffering. In short, it is destroying our habitat and the habitat of all other species—the habitat that supports life itself. This makes the move to more sustainable food systems an urgent mandate that governments and corporations are grappling with all over the globe. Like so many other things, we waited until it became a crisis to finally work on solutions.
It was movies like “Food Inc.”, “Forks over Knives“ and “Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home“ and books like The China Study that served as wake up calls for me. In Peaceable Kingdom, former ranchers whose families had made an honest living from farming animals for generations began questioning the very assumptions and traditions that justify our use of animals for food in an age of factory farming. And their reflections led them to a profound life change: they abandoned farming and became farm animal protection advocates. A 180 degree turn. They had chosen a path that was ultimately consistent with their values of empathy and respect for the farm animals that they knew in their hearts were no different than our companion animals.
It was at this point where I began to question the assumption that we are predators with ordained dominion over all other life. How is it that we see ourselves “at the top of the food chain” when we have so little knowledge of the species we consume? If we are truly the most intelligent life form, how is it that we understand so little about other species that have existed for millennia before us, that seem to possess an evolutionary intelligence far greater than ours? Our ignorance should render us humble and in awe, yet instead we are arrogant and full of entitlement. If we could for a moment lift our veil of denial to see farm animals for who they truly are, we would find that they are very much like ourselves, sharing the same will to live, the same struggles to nurture and educate their young, to maintain co-existence in groups and ultimately to avoid disease and death. That is the universal bond that links all sentient beings—and we are neither above nor below it.
Seeing the big picture
Looking back now at my transformation of 2009, the most important insight I gained from this experience is that food is much more than something we eat. Food and the food choices we make have deep psychological and sociological roots. They are expressions of our moral and political views, our cultural and racial traditions, our exposure to media and marketing messages, our geographic and economic conditions and our access to health information and education. Actress Natalie Portman expressed her deep convictions about Judaism and how it impacts her food choices in a recent interview with Michael Croland: “The most important rule in Judaism is that you can break any rule in order to save a life. So, if life is the center of everything, then not taking life three times a day and making that decision is very important.”
In these last two years, my circle of concern has widened. I spent many hours, often in the wee hours of the night, contemplating how best to focus my energy and time around this cause. I soon realized that all roads led to the same elephant. A plant-based diet is the single most powerful strategy for addressing so many of the major environmental, social justice and health issues we face today. And my online marketing and communications background led me naturally to establish a web presence where I could build a virtual community. That’s how Free from Harm was born. Two years later, we have over 30,000 new visitors.
Finding my focus
At first I stumbled over all of the issues that captured my interest: GMOs, organics, pesticides, food safety, antibiotic resistance, factory farms, animal cruelty, climate change, deforestation, air and water pollution, just to name a few. I wanted to cover all of them, but I soon realized that I needed to find a focus. And I wanted to focus on what would really make the greatest impact.
After much soul searching, I arrived at the mantra “make your food choices matter.” This was the unifying principle I was looking for to center my work. In the media and in my every day encounters with others, there was little or no awareness of connecting our food choices with solving the big problems of our time. Instead we often see the opposite message: food is associated with indulgence, sex, drugs and alcohol. Food is addiction and escape—an escape from these big problems. But it is also the solution (which I will elaborate more on later).
The most common objection I find from people is a cynical one—that a plant-based lifestyle is unrealistic, that killing animals is not only our natural right as predators but is unavoidable. But this objection reveals what I think is at the core of the sustainability question. To understand this we must first abandon the impossible expectation of being perfect beings who do no harm. Next we must look at what evolution teaches us about ourselves—that we are an incredibly adaptive species of omnivores who, with the right intentions, has great potential to create a more humane and healthy world. So the goal should be to REDUCE our impact, to do the most good and the least harm.
Zoe Weil, President of the Institute for Humane Education, is the author of the Most Good, Least Harm (MOGO) principle. We use MOGO to make everyday decisions—a minor tweek to our normal behavior—that can have huge implications toward a more humane world for people, animals and the environment. In so doing, we become solutionaries, says Weil, proactively solving the world’s problems with each action we take in the process of carrying out our daily lives.
Another important part of seeing the big picture is critical thinking: seeing facts over fiction, reality over myth. That’s pretty tricky in the often chaotic information age we live in. We are presented with so many conflicting health claims, studies and sources, each claiming to provide the real facts. Some are paid for by the meat, egg and dairy industries to put a positive spin on their products and present themselves as “consumer advocates.” Others are based on legitimate science standards funded by organizations that conduct independent research. Which one do you think has your best interests at heart? I think it is critical that we rise above the chatter for a moment and ask ourselves a few simple questions: Who lives the longest and healthiest? What do they eat and how do they live? Perhaps the answer to these questions could provide all the wisdom we need to live a healthy life.
Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones, identified five population clusters in the world that were found to be the healthiest on the planet with the highest life expectancy and lowest incidence of chronic disease. These blue zones are Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica and Ikaria, Greece. While these people have vastly different cultures, they do share some striking similarities in diet and lifestyle. In terms of food, they all eat a predominantly plant-based diet with little or no meat, dairy and eggs. In one of the most comprehensive studies of nutrition ever conducted, Dr. T. Colin Campbell identified in The China Study a startling pattern among the many population groups he studied around the world over the course of 35 years. His big finding? While chronic diseases remain almost nonexistent in populations that consume little or no animal products, westernized populations commonly have rates of chronic diseases that closely parallel their consumption of animal products.
But nutritional information alone is not the only source of confusion for consumers today. The other big source of confusion lies in all of the different food movements that claim to have the sustainable solution. These include the local food movement, organic and community-based agriculture to name a few. I have found that these movements, while important, have only a marginal role in creating a more sustainable food system and are far from providing a solution in themselves. For example, while organic crops have shown great promise for reducing our impact on the environment, organic meat, cheese, and eggs may have an even greater environmental footprint than conventionally-raised ones.2, 3, 4, 5 No wonder people are confused!
The greatest good, the least effort?
A far simpler and more effective way of eating for a sustainable and humane world is to simply choose a plant-based diet that minimizes processed foods as well. And with Free from Harm I strive to demonstrate why it is truly the healthy, easy, cheap, satisfying, ethical and green way to eat. Author Kathy Freston‘s strategy for transitioning to a plant-based diet is clever and practical. In her book The Veganist, Freston recommends that her readers “veganize” their favorite recipes that traditionally contain meat and dairy products. Meat and dairy alternatives are not only plentiful, but can be equally satisfying as their animal counterparts—once you learn how to use them.
The Food Empowerment Project‘s directory to vegan products is one of the best I’ve found. Whatever you do, don’t approach this as a crash diet unless your doctor or health care professional advises you to go cold turkey. Make the transition in stages that you personally can manage. And be sure that you understand the foods you need in your diet to get proper nutrition. The American Dietetic Association states that a vegan diet can be suitable and even advantageous for all stages of life. Even the USDA, for the first time ever, issued statements about the health benefits associated with a plant-based diet. For even more authoritative and trusted sources see the More Resources section of our latest fact sheet.
The way forward
For affluent and emerging populations of the world, eating a diet rich in meat, dairy and eggs is a status symbol. This is a truly tragic irony. A move away from a more sustainable and enlightened way of eating. Since food is no longer viewed as a means of sustenance or survival, eating has become an emotional reaction. Food marketers and producers use psychology to appeal to our addiction triggers. But we can choose not to be part of their experiment, and therein lies the 3-step solution. The first big step is to see how this manipulation of our senses is happening. The next step is to see how it is negatively impacting people, animals and our planet. And the third step is to adopt a big picture view of our food choices so that we can make decisions that have a positive impact that we can feel good about.
At a much earlier time in my life when I was growing up, I may have been impressed by all of the exotic ingredients, elaborate preparation and presentation that chefs like Julia Child undertook. But today my definition of a great cook and a great meal has evolved to reflect the needs and values of our times. Anyone can add a lot of butter or bacon to make something taste good. What we need now is a much more expansive view of food. The true test of a great cook is how he or she can creatively deliver a meal that, not just looks and tastes great, but is also healthy and humane. Chef Tal Ronnen has expressed this vision so graciously in his cookbook, The Conscious Cook. This is a sign of things to come. As more of us embrace this vision, we are well on our way to celebrating food choices that not only please us but also contribute to a better world for all living things.
1 University of Illinois Extension study, http://www.livestocktrail.uiuc.edu/dairynet/paperDisplay.cfm?ContentID=249.
2 John Dijkstra, professor at Wageningen University, The Netherlands (As reported by Davio Ford of Radio Netherlands, 2011 (http://www.rnw.nl/english/video/organic-meat-not-better-environment).
3 “Ironically, data released in 2007 by Adrian Williams of Cranfield University in England show that when all factors are considered, organic, free-range chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming than conventionally raised broiler birds. That’s because ‘sustainable’ chickens take longer to raise, and eat more feed. Worse, organic eggs have a 14 percent higher impact on the climate than eggs from caged chickens, according to Williams.”… “If we want to fight global warming through the food we buy, then one thing’s clear: We have to drastically reduce the meat we consume, says Tara Garnett of London’s Food Climate Research Network. So while some of us Americans fashionably fret over our food’s travel budget and organic content, Garnett says the real question is, ‘Did it come from an animal or did it not come from an animal?’” — Mike Tidwell, “The Low-Carbon Diet,” Audubonmagazine.org.
4 “Admittedly, if consumers are willing to pay twice as much for organic food, and use twice the total resources in the process, they have the right to do so. However, we need to question the advisability of going down this path given increasing population pressures on our land base and environment.” “Again, from an economic efficiency viewpoint, as revealed by the price premiums needed for profitability, organic technology is incredibly resource intensive relative to conventional agricultural systems.” —Dr. Thomas E. Elam (President, FarmEcon.com, Adjunct Faculty, Department of Economics, IUPUI, Adjunct Fellow, Center for Global Food Issues, A Project of the Hudson Institute), from Is Organic Beef and Dairy Production a Responsible Use of Our Resources?
5 While some of us fret over our food’s transit miles and organic content, Garnett says the real question is, “Did it come from an animal or did it not come from an animal?”… “If we want to fight global warming through the food we buy, then one thing’s clear: We have to drastically reduce the meat we consume.” —Tara Garnett of London’s Food Climate Research Network