Rethink: How We Eat

No conversation about changing the food system is complete unless it includes the consumer’s role. Although altering our eating habits isn’t easy, we must grow more aware of the link between what we eat and the land. To quote writer Wendell Berry: “Eating is an agricultural act.”

Eat less, but better, meat — Americans account for just 4.5 percent of the world’s population, but we eat approximately 15 percent of the meat produced globally. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, this amounts to 170 pounds of meat per person each year. Many of these animals consume grains, resulting in a lot of land devoted to growing feed — in fact, one-third of global cereal crop production is fed to animals.

We could expect a multitude of benefits by making the simple choice to eat less meat.

While meat can be part of a healthy diet, too much leads to health problems, such as high cholesterol and heart disease. And when animals are raised in ways that pollute our environment, this only exacerbates the problem. Excrement and urine from confined animals, for example, can leach into water and soil and emit dangerous concentrations of greenhouse gasses.

Animals can, instead, be raised to benefit our production systems. They are efficient grazers and can be an integral part of crop rotation. Returning animals to pasture instead of confined housing would reduce their numbers, but they would be raised with more space to roam and no routine antibiotics, and more land would be available to directly feed people. Thus, we could expect a multitude of benefits by making the simple choice to eat less meat.

Provide food education — Access to good food is only one part of developing new eating habits; we also need to know what to do with it. By teaching people how to grow foods, read recipes, train a palate and develop cooking skills, we can dramatically change the food system. Food Corps — a national organization that places leaders for a year of public service in communities with limited resources — introduces kids to food education and connects them to where their food comes from. In just a few years’ time, this group is driving change, reaching more than 29,000 children.

Food companies can actively engage as well, whether it’s by providing examples of how a whole food like steamed broccoli pairs with a processed food product like macaroni and cheese, or supporting food education in our schools and communities. After all, what will have a more profound impact on the health of members of our next generation than teaching them about how to eat?

To a Better Future

To feed our growing population, we need the food community to accelerate investment in a more sustainable food system. The innovations are already available, and now is the time to invest in and refine them. Systemic change cannot come from one company, government or individual; everyone needs to be involved. Are there other factors that should be considered? Of course. These are complex issues with complex solutions. Are we going to get there within a year? No. But we need to wake up to the need for a paradigm shift in how we do things in order to get us on a sustainable path to feeding 9 billion by 2050. The people on this planet and the natural resources we depend on cannot afford to progress on a linear path. Instead, we need to rethink the system. View Ensia homepage

Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Ensia. We present them to further discussion around important topics. We encourage you to respond with a comment below, following our commenting guidelines, which can be found here. In addition, you might consider submitting a Voices piece of your own. See Ensia’s “Contact” page for submission guidelines.