Don't bring home so much bacon

April 16, 2001|By Robert Lawrence

FOR THE MOMENT, Americans aren't dipping their shoes in tubs of disinfectant, canceling parades or burning hundreds of thousands of animal carcasses to stem the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

We've been fortunate to miss these short-term solutions mandated by European countries whose agricultural industries are threatened by the latest animal epidemic. But our vast industrial agriculture system is just as vulnerable.

We have an opportunity to develop a long-term solution that will reduce the chances of such outbreaks here and improve our health.

First, we have to look at the American diet.

Unfortunately, we have a powerful penchant for meat. Americans consume 270 pounds of beef per person per year (the average in industrial nations is 158 pounds). A diet that features a plate-covering steak or burger garnished, perhaps, with a thin ration of vegetables has negative effects on our health beyond our ballooning waist lines.

The insatiable consumption of fatty, high-protein, high-calorie foods has left 60 million Americans (including Vice President Dick Cheney) with coronary heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Currently, 61 percent of Americans are overweight, including 27 percent who are obese. In addition, our high-calorie diet and sedentary lifestyle have spawned an epidemic of Type II diabetes.

But the consequences of our fat and meat-centered diet don't just affect us but the environment as well. To meet the demand for beef, pork and chicken, the U.S. agriculture industry has been transformed from family farms practicing sustainable animal husbandry into huge centralized operations that warehouse animals, pumping them full of antibiotics to quell the inevitable disease outbreaks. While cost-efficient, this production model is an environmental scourge.

Just ask the people of North Carolina, where waste from 10 million hogs has polluted rivers in the eastern part of the state and caused a dead zone devoid of fish in Pamlico Sound off its coast.

Consider also the fact that each of us consumes about 1,800 pounds of grains per year (much of which is through meat consumption since seven pounds of grain are required to produce one pound of beef). By contrast, Italians annually consume about 900 pounds per capita of grains and the Taiwanese about 600 pounds.

If the United States were to cut its meat consumption by 25 percent, we would save 600 million tons of grain and in turn 600 billion tons of water.

If Americans cut meat consumption in half, they would lessen the need for industrial agriculture, reduce chances of nation-paralyzing epidemics among cattle and other animals and slow the human epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

All that's required is a change in diet. How do Italians eat so well yet consume half the amount of grain per capita that we do? They don't make meat the main entree of most meals. They use meat as a garnish to a plate of pasta or risotto.

It's a simple recipe: eat less meat to save yourself and save the earth.

Robert Lawrence, a medical doctor, is director of the Center for a Livable Future and is the Edyth H. Schoenrich Professor of Preventive Medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

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