Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Personal is the Planetary

Food provides us a rare opportunity to simultaneously identify a meeting point between two parallel, dysfunctional processes: the health of our planet and the health of our citizens. The late Thomas Berry made an eloquent statement on the relationship between human and ecological health: "You cannot have well people on a sick planet". The way we relate to food is a perfect example of this interdependent illness.

It has been well documented that the way that modern Americans eat is problematic. Despite incredible advances in medicine, the youngest generation of Americans is projected to live less long than their parents. Rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are on the rise, often preceded by a convergence of health risks known as metabolic syndrome. Characterized by excess weight throughout the midsection, hypertension, and disturbed glucose and insulin responses, metabolic syndrome has been shown to correlate significantly with what has become known as "the western diet". The western diet is a pattern of eating roughly characterized by high rates of consumption of meat, refined grains, sugar, and otherwise highly processed foods.

That we have a collective eating disorder is becoming increasingly apparent, and is beginning to become better understood. Our relationship to food is self-evidently problematic. But the story does not stop with our waistlines and rates of heart disease. The effects of the western diet are also devastating to the environments where it originates.

I won't detail the depth of the dysfunction of agriculture's relationship to environmental health. If you want to learn more, read Michael Pollan or Eric Schlosser; or, for that matter, read the food section at grist. Suffice it to say that the effect of our food on the environment is approximately the same as the effect of our food on our collective health.

The good news is that the specific nature of the problem lends itself to a comprehensive solution. The bad news is that that comprehensive solution involves human behavior change on a massive scale, the revamping of the agricultural sector, including challenging powerful and culturally-entrenched interests, and the creative mass deployment of solutions that may not even exist yet.

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