Later this month, a group of Maine health professionals will gather for a meat- and dairy-free feast. On the menu? Everything from alternative proteins to vegan wine and beer.
But these doctors and nurses are not pushing a prescription for losing weight or lowering cholesterol, although those benefits could be byproducts of following such a diet. They are concerned with the health of the planet.
The Maine chapter of the nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility is joining other health care professionals around the world in focusing its attention on the public health risks of climate change. Rather than talk about the spread of mosquito-borne viruses or the impact of giant hurricanes, the group is using food as a way to engage the public in a difficult discussion about a complicated topic.
Similarly, Health Care Without Harm, a broad nonprofit coalition of health care workers, has already tackled the transformation of hospital menus (including some in Maine hospitals), in an effort to make them more healthful and more locally sourced. The group is now trying to expand the conversation around climate and food through its “Climate-Healthy Menu” program, a partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. The program targets food service companies, urging them to offer less red meat and more produce and legumes to their customers – be they hospitals, businesses or colleges and universities. The idea is that if people make better food choices, it will not only benefit their health, but the planet as well.
Karen D’Andrea, executive director of the Maine Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has about 2,000 members, said her group wanted to find a way to “get people thinking about climate change in a new and different way.”
“You often hear about how food supplies are connected to climate change,” she said, “but not often about how what we eat impacts climate change.”
Later this month, the group will hold a food festival to focus attention on food and climate change. D’Andrea sees Taste for Change: A Celebration of Food, Climate and Environment as a way to connect with Mainers on the subject of climate change through a topic many already love – food.
“We can’t really talk about fracking in Maine,” D’Andrea said. “We don’t have a fracking issue. It’s hard for us to talk about coal-producing plants because we don’t have (any major) coal-producing plants in Maine. When we can talk about issues that Mainers can relate to, I think that’s what becomes important.”
Physicians for Social Responsibility, founded in 1961, has a long history of fighting nuclear testing and speaking out against pollution. Its work on slowing the arms race won the organization the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
D’Andrea, who is a vegetarian, emphasizes that, while the Taste for Change event will feature an all-vegan menu, the organization is not trying to convert people to veganism. It went with all-vegan, she said, in order to highlight the wide variety of meat and dairy alternatives that are available today. To make the point, vegan chefs will demonstrate cooking fast vegan meals that are healthy, easy to make and good for the environment.
But Physicians for Social Responsibility is asking people to consider eating less meat, especially red meat. Part of that request is strategic – giving people who might be overwhelmed by the very idea of climate change something they can do themselves to attack the problem. Also, environmentalists have seen that asking people to conserve resources has worked in other arenas – why not try it with food? D’Andrea said.
“Cutting back can and does make an impact,” she said. “We have asked people to do things like cut back on your energy consumption. When we do that, people start turning off the lights in their house. They start buying energy-efficient light bulbs. They start bundling the trips with the vehicles. They buy smaller cars that consume less gas. That’s, I think, what’s happening with food now. You don’t have to jump in all at once and say ‘I’ll never eat meat and dairy again.’ Here’s a piece that you can rip off and chew on.”
While food and climate change are often linked together through statistics, say, the miles a tomato has traveled before it reaches your kitchen, or the amount of pesticides that were used to produce a crop, it’s not often people make a link between what’s on their plate and the issue of climate change.
But that’s beginning to change. As people see their own health decline, as well as the health of their families and communities, “they’re starting to make connections about what’s causing that, including contributions from the environment around them and how their food is produced,” said Stacia Clinton, national program director for Health Care Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Health Care Program.
People are starting, for example, to connect increases in the price of food with droughts and other weather-related events, she said.
Through its Climate-Healthy Menus program, Health Care Without Harm, the National Resources Defense Council, and Johns Hopkins serve up some of the statistics that show the climate footprint of our dietary choices.
Raising animals for meat causes as much climate pollution as all the tailpipe emissions from the world’s vehicles combined, they say, so even small cutbacks in red meat consumption can have an impact. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends eating no more than 1.8 ounces of red meat per day, the actual average consumption in the United States is 3.1 ounces. (The three activist groups define “red meat” as that coming from cows, sheep, goats and pigs.)
If Americans ate 30 percent less beef, it would be like taking the tailpipe emissions from 10 million cars off the road each year, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.
The Maine chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility is tackling climate change through food at the suggestion of Dr. Bob Gould, president of the San Francisco chapter and immediate past president of the national group. (The Oregon and Washington chapters are also trying out the idea.)
Gould has been working on the issue for years, viewing it as an effective way to teach doctors and medical students about climate change. “We have, in my view, a lot of demonstrable success in engaging people on this.”
Gould and a colleague, for example, published an editorial and an article in the medical journal American Family Physician on how being climate-friendly could have direct patient benefits. The article illustrated how doctors can talk to their patients in under 15 minutes about eating less red meat. And at the University of California, Gould said, the focus on food and climate change was one factor that led to a redesign of the medical school curriculum to include issues of environmental health.
It all fits together under the broader umbrella of the sustainability movement, he said. Talking about food and climate change “opens a conversation that leads very naturally to the broader understanding we all need of the larger ecological frame.
“That’s really what our challenge is,” Gould said, “is this whole industrialized system that has eroded our natural systems and the natural resilience of the planet.”