In honour of Earth Day 2018

As many of you know, food sustainability and the environment are issues close to my heart.  In honour of Earth Day 2018 I thought I would share with you an article that I wrote that was published last year in The Pulse, a national publication for NDs across North America.

As many of you know, my practice is slowly switching away from focusing on food to focusing on foundations of behaviour – de-constructing our beliefs and then re-educating ourselves to become who we were meant to be.  But I still believe that changing what is on your plate is the gateway to changing your health, our environment and the world.

I hope you enjoy!

 

Through precept, lecture and example, I will assist and encourage others to strengthen their health, reduce risks for disease and preserve the health of our planet for ourselves, our families and future generations.

When we think back to our time at CCNM, we should truly marvel at our accomplishments.  Surviving the lightning speed at which personal growth and change occurred (in combination with the challenging curriculum) is something I feel really deserves some sort of national recognition!  And yet in the blur, there are moments that stand out for each of us as game changing.  One of those moments for me was back in classroom five in July 2009.  It was remarkably hot and muggy in the school during the summer months.  That day in first year Art and Practice, a man named Wayne Roberts came in and changed my entire life in two hours.  He had spent his career lobbying for change in Toronto’s food and environmental policy scene.  Having worked in agriculture as a researcher and project coordinator, I was already fascinated by the connections between the food system, the environment and health care.  He spoke of the tremendous and far reaching impacts of our food choices and of the power of consumer driven change to reshape the economy and in the process save the world from ourselves. His message had me hooked from his first word.

Fast forward nearly 10 years from that summer day and my clinical practice has evolved to be almost entirely based on transition to a sustainable diet and the required behaviour change.  While tremendously successful in its outcomes, attempting to support significant and lasting changes in human behaviour patterns as a career is not for the faint of heart.  It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks, but it is often a long and sometimes painful process.  We are creatures of stubborn survival and overcoming the biological drive to stay in our comfort zone is a steep mountain to climb.  But like anything else, with the right tools and motivation,  I am continually amazed at what we are capable of.

As NDs, we all know the power of proper nutrition.  Initially, I would almost always work on some variation of a grain-free, dairy-free diet with well-balanced healthy fats, good protein, lots of veggies. You know the drill – meat, veggies, healthy fats, not too much fruit, eggs are good for you, meatless Monday etc. Its relatively easy to follow and with good support, creates measurable positive health outcomes.  Certainly it was not rocket science I was engaging in, but outcomes felt miraculous at times non-the-less.  Patients were generally pleased with themselves after a few weeks – it is a diet that is not a huge jump out of their comfort zone.  People lose weight, get off their meds, feel better and start living their lives again.  And they can still have steak and bacon the odd time.  Its a win-win as they say.

As I continuously launched into these paleo style diets with my patients, there was a whisper of discontent that lingered.   I found it harder and harder to ignore as the facts kept mounting – and I couldn’t get Wayne Roberts’ message of the tremendous impact of our food choices out of my head.  At home, I am the mom of two growing humans.  I’m a passionate advocate for environmental protection, and have always been an obsessive recycler, gardener, composter, car pooler and supporter of local food.  I demand short showers, turning off the tap off when we brush our teeth and shopping second hand.   And yet each year the statistics on the growing global environmental crisis continue to keep me up at night.  The whisper gradually overtook me and I knew I had to listen. I started at home and hit the books and soon began to implement my new guide lines in practice.

As a community dedicated to improving the health and lives of those in our care, the question we must know ask ourselves is this: what good is a healthy individual on a dying planet? 

 
Our Food Choices – Impacting Public Health, Climate Change and The Global Environmental Crisis. 

 
Our dedication to individualized health cares paramount to our oaths a naturopathic doctors.  But we pledge to be stewards of Mother Earth as well.   I encourage each of you who consider yourselves to be environmental advocates and who make food recommendations in your practice to begin to seriously investigate the impact the food choices you recommend.  Specifically the impact of livestock production on land use, declining biodiversity, water usage, greenhouse gas  emissions, deforestation and ocean dead zones.   The sheer volume of animals raised for food, along with the land, grain and water needed for their production is the second largest contributor to the current environmental crisis we are globally facing today behind fossil fuels.  And it is entirely consumer driven. To get your started, I have included the major FAO reports and their links below.  But in the interest of persuasion, here are some facts to digest.

The per capital  consumption of meat in North America averages about  9 ounces (around half a pound) per day and the vast majority of this is chicken.  Estimates for the environmental cost of poultry consumption are difficult, however it has been calculated that for each half pound of beef produced, it requires an average of 150 sqft of land and  400 litres of water (for grazing and growing feed).  While red meat consumption continues on a down trend, it is still estimated that over 50% of US land usage and between 50% – 80% (depending on the source) of water consumption can be directly attributed to livestock and livestock feed production each year.

We currently exceed 11 billion animals slaughtered for human consumption in North America annually (~650 million in Canada). I the US in 2015, over 90 billion pounds of meat that went through federally inspected slaughter facilities.  For those of you doing the math, that’s about 3000 pounds per second.  With processing speeds of of 4-12 animals per minute on production lines, food safety and contamination continue to plague slaughter and processing facilities. The impact of the operational procedures required to support and sustain that level of production is enormous, from wide spread antibiotic use to the innumerable litres of untreated livestock waste matter that makes its way into fresh and salt water basins.  Environmental degradation, antibiotic resistance and food safety are all intimately tied to the current livestock production systems and the average consumer is unaware of the nearly incalculable impact their food choices are having on the fabric of our ecosystems.  Meat and diary based protein sources are simply unsustainable at their current level of consumption.  And with the global population rising to 10 billion in the next two decades and carbon emissions already surpassing the point of no return, we can no longer ignore these truths, nor can we choose our personal dietary preferences over the global good.

So where does that leave us as practitioners? 

 

I put it to our community, educators and associations that it is our responsibility to consider the environmental impacts of the food choices we ask patients to make and to balance the health of the individual with the health of the planet.  Further to that, I challenge the naturopathic community to consider and debate the idea that it is irresponsible of us as leaders in healthcare and stewards of the planet to make recommendations for diets that rely on regular, daily consumption of animal products given the current state of the environment and the impact of modern agricultural practices.

Understanding that individual dietary requirements vary, I am not proposing that a 100% plant based diet is necessary or even optimal for every single one of us to follow.   It is part of our mandate to assess the patient and make diet and lifestyle recommendations that augments and accommodates their individual genetics, concerns and circumstances to meet their health care goals.  I posit that we absolutely must include the impact of dietary choices on the global environmental crisis if we are to maintain our integrity as holistic practitioners.

My goal is to spark debate and begin a discussion that I believe is fundamental considering the current global state of health care and the environment.  I firmly believe that as NDs we are the most qualified and best educated health care practitioners in North America to address the mounting epidemic of chronic disease.  We must consider the social, economical and environmental impact of our food choices and give this equal – or perhaps greater – weight than the health goals of the individual patient when making dietary recommendations.   This type of medicine brings us back to the very foundation of nature cure.  Adopting a well executed plant based diet -while challenging – has tremendous positive repercussions for the planet and the patient.  It requires changes in neurocognitive behaviour, restructuring belief patterns and a damned good digestive system.

Who better to lead this charge for change than us?

 

Selection of Sources and Research

Capper, J. L. “The environmental impact of beef production in the United States: 1977 compared with 2007.” Journal of Animal Science 89.12 (2011): 4249-261
Daniel C, Cross A, Koebnick C and Sinha R.Trends in meat consumption in the United States JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Oct 1;176(10):1453-1463J. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4182.
Pimentel, David, Bonnie Berger, David Filiberto, Michelle Newton, Benjamin Wolfe, Elizabeth Karabinakis, Steven Clark, Elaine Poon, Elizabeth Abbett, and Sudha Nandagopal. “Water Resources: Agricultural and Environmental Issues.” BioScience 54.10 (2004): 909.
Sinha, Rashmi, Amanda J. Cross, Barry I. Graubard, Michael F. Leitzmann, and Arthur Schatzkin. “Meat Intake and Mortality.” Archives of Internal Medicine 169.6 (2009): 562.
Song, Mingyang, Teresa T. Fung, Frank B. Hu, Walter C. Willett, Valter D. Longo, Andrew T. Chan, and Edward L. Giovannucci. “Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality.” JAMA Internal Medicine 176.10 (2016): 1453.
FAO Corporate Document Repository Livestocks Long Shadow http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM Rome 2006
FAO SAFA Guidelines Version 3.0 http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3957e.pdf Rome 2014
FAO 2016 State of Food and Agriculture  http://www.fao.org/3/a-i6030e.pdf Rome 2016
Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, (eds.). Cambridge University Press, 2009
NASS USDA Overview of  The United States Slaughter Industry Oct 2016 http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/SlauOverview/SlauOverview-10-27-2016.pd

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