Poor diet is the leading cause of premature death in the United States, and an increasing portion of the world. These are not my words, but paraphrase one of the more jarring assertions among many in an op-ed in the New York Times this past week. It is a fact.
Food, of course, has been a leading cause of death throughout the human experience, but for very different reasons, and in very different ways — namely starvation and predation. But these were perils by happenstance, the dangers all animals face competing for sustenance in a natural world. We mostly (not completely, or equitably) overcame these with civilization long ago. Now our food kills us slowly, arguably on purpose, and certainly for profit. The all-too-frequent death attributed to diet in the New York Times has been engineered into our lives. The op-ed goes on to enumerate the many actions required to engineer it out.
But this was just one dot in the big picture of diet and doom to drop this past week. This op-ed all about death-by-diet did not include the word “Amazon.” Arguably, it should have — because our diets are killing the Amazon, too. You have doubtless heard that there are fires raging in the Amazon rain forest, and that these “lungs of the world” are in graver danger than ever. Logging and deforestation have accelerated, and the fires, whatever exactly their origins, now compound the assaults on one of the planet’s great treasures, and vital organs.
The razing of the Amazon is mostly to make way for the grazing of cattle and the growing of crops to feed them. Little of the market for those products is in Brazil. The appetite for meat devouring the Amazon is global. There would be no goad to convert one of the richest, most intricate, and most irreplaceable symphonies of biodiversity on the planet into a feed lot, absent this demand.
So we are not just eating ourselves to death — unnecessarily, by design, and for profit. We are eating the rain forest to death, too. We are eating our world. We knew this before the Amazon was ablaze, and have received expert guidance on how to counter the trend. Instead, we find it acutely illuminated by firelight for all the world to see.
Perhaps the greatest threat in all of this to our own kind is also the greatest irony. We are putting the planet in mortal peril for many reasons, but food production tops the list. Yet the damage we are doing to the planet acutely diminishes its capacity to produce food for us. We have long since left the realm of the theoretical on this topic, and are well into clear evidence of crop disruptions, reduced yields, and loss of arable land. In simple words, by eating ourselves to death today, we consign ever more of our children to the threat of starvation tomorrow.
There are many potential remedial actions to take, but let’s focus on just two.
Eat less meat. If you eat it daily, skip a day. If you only eat it weekly, skip the week. Our global appetite for meat is the most direct cause of the Amazon’s peril. If you, personally, had to set some majestic, 200-year-old tree on fire as a prelude to your next bacon-cheeseburger, would you do it? Those of you who say yes are beyond redemption. To everyone else: eat less meat, please. This is the price it is exacting — unattenuated simply because someone else strikes the match.
Second, consider that as many as 600 liters of fresh water go into the production of one liter of any given sugar-sweetened soda reaching you in a plastic bottle. Consider the need to pour into the increasingly thirsty earth 599 liters of pure water as a prelude to drinking one of Coke or Pepsi, and then — don’t. Just drink water instead.
These, and the many other shifts in dietary intake we might make to renegotiate our contract with Earth would benefit our health directly, too. Less ultra-processed food, less meat, and more whole plant foods are the very formula most indelibly linked to less chronic disease, less premature death, less obesity, more years in life, more life in years. But in this context, that is simply fortuitous.
The dietary dots populating the current news paint a picture of looming doom. But we yet wield the paint brushes, and we yet wield the knives and forks, too. The table of options is set before us, and we have choices to make.