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April 15, 2004

Eating for the Future: Can Public Health Rise to the Challenge?

Americans eat more meat per person than almost any other people in the world – 220 pounds per person each year. This compares to 170 pounds per person in the industrialized world and just 60 pounds per person in the non-industrialized world. And in the U.S. we consume almost a quarter of all the beef produced in the world, although we have only 4.7 percent of the world’s population.

But do we really need all that meat? And how does our meat habit affect human health and the environment? These were topics addressed on April 9 by four experts who spoke at a conference at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The conference, “Eating for the Future: Can Public Health Rise to the Challenge?” was sponsored by the School’s Center for a Livable Future (CLF).

Our taste for meat is shaped by historical and economic forces, and people in all cultures think their particular foods are delicious, said Sidney Mintz, PhD, professor emeritus of Anthropology atJohns Hopkins University. According to Dr. Mintz, while hunting and meat eating played an important part in human evolution, there is no evidence that eating meat is instinctive. World War II GI’s grew accustomed to eating meat three times a day, which may be one reason why meat is so important in today’s food choices. Ben Caballero, MD, professor of International Health and Pediatrics and director of the School’s Center for Human Nutrition, noted that there is no requirement for animal protein in the human diet.

The excess consumption of meat and saturated fat is a major public health problem in the U.S. today, according to Robert Lawrence, MD, director of CLF. Most dietary saturated fat comes from animal fat in meat and high-fat diary products.  Saturated fat is linked to chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

Unfortunately, today’s high meat diet is an inefficient way to feed the world, said Dr. Lawrence.  When we feed grain to livestock, energy is lost when the grain is converted to meat. Cattle are the most inefficient in energy conversion, with seven pounds of grain producing just one pound of beef.

Our high-meat diet is also harmful to the environment, according to Dr. Lawrence. Most American livestock are now raised on “factory farms,” which generate an estimated 575 billion pounds of animal waste each year. This concentrated animal waste contains disease-causing microorganisms; heavy metals; and nitrogen and phosphorus, which seriously degrade rivers and estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay.

Wayne Roberts, coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council, noted that our present food system is not only harmful to the environment, but is not good for farmers, rural communities, or public health either. He described ways that Toronto is working to change the food system for local residents, including an innovative program giving street youths jobs processing the imperfectly formed “ugly carrots” thrown away by the main-stream food outlets.--Charlie Miller

Public Affairs Media Contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Brigham at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.