Posts in 'Consumer Habits'

Meatless Monday Matters

Holidays seem to be a time of feasting, a season of muchness and more–and that means they’re also a perfect moment to think about eating in a different way. Borrowing a provocative adage from modernist architects, let’s consider a new approach to meals: Less is more.

You don’t have to make a big change in your kitchen to make a big change in the world.

Until recently, I was only vaguely aware of an initiative called Meatless Mondays. I thought it was a ploy to lure me into vegetarianism, a dining style I’ve tried and failed to maintain many times. I simply like eating meat too much to give it up.
I’ve also grown weary of the smug superiority that characterizes so much food talk: you’re a better person if you buy local; a superior person if you pay extra for organic; and a peerless person if you harvest and slaughter your own food. Most of us don’t usually have these options–though I hope someday organic becomes the new, affordable norm. “Foodie” conversation exhausted me, and I just started tuning it out.

Brussels sprouts

Then I heard a lecture given by Dr. Robert Lawrence of Johns Hopkins University at an Environmental Defense Fund Science Day in San Francisco. EDF Science Days are private events during which experts discuss emerging environmental issues. Dr. Lawrence, an expert in environmental health sciences, surveyed the costs of America’s meat addiction and asked us to consider a simple idea: Meatless Monday. It sounded at first forbiddingly moralistic. But then I learned what a sensible, economical idea it was– good for your health, and good for the planet.

Since the 1980s, Americans have been eating too much–way more than we did fifty years ago. Today, we consume, on average, about 3,200 calories per day, roughly 1,000 calories more than we need to stay healthy – even as we lead more sedentary lives. Food in America is easily available and, because much of it is subsidized, extremely cheap. There are fast food chains on every corner and microwaveable meals at every supermarket. The result? Obesity and an epidemic of preventable heart disease, along with diabetes, strokes, and cancers.

Sixty-five percent of our daily protein comes from animals (compare that to the worldwide figure, around 30%). Americans eat about eight ounces of meat a day. The average annual per capita meat consumption in the 1970s was 168 pounds; by 2005 it was up to 185 pounds. Beef consumption peaked in 1975 then began declining as people became aware of the link between cardiovascular disease and fat-saturated diets. We started eating much more chicken. (Lawrence points out that one million broilers are raised, killed and prepared in this country per hour). This accounts for the continued rise in meat consumption. (Get a shareable list of these meaty stats »)

All meat production has a powerful impact on the planet–cattle more than chickens, of course. Meat production emits more greenhouse gases than growing crops, but agricultural activity also contributes heavily to climate change. To connect the dots between food and climate change, Lawrence underlined the impact of several factors:

  • the clearing of forests to create more farmland
  • the fossil fuel needed to make fertilizer, run equipment and transport food
  • the water needed to irrigate farmland and quench the thirst of the animals. (Up to 80% of the West’s water is consumed by agriculture)
  • reactive nitrogen from liberally applied fertilizers and pesticides, which then run off into rivers and lakes or seep into our aquifers
  • the methane released from beef cattle

Our taste for burgers is destroying the rainforests. Brazilian government figures attribute 38% of deforestation from 1966-1975 to large scale cattle ranching. From 1996 to 2006 an area the size of Portugal has been carved out of Brazilian rainforest and turned into grassland to feed cattle herds.

Modern farming and meat production are heavily reliant on chemicals that work their way not only into the flesh of the beasts we eat, but into our water as well. Dr. Lawrence points out that over 1,600 chemicals used in producing our food have never been tested for safety.

“We are facing unprecedented human health problems,” related to food production, says Dr. Lawrence. “Our produce gets contaminated by fecal matter from irrigation waters polluted by industrial food-animal facilities.” And because some farms make massive use of prophylactic antibiotics on animals weakened by the unsanitary conditions in which they are raised, some bacteria are growing resistant to treatment. These drugs are entering the human food chain too.

As other countries adopt our diets, 20 years from now when there are 8 billion people in the world, there simply won’t be enough room on the planet to produce the food to support the way we eat now.

Several years ago, scientists recommended that Americans cut their saturated fat intake by 15%. Researchers at Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future realized that the easiest way for people to do that would be to avoid meat one day a week, hence Meatless Monday.

It turns out you don’t have to make a big change in your kitchen in order to make a big change in the world–and improve your health. According to the Environmental Working Group, if all of us adopted this simple initiative, we would save enough energy annually – from avoided meat production – equivalent to taking eight million cars off the road.

Use Spades Not Ships poster

Meatless Monday is doable. In fact, it’s been done. During World War I and World War II, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in order to ensure that our armies had enough food, mounted successful campaigns for Meatless Monday and Wheatless Wednesday. They encouraged Americans to plant Victory gardens, using slogans like “Dig for Victory” and “Use Spades Not Ships.” The FDA should mount a similar campaign today, one that emphasizes public and environmental health.

There’s no magic to Monday, of course, unless you have an ear for alliteration. Monday seems to be a good day to recover from the weekend (though for me, weekends are an easier time to find the hours to prepare a meal, and Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be Leftover Days.) The main point is to have at least one meatless day a week. And avoid having three meat courses in one day. After what I’ve learned–vegetarians are the healthiest subgroup in this country–I’m planning on three meatless days a week.

And here’s another benefit: conversation at the family table about the connections between our food, our bodies and the whole planet. A meatless dinner can be a wonderful setting in which to model ways to cherish our world. What better lesson is there? Pass on the meat–and please pass the Brussels sprouts.

Personal Nature

We want to hear from you. Tell us if you’re going meatless on Mondays and then share your favorite meatless recipes in the comments.

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America’s Meaty Diet

The numbers behind America’s meat consumption may surprise you.

Average American’s calories per day, roughly 1,000 more than we need to stay healthy
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Chemicals used in food production that have never been tested for safety
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West’s water consumed by agriculture
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American’s daily protein from animals

Rest of the world’s daily protein from animals
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168 lb
U.S. average annual per capita meat consumption in 1970

185 lb
U.S. average annual per capita meat consumption in 2005
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1 million
Broiler chickens raised, killed and prepared in this country per hour
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Walmart Redux: Citizens and Consumers

I wouldn’t normally write about the same subject twice in a row, but the impassioned responses to last month’s column on Walmart’s move to cut carbon emissions from their supply chain made me want to give it another think. Thanks to all of you who took the time to be considerate, whether or not we agree. And a shout out to the poet!

The comments, many angry or hurt, suggest that we here at EDF haven’t done a good enough job of explaining what we do, why, and who pays for it.

Reducing personal consumption won’t by itself solve global warming

Let’s start with the premise that when it comes to solving the climate crisis, simply reducing personal consumption is not enough. The problem is much too large, and developing far too rapidly. Plus, many people don’t even yet feel enough concern about climate change to motivate them to make changes.

Consider this: What if, instead of committing itself to reducing carbon emissions, Walmart had simply said: “Who cares about global warming? We don’t believe in it. We don’t want to revamp anything until regulations force change.” Ask yourself: Would we be better off?

This gets me to the work of EDF–harnessing markets to protect the environment by “making it profitable to put out less pollution” as president Fred Krupp says. EDF has been a pioneer and leader in working strategically with companies for 20 years. This is why I was drawn to their work in the first place; it manages the nifty trick of being idealistic, ambitious and pragmatic. EDF is dedicated to solving what I think of as the defining crisis of our century: mitigating pollution that began with the industrial revolution, and has been magnified by the post World War II chemical revolution.

EDF is interested working with market leaders–companies whose decisions affect whole economic sectors. So yes, EDF does support free enterprise, or capitalism. No, EDF is not against all consumption. Yes, EDF has a track record of protecting the environment. And most emphatically NO–EDF does not take money from its corporate partners. The environment is their only client. EDF is funded by generous individuals and foundations.

Remember these? You no longer see Styrofoam containers at most fast food restaurants because EDF worked with market-leader McDonald’s to cut waste.

It’s now 20 years since EDF first worked with McDonald’s to reduce its packaging waste by 150,000 tons. This was followed by a highly successful project with McDonald’s to curb the use of human antibiotics in animal agriculture. Since then EDF has worked with Whole Foods and Wegman’s to clean up the shrimp farming industry; it has worked with Walmart to cut waste; it has worked with FedEx to develop hybrid delivery trucks, and in the process transformed the entire delivery industry. The list goes on.

“Markets by themselves, much like currents in a river, are neither good nor bad,” says Gernot Wagner, an EDF economist who sees himself as a “pragmatic” optimist. “Properly guided, they can be a force for good. Entrepreneurs see environmental challenges as opportunities rather than hindrances.”

It is interesting how many readers of last month’s column frame their environmentalism as a choice between consuming or not consuming, forgetting, it seems, that we have to define ourselves first as citizens, not as consumers. Of course, every living creature consumes. The needless, mindless consumption that wastes precious resources, pollutes and even kills, is another matter.

LandfillTo change our throwaway culture, we must be citizens first, then consumers.Town Hall

All of us can be more watchful of our habits, without necessarily giving up on vacations, or raspberries in February. Every day scientists learn more about the consequences of our choices, whether in the metals in our fish, the emissions from our cars, the chemicals in our soaps, the microwave radiation from our cell phones or the fertilizers on our fields. Every day, it seems, we learn something more that inspires us to make adjustments in our consumption.

Personal action, however, can be expensive. Not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to buy a new car. Not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to install new geothermal or solar systems; not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to retrofit their houses with new insulation. Until the prices for many “green” items come way down, they will not be widely adopted. That does not mean we ought to shoulder a massive guilt trip–that would be inappropriate, and counterproductive. The burden of responsibility has to be on us collectively–on our governments, and our corporations, those entities that have the largest impact on our lives.

It is our job, as consumers, to decide how to spend our money. It is our job, as citizens, to decide how to spend our energy. Speak out, lobby, protest, persuade, agitate, march, sit-in, write, sing, or dance. Do what you can. I believe we should be angry, and that our voices should be harnessed to demand better leadership from our elected and appointed officials–and our media.

Why is it that as the effects of global warming intensify, polls show that fewer people feel it is of significant concern? Those of us whose job it is to communicate the findings of scientific research have only ourselves to blame.

People often ask me how I feel about “preaching to the converted” in this column. I think we can see in the wide-ranging responses to Walmart’s decision to cut emissions that there is no consensus among environmentalists–much less the general public–about how to move forward. There is no such thing as “the converted.” Anyway, I have an aversion to that phrase, as it implies faith, as does the idea of “belief” in climate change, and faith and belief are not the appropriate response to peer-reviewed scientific data. Simple learning and understanding will suffice, as will putting out accurate, verifiable data to the contrary. So far there isn’t any sound science behind the claim that global warming doesn’t exist.

It is every citizen’s job to get smart. You don’t have to become a climate scientist and reanalyze data, necessarily–just as you don’t have to become a cell biologist to accept a doctor’s recommendations. Read up on the science, learn the facts, and stop mumbling politely when someone tells you that what you see all around you during these “extreme weather events” as we now call them (as though they were some form of sport), isn’t really happening.

Shop at Walmart or shop at the bodega on the corner, but make sure that’s not the only way you are putting your money where your mouth is.

Personal Nature
Take action! Exercise your voice as a citizen and tell the Senate to cap the pollution causing global warming.

Toxic Ignorance is Not Bliss

Why I’m Outraged About BPA and Other Chemicals, and What We Can Do

We are exposed to thousands of synthetic chemicals all day long. It would be next to impossible to avoid them; they lace our lives. We sleep on chemical fire retardants in the fabrics covering our mattresses. We wake and wash with chemical soaps, and slather chemical-rich moisturizers on our bodies, shampoos on our heads, cosmetics on our faces. We cuddle our babies in plush armchairs, upholstered in fabric that is treated with stain-resistant coatings. Our toddlers cut their teeth chewing plastic toys that contain chemicals to make them soft.

We live in a society that, if anything, seems too full of rules and regulations. But that means we can trust the products that come to market; they’ve been analyzed and researched and exposed to exhaustive, long-range testing, right?

Wrong. Most of the synthetic chemicals we live with—and some are so pervasive that they are now in the bodies of virtually all Americans—are under-tested and under-regulated. Those bottles, those non-stick pans, shampoos and lotions, those cleaning products—so much of the stuff of everyday life—may, in fact, be harmful to our health. All those times I nestled a warm bottle into my hungry child’s mouth, I may have been exposing him to toxic substances.

“Without agreeing to it...we have become the chemical industry’s guinea pigs.”

“Society needs to pay much more attention to this problem,” says Dr. Richard Denison, Senior Scientist at EDF. “We’ve been complacent about it.” Denison maintains an influential blog tracking the debate over chemical safety.

In 1976 Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Unfortunately, the 62,000 chemicals on the market at that time were given a free pass: no requirement they be tested or assessed for safety. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has garnered some information about chemicals through voluntary submissions by industry in a program that EDF helped start, limited testing has been required on a mere 200 chemicals over the past three decades. Worse, EPA has managed to restrict only five substances—and even that overstates the agency’s efficacy. The only group of chemicals entirely banned was PCBs, because Congress required it. Even Cal Dooley, the president of the American Chemistry Council, commented on EPA’s incapacity in this matter: “EPA cannot make a determination on whether or not a chemical is safe for its intended use.”

We should be worried about what amounts to a huge, uncontrolled human testing experiment. Without agreeing to it, without understanding it, without even knowing it, we have become the chemical industry’s guinea pigs. “We have a system that puts the burden of proof on the government to show that a chemical is harmful,” says Denison. “We need to flip this. The burden of proof should be on industry, to show that a chemical is safe.”

The chemical most in the headlines these days is bisphenol A (BPA). Among its many applications, BPA has been used in the linings of food cans, and because it makes plastic clear and nearly shatterproof, it has been used in baby bottles. Traces of BPA have been found in the bodies of 92% of Americans.

Bisphenol A has been getting attention as scientists have released reports showing that this compound–first identified as a “synthetic estrogen” in the 1930s–is an endocrine disrupter. It has been connected to increased breast cancer risk, altered brain and breast development, altered thyroid function, recurrent miscarriage and erectile dysfunction. While independent scientists and industry chemists continue to debate acceptable levels of leaching and toxicity, some states, manufacturers and retailers have taken it upon themselves to ban BPA from baby products. Even Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, no longer sells BPA baby products. While this is terrific, the federal government should ban BPA from all products. Babies always ignore labels telling them not to chew on the grown-up’s stuff.

BPA seemed like a good idea at the time. A plastic bottle meant your toddler wouldn’t crash to the floor holding glass in his hands. Lightweight plastic launched two year olds into the take-out habits of our dining culture: Those sweet fruit drinks, steadily leaking through the nipple, led to rampant tooth decay. Dentists began protectively coating children’s teeth with–you guessed it–plastic sealants containing BPA.

BPA is a telling example of the shortcomings of America’s regulatory processes. It was one of the chemicals that sailed past TSCA in 1976, and is now produced in amounts exceeding 6 billion pounds annually, even though its hormone-like properties have been known since at least the 1930s. And BPA is a harbinger of even greater trouble in the industry. Christopher Gavigan, executive director of Healthy Child Healthy World, says there are many other chemicals that raise similar concerns. To name a few: flame retardants (PDBEs), phthalates (used extensively to soften plastics) and organo-tin compounds, which harm aquatic life. Denison underscores the danger: all these synthetics are in widespread use, humans have been significantly exposed to them, and there is growing evidence of their toxicity.

“We have much better science today than we did thirty years ago,” says Denison. “We are gaining an understanding of our biological response to even small doses of chemicals. But we have old regulations—blind to the new science.”

As consumers, we find ourselves in a familiar and uncomfortable position: individual efforts to stay safe, versus inadequate information and weak government regulations. Indeed, it often seems that government protects industry better than people. Consumers can try to avoid BPA-laden canned food. We can be vigilant about not using anything that has known carcinogens in it. We can consult websites (like those listed above on the right) to get some of that information. But there are countless undisclosed chemicals in everything we use. We have no clue where the next toxin lurks. The burden of responsibility should not be on the consumers. Manufacturers must be held accountable for the safety of the products they make and sell.

We shouldn’t despair—but only because that won’t do any good. We should be outraged. We should make noise, lots and lots of noise. Demand reform of the laws governing toxic substances. Demand that the EPA have the power to restrict the use of dangerous chemicals. Demand more rigorous testing. Demand transparency: Ingredients that might be harmful to human health should be disclosed. But more to the point, products made with unsafe or untested chemicals should never reach the marketplace. Because that’s how they end up in our bodies, and in the bodies of our babies. When it isn’t clear that even the smallest exposures to certain chemicals are safe, regulators cannot continue with business as usual. You can take action right now—tell Congress to strengthen standards for toxic chemicals.

Our social networks are buoyed by trust. Trust in the companies that make the things we buy. Trust in the stores we buy things from. Trust that our government makes laws to protect us. Trust that most people believe in doing no harm. But trust is earned, not assumed. And it has been broken. It is up to us to demand, more than anything else, the repair of trust between consumers, industry and government. Now more than ever, we need the retailers we have been trusting to take the lead on ensuring that we aren’t being poisoned by the things they are selling. Their combined market leverage will provoke greater cooperation from manufacturers, and pressure government agencies to require transparency and proof of safety.

There shouldn’t be anything to hide, should there? As with any relationship, all we’re looking for is good chemistry.

Take action! Tell Congress to strengthen standards for toxic chemicals.

Solutions that Work

Last spring, Walmart announced the creation of GreenWERCS, a tool to assess the chemical ingredients of household cleaners, personal care products and other chemical-based items on its shelves. With this new tool, Walmart can get information about hazardous waste potential, toxic substances such as carcinogens, or other chemicals of concern in the products it sells. EDF’s Michelle Harvey co-chaired the working group that spent 18 months developing the tool’s evaluation criteria. (Read more about this process and partnership between EDF and Walmart.)

One problem that EDF and Walmart had to confront was suppliers’ requirements to keep the formulations of their products confidential. Because under current chemical policies companies are not required to disclose which chemicals are used in many types of consumer products, neither Walmart nor the public know the chemical composition of such products. To identify potential chemicals of concern, Walmart needed 100% full disclosure of ingredients. The stopgap compromise that EDF helped develop to get Walmart over this hurdle requires the information be collected under confidentiality agreements by a third party for assessment. This lets the third party evaluate and inform Walmart as to whether there are chemicals of potential concern in a given product without disclosing the product’s formulation to Walmart.

The GreenWERCS results can be used by Walmart to initiate dialogue with product manufacturers on the chemical ingredients in their products and can be used to encourage safer substitutes. And best of all, the tool is available for other retailers to use.

“GreenWERCS is a robust first step towards bringing the safest possible products to consumers and complements EDF’s work to reform chemical safety legislation and press for full public ingredient disclosure,” says Harvey.

When the world’s largest retailer demands change for the better, it usually happens, as when Walmart requested laundry detergent with less water. The bottom line is: more sustainable products benefit us all.

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