The beginning of a fresh new year is a perfect time to consider what we eat and why– and to embrace new food choices celebrating health, sustainability, and compassion. If these are things you value, I encourage you to consider joining the growing ranks of the ecovores. It’s a healthy, satisfying, and joyful way to eat!
What’s an Ecovore?
Vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, semi-vegetarian, pescatarian, ethical omnivore: there is no shortage of adjectives used by conscientious consumers to describe what they eat. But there is an often unacknowledged community of purpose, among many of us on this spectrum, whether or not we have the same foods on our plate. We may see different paths to the goal, but our common values lie in why we eat the way we do.
An ecovore is someone who pays attention to the enormous impact personal food choices can make — not only on individual health, but on the surrounding world—and eats accordingly. That generally means some form of a plant-centered diet, with persistent attention to sustainable agriculture and ethical food sourcing.
Western Diet and Health
Over the past decade, it has become impossible to ignore the fact that the standard diet of Western industrialized nations wreaks havoc on human health. Though humans evolved as omnivores, during most of our history meat was scarce and difficult to obtain.
Far from eating meat, eggs, and dairy three to five times daily, most humans before the current era consumed a diet heavily weighted towards plant foods—like all other known primates in the Great Apes family. For our ancestors, meat was added to a plant-centric diet sporadically, almost as a supplement. Cow’s milk only became a regular part of the human diet about 7,500 years ago— just moments ago, in evolutionary time. Humans have a flexible physiology that does permit us to consume a diet high in animal foods, for a while; but our bodies have not evolved to deal well with such a diet for the length of the modern human lifespan.
Prior to the middle of the 20th century most Americans ate meat sparingly, compared to today’s Western standard. Only the wealthy could afford a diet consisting of more meat than plants– potatoes, barley, oats, and other plant foods were much cheaper to obtain, and so more heavily consumed. Not coincidentally, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer were very rare diseases among American adults before refrigeration and industrial agriculture gave rise to the modern Western diet.
During the last half-century, all of these diseases have skyrocketed in incidence, in proportion to our increased meat and dairy consumption — to the point that these diseases are now our leading killers. When other nations adopt a Western diet (consuming large quantities of animal fats and proteins, and large amounts of highly processed foods), then heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer occurrence skyrocket for them, too!
The consensus of current medical research supports the effectiveness of a plant-based diet in reducing risks for all of these diseases — while it has been proven to actually reverse atherosclerosis and heart disease, the leading cause of death for adults in America today. A plant-based diet greatly reduces the risk of developing type-2 diabetes, and can control the disease after a diabetes diagnosis has already been made.
People who eat little or no meat, eggs, or dairy typically have lower incidence and better outcomes for all types of cancers, especially the most common ones in America (cancer of the breast, prostate, pancreas, and colon). After reviewing current medical research, objective organizations such as the American Dietetic Association and the American Heart Association have concluded that eating a primarily vegetarian/ vegan diet is a good way to reduce disease incidence, and lengthen lifespan.
Diet and Environment
High-density factory farming of animals, in order to support Americans’ unhealthy animal-based dietary habits — and the (taxpayer subsidized) corporate takeover of grain farming, to grow cheap food for those animals — has led to environmental and ethics issues beyond the scope of anything ever before called ‘food.’
Aside from the health concerns involved (and along with some very disturbing ethics and cruelty issues), industrial agriculture generates unbelievably incredibly enormous amounts of pollution, and more global warming than any other single known factor.
Industrial farming of produce utilizes intensive monocropping, which encourages pest infestation and leads to progressively heavy use of chemical pesticides. Genetically modified crop species (GMOs) are used more and more often, in order to increase yield; they tend to kill off native plant and animal species, but increase corporate profits. The result is a ‘strip-mining’ effect on the soil, from continually growing the same crop on the same ground; largely unregulated pesticide runoff, into our waterways; and disruption of the ecoweb in ways that we cannot yet fully comprehend (much less rectify).
Over the last few decades, farms have had to ‘get big or get out,’ to the personal and financial detriment of farmers as well as consumers. While companies like Monsanto report record profits, actual farmers find it harder and harder to make ends meet, and make less and less of the decisions (what to grow, whether or not to raise GM crops, how to control pests, etc.). While there may be a need for large scale farming for some crops, production decisions should be dictated by consumer demand and farmers’ benefit — not profits for Monsanto or DuPont, and not subsidy policies designed to benefit meat and dairy industries.
Any argument about increased yields, from conventional industrial agricultural interests, must answer for the inefficiencies within our current food production system. Our largest crop (corn) is heavily subsidized and overproduced, in order to engineer artificially cheap animal feed and unhealthy high-sugar processed foods; fast-food conglomerates dictate potato farming practices, as well as their pricing—so high yields result in neither high profits for farmers, nor affordable nutritious food for consumers.
Since the industrialization of our food system in the mid-1950’s, yields have increased exponentially; this has persistently not resulted in improved conditions for hungry populations, improved nutrition and health for American consumers, or improved financial stability for farmers.
Yields are not the problem. The problem is not that we can’t raise enough food, using sustainable techniques; the problem is that the current corporate- (vs. farmer- or consumer-) driven system makes poor use of our arable land, for the benefit of entities other than either farmers or consumers.
Due to overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, factory farming of animals facilitates development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as encouraging disease mutation and propagation — SARS, West Nile, and H1N1 emergence (among others) can all be traced to industrial animal farming. Along with the meatpacking industry, industrial animal agriculture corporations routinely participate in abusive practices towards workers and farmers, while producing unsafe food– which is frequently so contaminated that the meat must be irradiated or washed in ammonia, in order to kill the disease-causing bacteria carried by the fecal matter embedded in the meat.
Unfortunately, factory farms also contaminate other farms’ products, due to runoff of urine and feces into groundwater or onto surrounding land. Recent recalls of pistachios, tomatoes, spinach, and peanuts were all traced to high-density factory farms’ animal waste.
The degree of cruelty systematically inflicted upon living creatures by industrial animal agriculture cannot be overstated. Again and again and again, when factory farm workers are caught inflicting stomach-turning acts of blatant animal cruelty upon turkeys or calves or pigs, the agribusiness PR folks talk about ‘isolated events.’ Isolated events do not occur repeatedly; by definition, then, these clearly are not.
Faced with public outrage at the cruelty documented repeatedly by hidden cameras, animal agribusiness pursued the only logical course of action. Stop the cruelty? Nope: outlaw the cameras, obviously! Treating living things as inanimate objects yields the highest profits. However, animal industry stakeholders know that even most confirmed meat eaters are revolted by deliberate animal cruelty, and would be nauseated to actually know what ‘standard industry practices‘ they’re supporting. So they fervently strive to make sure consumers don’t know what they are buying.
Indeed, factory farming interests consistently and actively lobby against anti-cruelty measures at every opportunity, such as campaigning against laws targeting puppy mills. Recently the HSUS reached an agreement with the United Egg Producers to phase out battery cages for industrial egg production– arguably one of the most cruel practices of modern animal farming. The result was swift and predictable: outrage from National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the National Milk Producers Federation, with immediate and well-funded pressure being put on Congress to disallow the ban.
In other words, the other animal agribusiness entities are furious that UEP is phasing out a cruel practice never used in their own industries in any way: because they know perfectly well their own practices are deplorable, and fear a trend of reasonable animal welfare expectations by consumers.
If your own ethical values do not embrace dog fighting, cockfighting, puppy mills, or other forms of institutionalized animal cruelty, the animal agribusiness industry has shown repeatedly that it does not deserve your support.
Finally, animal-based diets are inherently inefficient and incredibly expensive regarding use of resources. We are using up our largest inland freshwater supplies at an unsustainable rate, to water factory-farmed animals and the grain on which they’re fed. Any time you take a step up the dietary food chain (i.e. eating the cow instead of the corn you fed the cow), about 80-90% of the energy from the original source (grain) is lost, due to the metabolism and other life processes of the intermediary (the cow). The very best conversion rates (some fish, chicken, eggs) still produce less food energy than consuming the energy directly, in plant form.
The world hunger problem, then, could be significantly impacted by a shift among wealthy nations towards a plant-based diet; we could produce significantly more food with the same resources, compared to current meat-based food production by developed nations. Distribution and access issues also play a role in alleviating hunger in desperate areas; reduction of resource waste may only be part of the problem—but it’s a part of the problem we can change.
Regarding poverty issues here at home, the government uses taxpayer funding — in the middle of a recession, during a time of enormous deficit, during a time when most of our poorest citizens have no functional access to health care — to subsidize the most unhealthy foods! The result is that a pound of full-fat, artery-clogging ground beef (which without subsidies would cost around $90/lb) costs less than a pint of fresh produce.
This practice creates a ‘false cheapness’, which places the poorest families at highest risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. This is unethical treatment of our poorest citizens, and of the taxpayers required to fund the most harmful and unsustainable food production system ever created.
Food revolutionaries, unite!
All of these factors coalesce to form a very clear picture, to those who are paying attention: whether for reasons of health, environment, or ethics, the diet and food production system that we’ve built over the last half-century is due for a serious overhaul!
I propose that step one, for this overhaul, must be the active cultivation of a community of ecovores. We don’t have to agree about eating eggs or honey; we don’t have to agree about whether vegan or vegetarian or pescatarian or ethical omnivorism is the better solution to the problems our industrial animal-based food system has created.
But based on everything we know about human dietary needs; and on what doesn’t pollute the land and water for miles around, or propagate disease, or institutionalize animal cruelty; and on what we can produce sustainably, while making the best use of our shared resources… based on every reason that food choices matter, I think we have to agree that we can do better!
And then we have to go out and do it.
If you’re ready to explore more conscious eating, resolve to make this the year you embrace your inner ecovore:
1. Follow a diet consisting of all or mostly plant-based foods. Research relevant nutrition information, for a healthy transition to herbivorous habits.
2. Refuse to consume factory-farmed animal anything!
3. Seek out locally/ organically produced food, to the greatest extent possible.
4. Seek information about the issues surrounding healthy, sustainable, ethical food choices that match your values—and then act on what you find out!
Recommended resources for new ecovores:
- Plant Based Diet a Solution for Our Health Care Crisis?
- GM Crops Don’t Deliver What They Promise (Report and Video)
- Farm Boy to Vegetarian: Confessions of a Modern Hypocrite
There are many ways to be a food consumer in the modern world, and many labels to draw lines between us based what we eat or don’t eat. But if you eat all or mostly plants; and if you give a damn where your food comes from, what it’s up to in your body, and what was done in your name to get it to your plate: welcome, fellow ecovore!