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Delving Deeper into the Way We Eat: Six Arguments for a Greener Diet

If the landscape explored in “Six Arguments for a Greener Diet: How a More Plant-Based Diet Could Save Your Health and the Environment” (Center for Science in the Public Interest) sounds like familiar territory, it should: the impact of the modern food and agricultural industries on our health, animal welfare and the environment has provided thought-provoking fodder for many books, including “Fast-Food Nation,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “Appetite for Profit,” “Chew on This” and others. But none of those books delivers the scope and depth of information found in “Six Arguments.”

So if those other books haven’t yet inspired you to adopt a healthier, more sustainable way of eating, give this one a try. I dare you.

Written in an objective, yet accessible, style, “Six Arguments” (authored by Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, along with members of the CSPI staff) sets out with the promise to present a half-dozen reasons for eating better. In actuality, though, those six reasons each encompass many more compelling arguments for greener dining habits.

Consider argument number six: “Less Animal Suffering.” Yes, many — if not most — of us are by now aware that chickens, pigs and cows are raised in overcrowded, unhealthy factory-style farms laden with chemicals, antibiotics and chemicals. But not all of us might appreciate the full extent of that institutionalized cruelty until picking up this book. Things like the routine destruction of millions of newly hatched male chicks (useless to the egg industry) in “what is effectively a modified wood chipper.” Or the use of “poultry litter” — the excrement, feathers, wood chips and leftover feed swept from the floors of chicken farms — as feed for other animals eventually destined for human consumption. Or the abnormal social behaviors adopted by calves regularly removed from their mothers as early as a day after birth: behaviors like obsessive licking and urine drinking.

If that doesn’t make a hamburger or a plate of chicken wings less appealing, “Six Arguments” offers plenty more. It goes into detail about how fruit-, vegetable- and whole-grain-based diets lead to significant reductions in hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. How livestock and their manure contribute to thousands of food poisoning illnesses and hundreds of deaths each year. How industrial monocropping of grains for animal feed depletes the formerly rich topsoils and underground aquifers of our farmland, and generates highly polluted runoff that can enter our drinking water, recreational lakes and fishing areas. And on and on.

While that sounds like an endless litany of bad news, “Six Arguments” doesn’t stop there. We can do better, it reassures us. On a personal level, each of us can pay closer attention to what we eat: where it comes from, how it was produced, what it contains, how it might harm or benefit us.

That alone, though, won’t be enough to fix a broken food system, “Six Arguments” concludes. A healthier, more sustainable food industry will also require a system-wide will to change, and the book ends with a well thought-out list of policy changes that should be enacted at the state and federal levels to help achieve that.

“To that end, some of the policy options suggested here would ‘internalize’ the health and environmental costs of producing animal products,” the authors write. “That would mean paying a little more at the supermarket, but paying less in the form of higher medical costs and a degraded environment.”

The phrase “penny wise and pound foolish” comes to mind at that suggestion. Which one will society choose? Whatever path it takes, it will have no excuse for “insufficient information” with the publication of “Six Arguments.”

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