Thursday, September 17, 2009

The five main points

Please view Eating for the environment for ongoing updates of global statistics.

1. Limiting the consumption of meat and dairy:

Even if we don’t feel completely ready to cut out all animal products from our diets, it will make a significant difference to the planet if we all limit the amount of meat, dairy, fish, and eggs that we purchase.
(see more on this in the article below)
“Raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined” – UN Environmental Report

2. Buy only Organic corn and soy.

About 65% of the corn and 75% of the soy grown in the U.S. is now Genetically Engineered. Not only does corn require a massive amount of pesticides but most of it is grown just to feed factory farmed livestock. Because of the corn surplus we are now using high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener in almost every product on the market. A direct result of this is the unprecedented obesity we see in our children and the diabetes epidemic that now affects over 20 million Americans.

3. Eat local

Using your purchasing power to support local farmers is one of the best ways to help both the environment and your immediate community. By eating foods that are grown within a 100-mile radius of where you live you are not only living closer to how nature intended but also preventing the unnecessary use of oil needed to ship fruits, vegetables and meat thousands of miles in all directions.

4. Buy a water filter and limit your use of bottled beverages.

In the U.S. alone we use approximately two million plastic bottles every five minutes and 270 million aluminum cans each day. The amount of oil needed to make these plastic bottles equals about 15 million barrels a year. Most plastic bottles do not get recycled, but keep in mind that while recycling is preferred it is not possible without still more use of fossil fuels. Moreover, it takes 3 liters of water to manufacture just 1 liter of bottled water. So buy a stainless steel thermos and re-use instead.

5. Grow your own food or join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)

If you have the space grow your own fruits, vegetables and herbs. If not, join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and shop at local farmer's markets whenever possible. By joining a CSA you will be supporting sustainable family farms whether you live in a big city or small town.
Lawns in the U.S. take up 25 million acres of land while food packaging accounts for 30 million tons of waste annually.

What to eat for the environment

Most of the discussion on this site deals with the subject of what not to eat or drink, rather than what we should be eating. I’ve written it in this way for many reasons. Firstly, because the mainstream American diet has become so destructive that if we all cut back just 25% on our consumption of meat, dairy, corn syrup, and bottled beverages we would probably go from being the nation that causes the most eco-damage to the leader in solving the problem.

Secondly, I did not want to delve too deeply into food comparisons as this invariably brings up the contentious subject of personal nutrition which is beyond the scope of this book. And lastly, I’ve found that as most people begin to make food choices from a more educated and conscious starting point they naturally replace the relinquished foods with alternatives that are healthier for themselves and the planet. Having said that, I understand that making the jump to a true environmentalist’s diet may be easier if some alternatives are introduced. The foods I mention here are the ones that will have both an immediate positive impact on the planet and your health.

Eat real food

It may sound odd, but by simply eating more real food – meaning edibles that take their nutrition directly from the soil and the sun – we are already helping to heal the planet. For simplification purposes, real food may be defined as all fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Sadly, real food has become quite alien within the Standard American Diet. It has become such a problem that many people who are raised on fast food actually experience withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, shakes, and fevers when they replace real food for the artificial products they are used to. Refined packaged products, that often include man-made supplements and preservatives, are a drain on our natural resources and on our health care system, while real food actually works to counter the effects of chronic disease as well as carbon emissions.

According to the USDA: “Farm and grazing land soils are currently storing: 20 million metric tons of carbon a year…With improved management, farms and rangelands have the potential to store an additional 180 million metric tons annually, for a total of 200 million metric tons a year. This would be 12 to 14 percent of total U.S. emissions of carbon”. This is asking a lot of certain farmers who are struggling just to keep their business operational, but the more that the public demands fresh, wholesome food, grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (aka real food), the easier it will be for all farms to improve their growing methods and crop management.

We all know that trees will absorb carbon from the air, which is why many companies try to offset their carbon footprint by planting more trees in the right places, but the beneficial effects of agricultural crops is not as widely understood. This is why organic fruit is a particularly important crop. Once established, most fruit trees continue to bear fruit year after year, not only feeding us nourishing, hydrating food but continually taking in carbon and releasing oxygen. The longing for the fructose in fruit is written into our genetic code and has been the sugar of choice since humans first walked the earth.

When scientists manufacture sweet treats in a lab they are basically taking our innate craving for sweet fruits and amplifying it by using the flavors that we love but adding more sugar or corn syrup to appeal to our modern palettes. Unfortunately, children who are raised on processed sweets become so accustomed to this heightened sugary taste that fundamental fruits such as apples, pears, and bananas begin to taste bland to them.

Additionally, in many ways real food takes up much less space on already overcrowded planet. It generally takes less space to grow, less space to store, and less space once we are finished with it. For example, consider the difference between eating peaches that may be stored for years in an aluminum can versus peaches that are in their whole state. The canned peaches will not only be lacking in nutrition compared to their freshly picked counterpart, but the can itself (which took energy to create) will either wind up in a landfill or in a recycling center, adding once again to the useless stream of garbage, carbon, and methane that we generate. The bottom line is that by simply making real food the largest percentage of your diet you are doing more for the planet than almost any other lifestyle change.

Hemp – America’s crop of the future

"Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere."
--President George Washington, 1794

"Hemp and tobacco were staple crops for our founding fathers when our country was new. It is baffling to see how far removed from real freedom this country has become since then. Hemp, even for industrial uses, of which there are many, is illegal to grow at all." – Republican Congressman Ron Paul

As I write this a quiet battle is being waged between the allies of industrial hemp, which includes many U.S. farmers, politicians and forward thinking companies, and the retractors of hemp products, which includes the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEAD), politicians, and companies that want to keep hemp off the market for fear of competition. At this point, sixteen states have passed pro-hemp legislation and eight states (Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia) have removed barriers to its production or research. But even with the barriers removed farmers still need a permit from the DEA to grow hemp legally but this permit has not been forthcoming. The DEA has used and abused its power to inhibit farmers from growing hemp in their home states based on an archaic and asinine law that equates industrial hemp with marijuana.

Industrial hemp is the non-psychoactive, low-THC, oilseed and fiber varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant. Due to its negligible amount of THC hemp cannot be used as an hallucinogenic drug. In fact, many claim that since hemp is high in CBD (cannabidiol, a cannabinoid in hemp) it actually suppresses any effects of THC on our brain centers. Presently in the U.S. industrial hemp (which may be thought of as the roots, stalk, and stems of the cannabis plant) is legal to possess, but marijuana (being the flowers, buds, or leaves of the plant) is illegal. And although Americans purchase more industrial hemp products than any other nation in the world it is still against the law for farmers to grow it on American soil. This is at the core of the controversy over hemp, but for anyone who has fully investigated this issue it is really a no-brainer.

Not only is hemp native to our land, it was grown by some of the founding fathers of America, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who drafted both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution on hemp paper). In the early days of Virginia there were times when it was actually illegal not to grow hemp as it was recognized as such an important community crop during difficult times. By 1850 there were well over 8,000 hemp "plantations" in the U.S. that grew industrial hemp for cloth, canvass and rope. In the 1920’s Henry Ford, father of the automobile who considered agricultural materials to be the fuel of the future, even designed a car that ran on ethanol made from hemp.

The reason that the so many innovative Americans encouraged the cultivation of hemp is due to its versatility and sustainability. It can be easily grown with no pesticides, very little energy output, and small amounts of water. Additionally, it’s no secret that industrial hemp can be utilized for more purposes than almost any other plant. Some of the most common uses for hemp include: food (breads, protein powders, nuts, and cereals), edible oil (one of the most nutritious sources of healthy Omega rich fatty acids), biofuel, clothing, bags, socks & shoes, ropes & netting, paper (cardboard & packaging), bedding, and body care products (shampoo, soaps, and cosmetics).
Considering the versatility of industrial hemp it should come as no surprise that there are many powerful special interest groups that do not want to see it grown and propagated here in the U.S.. Once educated, the American consumer would benefit greatly from affordable, local access to hemp products and the American farmer would be thrilled to add a new trouble-free crop to their collection that is already in high demand.

So if hemp is truly a win-win crop for the grower, the buyer, and the earth why aren’t we taking advantage of this opportunity? Moreover, why is every other industrialized nation allowing their farmers to grow hemp while the U.S., which prides itself on fairness and free market competition, has made it illegal. There are many possible answers to these questions, but if you look deep enough you will find that it all comes down to one word: fear.

From clothing to paper to fuel, the companies that have locked in their customer base are fearful that if hemp were produced right here in the U.S. it would lead to declining interest in their products. The cotton industry, for example, feels that their profits will be directly impacted by more hemp on the market. Not only does cotton require at least double the amount of land in order to grow the same amount of fiber as hemp, but growing conventional cotton requires massive amounts of pesticides. In fact, an unbelievable 50% of the world’s pesticides / herbicides are used for cotton production. Hemp, on the other hand requires little or no pesticides and only moderate amounts of water. The timber industry also fears the legalization of industrial hemp because they realize that hemp can be used as both a building material and a reliable paper source. Back in 1916, the USDA calculated that by the 1940’s all paper would come from hemp so there would be no need to clear cut land just for paper products. Their report noted that hemp produces a new crop every season, while trees took decades to be ready for cutting, and hemp yielded more than four times as much pulp per acre as timber, making it a cheaper and more sustainable source for all grades of paper (see:

Unfortunately, fear is also present in the minds of the American citizen, who for far too long has been spoon fed horror stories about marijuana and its link to hemp. We have been told that if many acres of American soil were filled with legalized hemp then there would be no way to distinguish it from it’s hallucinogenic sister plant, thereby adding to more drug trafficking and violence right here within our borders. As so often happens, fear is being used to override fact. Industrial hemp plants grow very tall and very close together while marijuana needs space to thrive, so hemp would quickly overtake most of the marijuana in the fields. More importantly, hemp has such miniscule THC levels that if the two were grown side by side the cross pollination would ruin the marijuana’s female bud production, rendering it practically useless.

On April 2nd 2009 the federal bill HR 1866 - The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009 - was introduced by Representatives Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX). If passed into law this bill would remove restrictions on the cultivation of non-psychoactive industrial hemp. Due to industry pressure and mainstream misunderstanding, it seems unlikely that this bill will pass on its first attempt, but with the attention that it has gathered more Americans now appreciate the magnitude of this issue. There is finally a consensus among all type of Americans who now realize that hemp is not just another crop that we can idly overlook.

By way of the media and internet there is a growing grass roots movement working towards the legalization of industrial hemp. I’m confident that this bill will come up in again Congress, and when it does it’s imperative that we make our voices heard so that our representatives cannot pretend to misunderstand how important this measure is to our economy and our environment. Once hemp is growing legally, as it should have been for the past century, we will then utilize it in more ways than we ever dreamed possible. Meanwhile, it is equally important that we all cast a vote right now by including more hemp food, cosmetics, and clothing in our everyday life. By supporting the purveyors of hemp products we are demonstrating that America is already educated, willing, and eager for this crop of our past to become the crop of our future.

Chocolate (Cacao)


Whether you consider yourself a carnivore, omnivore, vegan, or locavore there’s a good chance that you still enjoy a decadent dessert from time to time. One of the most widely consumed and sought after sweets is chocolate. And while Switzerland, Austria, and Ireland lead the world in chocolate consumption the U.S. still eats its fair share. In 2001 Americans consumed 3 billion pounds of chocolate, which totaled $13.1 billion in sales. Long known for its creaminess, versatility, and mood enhancing qualities, chocolate has been a sought after food in Europe ever since the early 1500’s when the conquistador Hernan Cortes supposedly brought it from Mexico to Spain after his overthrow of the Aztec Emperor Montezuma.

In the grand scheme of things, most think of chocolate as being a bit naughty or even hedonistic. We may have grown up pestering our parents for a scoop of chocolate ice-cream or a piece of chocolate cake only to be told that we would first have to finish our dinner before being allowed a prize such as that. But what most of us never learned is that all chocolate treats start out as cacao beans, which happen to be one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. Cacao has been enjoyed in its pure, raw form for roughly 5,000 years in the South America region where it is able to grow wild. Known for its medicinal qualities, the Mayans were the first, but far from the only, civilization to use cacao beans as a form of currency. In and of themselves these beans are a fairly bitter food which is why they didn’t gain notoriety in Europe until additives like sugar, milk, and a multitude of possible flavorings were mixed in to create delicious desserts while never losing the underlying chocolaty taste.

There may be three main reasons for chocolates long-lasting, mass appeal. One of the reasons being that it contains a measurable amount of caffeine. This in and of itself is never a problem, but when we combine the small amount of caffeine with a fair amount of sugar we wind up with a sharp increase of energy that will lead to an inevitable crash as the day goes on. The second reason for its popularity is an element called anandamide. This neurotransmitter is an oil that has been called the “bliss chemical” because it is generally released in our bodies when we are feeling our best. Some studies have linked the “runner’s high” to the production of anandamide which may carry endorphins through the blood-brain barrier to give us a feeling of exhilaration. And lastly there is the caffeine related alkaloid called theobromine, a very mild stimulant found in cacao that is often mentioned as the possible culprit for chocolate addiction. Theobromine has also been used as a heart stimulant and cough suppressant.

Past civilizations have called cacao the “food of the Gods” and many nutritionists seem to concur when they assert that raw cacao is nature’s most perfect all around food. In addition to anandamide cacao is rich in magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, and vitamins B1, A, C, and E. Cacao beans also contain polyphenols, similar to those found in wine, which have a powerful antioxidant effect. Cacao and chocolate also contain tryptophan, an essential amino-acid which aids the bodies production of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter and a significant mood elevator in its own right.

If you are a self-proclaimed “chocoholic”, who feels a trifle guilty each time you indulge, then there is wonderful news. If taken in its raw, unadulterated form chocolate is actually very healthy for both you and the planet. Once heated and mixed with sugar cacao loses many of its beneficial qualities, but when eaten raw (either alone or blended with natural sweeteners) it is rightly known as a superfood. Furthermore, the tree that bears the cacao fruit is one of the most sustainable and productive on the planet. Although it has some very specific requirements for growth, once established it is one of the only trees that can produce food year-round. This is an extremely important point when we consider the current threat to many of our crops and increased dearth of good arable land. Cacao trees need steady warm temperatures in a humid climate, regular rainfall, and protection from harsh winds, but they grow best in partial shade in places like the tropical rainforest. This means that cacao can easily be grown right under the rainforest canopy without having to bulldoze the existing land, as we have been doing to grow conventional soybeans.

Presently most of the world’s supply of cacao (about 75%) comes from two West African countries: Cote D'Ivorie (Ivory Coast) and it's neighbor, Ghana. However, the rarely reported horrific fact is that the massive world demand for chocolate has created child slavery in these regions. The largest chocolate manufacturers, such as Nestle and Hershey, have been quietly purchasing cheap cacao from farms that, altogether, use as many as 100,000 children for slave labor. Amid public pressure there has been some progress made in this area but nothing close to alleviating this tragic issue. For this reason, among others, it is particularly important to seek out either the “fair-trade” or “certified organic” label whenever you buy chocolate.

There is every reason to believe that places like Brazil and Ecuador, where there is already an ample amount of cacao production, can someday become major exporters of this remarkable food while at the same time assisting in protecting the rainforest. An adult cacao tree produces anywhere between 300 to 1,000 pounds of cacao per acre for about 50 years. This tells us that when we plant chocolate in this region we are working to keep the rainforest safe, indigenous people employed, and countless numbers of exotic plant and animal species from extinction.

Quinoa & Indoor sprouting


Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wa”), is a highly nutritious grain that comes from the Andes mountains of South America and was one of the three staple foods of the Incas. Technically quinoa is a fruit that is used as a grain, so it contains no gluten, which causes digestive problems for many people. Quinoa is not only a complete protein source but it contains more protein than any other grain (around of 16 percent, compared with 14 percent for wheat and 7.5 percent for rice), which makes it an excellent food for people transitioning off of a meat centered diet. It is also high in iron, calcium and magnesium. In recipes it is often used as a substitute for rice but it can also be used as a porridge, a dessert, or in middle-eastern dishes like tabouli. With its increased popularity, you can now find quinoa being sold in the form of pasta and polenta.

During its growth cycle the outer coating of quinoa has a very bitter taste which makes it undesirable to most insects and birds, therefore needing very little man-made protection. Some distributors process it to remove the bitter coating, but if not all it takes is a thorough rinse before cooking to rid yourself of the harsh coating that can also be slightly toxic in large amounts. Once boiled, quinoa has a very light, nutty flavor that works well as a side dish, a main course, or as a creative addition to soups. It’s also very convenient as it takes less time to cook than rice and is generally easier to digest.

Aside from its nutrition and taste, another good reason to purchase quinoa is that it is grown in South American countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Chile where third world farmers work hard to produce quinoa with minimal equipment and resources, as compared with our modern farming methods. Thankfully it has also managed to remain largely untainted and unaltered in this voracious world of corporate agribusiness. Unlike many staple crops that have lost most of their varieties, Peru and Bolivia maintain seed banks with 1,800 types of quinoa. With all of its virtues it’s easy to see why the Incas called it the “Mother of all grains” and the United Nations classified quinoa as a “Super crop”.

Indoor sprout gardens

If you are someone who is motivated to eat healthier and grow your own food but feel intimidated, either by lack of money, space, resources, or time, then learning how to grow fresh sprouts at home may be the perfect way to begin. Sprouts are economical, highly nutritious, and easy to grow in large quantities, especially after you’ve done some experimenting. As opposed to an outdoor garden, that may need ample sunlight and quality soil, sprouts require only a tiny amount of space and can be grown in a sprouting kit, a mesh bag, a glass ball-jar, or any large container that allows the seeds to stay moist while the air circulates around them to prevent mold.

Sprouts are essentially baby plants that are bursting with living enzymes, protein, and minerals. By weight, sprouts are generally more nutritious than most vegetables. Some of the most common sprouts include: mung bean, alfalfa, broccoli, buckwheat, chick pea, clover, mustard, radish and sunflower. Studies have shown that certain sprouts contain high levels of anti-oxidants which aid in the prevention of cancer, asthma, and premature aging. UCLA researchers have recently reported that a compound in broccoli sprouts can protect against respiratory inflammations that cause conditions like asthma, allergic rhinitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Studies have also shown that phytoestrogens, which are plentiful in many sprouts, play an important role in prevention of menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, cancer and heart disease.

For most people the main drawback to eating sprouts may be the taste, or at least the perception of how they taste as so many of us are too picky to give them a try. If you fall into this category then try mixing sprouts with your favorite sauces or salad dressings to mask their “sprouty” aftertaste. Sprouts are extremely versatile and can be added to sandwiches, soups, wraps, or dips. Also, try sprouting a combination of seeds that include some of the spicier ones like mustard and radish to make the salad mix more palatable.

I find that one of the great things about having a variety of sprouts on hand is that they are a great “grab and go” snack food. Most Americans complain that they are too busy to eat healthy, so they opt for buying between meal snacks that are either heavily salted or overly sweet. But when you have a few containers of sprouts in the frig you can easily take them with you in a small plastic container to be used as a quick fix that will give you energy rather than exhaust it.

Since organic seeds are inexpensive and easy to grow, taking some time to find the ones you like best can be a fun project. Since they grow quickly you can make it into a little science experiment for the whole family, watching how they change from day to day. A large bag of sproutable seeds may cost anywhere from $2-$5 and will yield about six servings, as compared to organic green vegetables that will cost approximately $2 per serving. What's more, as long as you keep the seeds in a cool dry place they should stay fresh for at least two years, which also differs from harvested vegetables that have a much shorter shelf life.

To summarize, even if you’ve always thought of sprouts as something that only old time hippies or eccentric vegans grow in their basement, keep an open mind and give them a try. Use them as a substitute for nuts or trail mix. Throw them into a soup or blended drink to get used to their texture. Admittedly, their taste is far removed from the flavors at your local fast food restaurant, but with some creativity you’ll be surprised how your own tastes may change.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Comparing addictions

Addiction may be defined as a “Compulsive physiological and psychological need for a habit-forming substance.” The subject of addiction has been explored and debated for many decades. We have come a long way in recognizing, understanding, and treating people with addictions of all sorts, but one thing is for sure, no therapist or society can eliminate addiction from the human condition. Most experts agree that you cannot truly help a friend or loved one through their addictive crisis until they are first ready to admit that there is a problem. This admission is an important first step because, clearly, why would anyone willingly remove a pleasurable part of their life unless they view it from the vantage point of having an ultimately negative or harmful result.

Still, as vital as the admission may be, it is only the first step on a long journey towards recovery and independence, a journey that will doubtlessly have many pitfalls along the way. However, well before any individual names their addiction or admits to its detrimental effects there is an awareness of an underlying fear that lurks just below the surface of their brash facade; a fear born from the supposition that the loss of a certain delight will cause immediate and possibly long lasting suffering to some small part of themselves that has been so carefully hidden and smothered behind the veil of normalcy.

I think it safe to say that we all have an addiction of one kind or another that gets us through the day. These may range from caffeine to chocolate to gambling to sex, but whatever our vice may be it is largely a question of degree that distinguishes the casual user from the dangerous addict who may go on to ruin themselves, and even their family, in pursuit of their chosen sin. We tend to label this sort of person as having an “addictive personality”. This label, while valid enough, is still a sweeping generalization. It serves us by giving a name to something that needs attention and treatment, thereby allowing motivated people to take the next step forward, but at the same time this label makes the rest of us feel a little bit better about ourselves. After all, we may have our own quirks, compulsions, and cravings but obviously they aren’t interfering with our ability to do our jobs or be good parents, so we must not be addicted – meaning “we could quit whenever we want”.

I’ll never forget a discussion that I had years ago with a close friend who was seeking help for his addiction to alcohol. After much listening I said, “I can understand liking something but I’ve never understood needing it. I guess my mind just doesn’t operate that way”. He countered by saying “Well, try giving up all processed sugar for just one week”. As soon as he said this I a felt a lump form in my throat, it was not that he had stated it as a challenge, but I knew myself well enough to know that I would have to give it a try, and as someone with a sweet tooth I also knew that it wouldn’t be easy. In fact it was harder than I imagined. When we are free to reach for something anytime, anywhere, it doesn’t take such prominence in our thoughts; it is just there for the taking. But as soon as we make a pact with ourselves to eschew this same item from our thoughts, fingers, and mouths it then takes on such colossal proportion that for the first few days it may be hard to focus on anything else.

Expanding the sin tax

Like coffee and alcohol, most food addictions are seen as fairly benign cravings just as long as they can be held in check. Both food and alcohol are associated with sensory pleasures, social interaction, and forgivable over-indulgence at birthdays and holidays. We all enjoy laughing with friends over dinner as we rationalize another piece of cheese cake or one last beer. Nicotine, on the other hand, has come to be thought of as nothing but a killer, “a disgusting habit” that has no reasonable rationalization and no fundamental value. As a culture we feel justified in our almost violent opposition to cigarette smoke because it has been proven, beyond all shadow of doubt, to not only kill the intentional user but also severely damage the lungs of the innocent bystander. Therefore, politicians, teachers, and the public have gone to great lengths to not only keep cigarettes out of the hands of children but also ban them from restaurants, buses, and most public places.

In essence Americans have come to view the cigar and cigarette smoker as a second class citizen who has given up the right to smoke wherever they wish; indeed, by smoking even ten feet away from us they are said to be infringing on our civil rights by forcing us to breathe in their foul smelling, habit causing, noxious fumes. Since cigarette smokers are in the minority they are an easy mark for politicians. Denouncing both the dependency and the industry not only galvanizes support but it often brings in more state revenue through the “sin tax”. When the majority views a habit as an outright sin, with no possible good coming from it, then common sense dictates that the user should pay more, both as a compensation for health care costs and also as an incentive to quit.

In my home state of N.Y. the cigarette tax was recently raised by $1.25, bringing it up to $2.75 per pack, making it the highest in the nation. Overall it was a very popular move, "The cigarette excise tax increase is critical in saving lives and helping us reach our goal of 1 million fewer smokers by 2010," said State Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines, M.D., "We expect the $1.25 cigarette tax increase will prevent more than 243,000 New York kids alive today from ever starting smoking." Whatever our opinion of the sin tax may be statistics have shown that it works. According to the N.Y. State Dept. of Health, “Raising the price of cigarettes is the most effective way to get smokers to quit”.

To be fair and consistent it would then follow that if any product being sold on the open market were proven to be harmful to both the user and the innocent bystander it should merit a higher tax. As we have seen, factory raised livestock has become a lose – lose situation for everyone, with the possible exception of the corporate hierarchy and a few stockholders. While it may be easier to prove the distinctive health problems associated with alcohol or cigarettes, neither of these vices can touch the cumulative aberrations that the livestock industry pushes onto the planet. Additionally, these environmental toxins are not contained within our seas, skies, or soil, the contamination leaches into our bodies through our drinking water, air and food (at this point grain and vegetables as well as meat).

By measuring the level of toxicity in the average American’s blood or the average mother’s breast milk it can be said without exaggeration that the nitrates, dioxins, pesticides, mercury, and a host of other post-industrial chemicals are making their way into our bodies whether we eat an all organic diet or not. It has been shown that more toxins can be found in human breast milk than in any beverage sold in America. It has been also been shown that there are well over one-hundred man made chemicals now present in the human bloodstream that were never even known to us before 1940. Worse yet, tests have shown that even babies under a year old have high levels of chemicals swimming around in their bloodstream. "We are in an epidemic of environmentally mediated disease among American children today," said Dr. Leo Trasande, assistant director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at the Mount Sinai Medical Center. "Rates of asthma, childhood cancers, birth defects and developmental disorders have exponentially increased, and it can't be explained by changes in the human genome. So what has changed? All the chemicals we're being exposed to."

While there are obviously many industries that contribute to the adverse health of Americans, the food industry is especially culpable due to the increased scope of their pollutants in recent years and also due to the simple fact that everyone must eat and drink. To cite just one example: dioxin, a known carcinogen, often travels for many miles before settling in ground water or grassy fields. Compared to most toxins, dioxin breaks down very slowly, which is why we find them so often in the fat cells of animals and eventually people. The FDA warns us that “Although dioxin is an environmental contaminant, most dioxin exposure occurs through the diet, with over 95% coming through dietary intake of animal fats (including meat, fish, and dairy)”.
Similar to the cigarette companies, food producers understand that if they don’t win over potential consumers by the time they are young teenagers then they are less prone to buy their products as adults. From cookies to cows, children and parents are constantly bombarded by multi-layered advertising aimed at creating both a taste for an unnecessary food as well the illusion of health. Unlike rum or cigars, most parents will not fill their freezers and cabinets with a food unless there is at least some health rationale. This is why food manufacturers spend billions of dollars each year trying to convince hard to please kids that their food is fun and parents that their food is healthy.

As we all know, cigarettes are cancer causing and immediately damaging to the throat and lungs, which is why the government wisely intervened, passing laws banning television advertising of cigarettes and sales to minors. But consider for a moment what would happen if the manufacturing of cigarettes was found to not only harm the individual but also pollute American communities that bordered the factory. My guess is that policy makers would jump on this opportunity to pass even more stringent laws, either requiring cigarette companies to clean up their plants or stop production altogether. With public sentiment on their side this threat would be both popular and expedient.

When it comes to large scale beef, poultry, and pork producers, however, the very mention by any elected leader of new taxes or increased government regulation creates an onslaught of negative rhetoric coming from a very popular industry. Just as the biggest oil producers spent decades disseminating false information about the link between carbon emissions and global warming, so to has the food industry spent much of their time convincing the public that their factories pose only the most minimal threat to the environment. This rhetoric is believed, in part, because the public wants to believe it. Whereas most people don’t care to believe that cigarettes are healthy, they do have a vested interest in believing that their meat is not only healthy but innocuous. Sadly, this over consumption of animal products makes it very difficult for most Americans to conceive of paying more money for local, organic meat much less take the leap towards vegetarianism. Therefore, if we ever expect to offset the numerous negative effects of our meat based culture we’ll have to begin with some changes to our national food policy.

For the sake of education and fairness, one possible compromise might be for the federal government to require that all packaged meat must be labeled with its origin of production. In the grand scheme of things this is a very small step forward, but if we can look at a small plastic toy and see if it was made in China or the U.S. then why shouldn’t consumers have the right to know if their meat was raised on a factory farm or small local farm. At the very least this initial step will make it possible for all concerned consumers to do a little research of their own and find out how far their meat was shipped and what type of growing methods were used.

Another idea would be to impose the same sin tax on factory farmed meat as we now have on cigarettes. This tax could easily be raised or lowered according to the size of the farm and the average level of industrial pollutants that the farm generates. Not only would this raise state revenue, as with the cigarette tax, but it would motivate corporate farms to clean up their act before a catastrophe occurs.

In recent months the beef and dairy industry was furious and frightened due the governments discussion of a greenhouse gas tax. And even though the EPA claimed to have no interest in taxing beef and dairy farmers the media had a lot of fun ridiculing the government for meddling into the livelihood of the humble, hard working farmers who supply our meat and milk, and who would likely be put out of business if each of their cows were taxed up to $175 for belching and farting. While I agree that small sustainable livestock farms should not be further taxed, especially when they are able to recycle their waste back into the land, there is a lot to be said for taxing the cows raised on CAFO’s. If we limit the new cow tax to factory farms then the price of the meat from these farms will have to rise accordingly. In a bad economy any price hike may sound scary at first, but please consider that the price of local organic meat and dairy remains high simply because these farmers take care to treat their livestock as animals, rather than as plastic. If the price of factory farmed meat and dairy must go up based on a federal tax that would go towards cleaning up the eco-damage that they have been creating for decades, then I am all for it.

For many reasons, a sin tax on factory raised meat will be difficult, yet not impossible, to push through Congress. The main hindrance being the advocates that the beef and dairy industry has in many key states where feedlots are big business and major political supporters. Secondly, this new tax would require many respected dieticians and policy makers to label meat as a health hazard, on par with cigarettes and alcohol. Since most mainstream nutritionists agree that meat has both good and bad points, unless consumed in large quantities, they will be reluctant to label it as an unhealthy food. With a little forethought, however, this point should be easy to refute. Since the real “sin” in eating meat is the way in which it is now being produced, our representatives should be able to look past the argument of whether it is nourishing or not and implement a tax based solely on the health risks we all incur merely by living on earth.

Bottled beverages

The marketing of bottled beverages, with a slant towards the health conscious consumer, is a prime example of how a well intentioned idea can be transformed into a major environmental catastrophe. While there are still a few drinks sold in health food stores that are actually healthy, the vast majority of bottled elixirs are just sweetened water cleverly designed to catch our eye with bright logos and fancy bottles. Aside from the dubious health benefits of the beverage, it is the bottle that is the true culprit on the environmental front. Whether we are considering a bottle of soda or water, the plastic, aluminum, or glass that comes along with the product is generally more costly to produce, and more costly to the health of the planet, than what is inside. The irony being that it is the wealthiest nations, where potable drinking water flows freely from practically every faucet, that spend the most money on bottled water, while poorer areas struggle to find enough water for basic human needs.

We all know that water is as essential to human life as oxygen. Therefore back in the early 1990’s, when beverage companies began a big push to sell bottled water, it could only be viewed as a win-win situation. The theory being that active people should easily be able to rehydrate with the highest quality natural spring water available. By drinking more water it would also cut down on the amount of sugary drinks that are consumed. This theory, along with a massive advertising campaign, worked better than anyone dreamed possible. In just three years, 2002 to 2005, bottled water sales doubled, rising to 30 billion units sold annually (earning over $10 billion in sales by 2006), making it not only one of the fastest growing industries of the past decade but the second largest saleable beverage. The advantage of selling water, without the complication of recipes or ingredients, attracted corporate giants like Coca-Cola and Nestle who were in bad need of a healthy product to compliment their line of sugar based beverages.

So with all the goodness of spring water what could possibly be the problem with more Americans drinking it? Before talking of the myriad environmental concerns, we should take note that in recent years companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. have been forced to admit that their bottled water is nothing but purified tap water sourced from public reservoirs. Pepsi’s Aquafina, the best-selling brand, and Coke's Dasani are generally no healthier than the tap water in your own home run through a quality water filter. Additionally, even true spring water can have detrimental health effects due to the transient pollutants in the water or the leaching of chemicals from thin plastic containers into the water, especially when the bottle has been stored at higher than normal room temperatures.

But even if we were to entirely disregard the health argument, the detrimental ecological effects of bottled beverages might be enough to convince us to reduce our dependency. Presently, Americans consume about 8 billion gallons of bottled water per year. Most of the plastic bottles sold are made out of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic which is a petroleum product and can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. Since PET degrades so slowly the discarded bottles will invariably interact with every sort of eco-system as well as a host of animals, some of them wild and many that humans use as food. Furthermore, producing these bottles for American consumption alone requires more than 17 million barrels of oil (not including the energy for transportation); this is enough oil to fuel over 1.5 million cars annually.

Along with production, the problem of what to do with the billions of containers we use each year has always been a dilemma. While recycling is preferred many view it as a necessary evil, as it is not the magic bullet that some environmentalists would like to imagine. In order to recycle anything we still rely heavily on water and energy. Plus it can be a tough sell to local municipalities as the process itself can be expensive and rarely offsets its own costs. However, given the choice between piling containers in a landfill, sending them into the ocean’s depths, or recycling them, it is far better to choose the latter. In fact, producing just one aluminum can from raw materials uses the same amount of energy that it takes to recycle twenty.

Compared to overall consumption all too few plastic, glass and aluminum containers are recycled. Of the 164 million plastic bottles that Americans use each day only about half are recycled and only about 35% of all bottled containers are recycled each year, worldwide the numbers are even lower. The Container Recycling Institute estimates that approximately 15 million barrels of crude oil equivalent were consumed in 2005 to replace the 2 million tons of PET bottles that were wasted instead of recycled.
In my home town of New Paltz, N.Y. we now have beautifully painted recycling bins on every corner of Main St. These bins were sponsored by local businesses that all recognized the importance of keeping our environment clean. While New Paltz attracts many weekend visitors it is still a very small community of under 13,000 residents. It would obviously make a much greater impact if it were obligatory for large cities to place recycling bins on major thoroughfares and subway platforms.

Where it all goes

Possibly the greatest problem with trash versus recycling is that the left over containers are either sent off to landfills or make their way into the ocean (in 2006 Americans tossed 22 billion plastic bottles into landfills). Along with livestock production, landfills are a major emitter of both methane and carbon dioxide. This so called Landfill Gas (LFG) is approximately 50% methane and is created when organic materials are decomposed by bacteria under anaerobic conditions (in the absence of oxygen). While plastic is not an organic waste product and doesn’t emit methane, it still takes up a tremendous amount of space and creates an environment where our biodegradable household trash breaks down with less possibility of going back into the earth as compost and therefore traps methane at lower levels. The good news on this front is that the LFG’s from landfills, being a static environment that can be exploited fairly easily, have recently been used to produce energy. Since most of the methane gets trapped under the rubbish, large gas collection pipes are now able to extract the LFG’s and store it as needed. Nationwide there are presently 455 landfills being used to produce electricity with many more waiting in the wings.

The problem of non-biodegradable containers that have built up in our oceans, however, is a prospect that is slightly more bleak. The industrialized world has largely ignored the accumulation of its own waste products that are now being trapped in large pockets of our oceans. Human consumption and negligence has produced the world’s largest landfill in what is now being called the “Eastern Garbage Patch” (aka the Great Pacific garbage patch), a vortex of unmanageable marine debris that has been trapped by currents in the North Pacific Ocean. This vortex has been on our radar since the mid-1980’s but the classic combination of denial and over consumption has allowed it to swell steadily, now estimated to be roughly twice the size of Texas!

Since plastics do not degrade in the same way that organic waste does, this enormous area (holding approximately 100 million tons of debris, 80% of which is plastic) continues to break down slowly into ever smaller pieces of plastic, eventually becoming tiny enough for aquatic organisms to ingest. In this way the plastic polymers enter our food chain, passing from tiny fish to larger ones. Furthermore, over half of the plastic sinks down to the depths, damaging life on the ocean floor and making our oceans increasingly acidic.

With all the talk of mercury and plastic now found in fish, we might feel better by limiting our consumption of seafood, but even if this safeguards our health there is no escaping the fact that this prodigious waste affects our climate. The ocean plays a critical role in sequestering Carbon Dioxide (CO2), in fact the amount of carbon stored in the ocean is 50 times greater than that in the atmosphere. Overall, the ocean acts as a carbon sink, with a net intake of approximately two billion metric tons of carbon per year, which is equal to about one-third of all human carbon emissions. This continuous interaction between our sea and air is a natural cycle that aims to bring atmospheric levels back into balance by absorbing CO2, trapping it, and then recirculating it for over one-hundred years.

Much of the absorbed carbon will descend to the ocean floor, where it is then trapped within deep ocean sediments. If we fail to clean up our oceans then not only will they begin to lose their greenhouse gas trapping capability but, with rising temperatures and acidity, there is also the possibility of the previously trapped carbon rising up and out of the surface. If the ocean’s pH level continues to fall, as it has over the past two hundred years, much of the previously trapped CO2 would have nowhere else to go but back into the atmosphere, causing global warming to occur at a much quicker rate.

And if the aforementioned issues weren’t enough, there is also the problem of water consumption, just to quench our thirst for water itself. Due to hygiene standards and the manufacturing process, it takes three liters of water to produce each liter of bottled water we produce. So if our intention is to stay hydrated while at the same time safeguarding our most precious natural resource (with the possible exception of oxygen), then the only logical answer is to use an in-home water filtration system and reuse a stainless steel thermos. Given that the upfront cost of a high quality water filter can be upwards of $300, it is understandable why most people opt for the quick convenience of a bottled beverage. But with the cost of bottled water running between $2-$4 per gallon (depending on what brand and how much you buy), and the cost of filtered tap water at about fifteen-cents per gallon (once the filter is purchased), the average American would save enough money in one year to pay back the cost of their filter.

As with most things, the best way to preserve a dwindling supply is to avoid unnecessary waste. We waste water in many ways, but the most commonly discussed - the toilet, lawn, and shower – amount to only about 5% of the overall water usage in the U.S. While this household waste is definitely something to be cognizant of, as it’s generally a simple fix, it will never compare to the water wasted at a factory farm or a bottling facility. When we prioritize a minor convenience over the mounting evidence of coexisting eco-damage years may pass by before any steps are taken to alleviate the consequences. By making some simple and enduring adjustments to our daily diets we will be saving massive amounts of water for ourselves and future generations.

Tropical Rainforests

Presently, worldwide livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet. According to Jim Motavalli, former editor of E. magazine, “The livestock industry accounts for the single largest human-related use of land, with 26 percent of the ice and water free surface of the planet devoted to grazing”. Approximately 260 million acres of forest in the U.S. have been cleared for crop, pasture and rangeland in order to cater to a meat-centered diet. This imbalance has led to over-grazing and heightened levels of ammonia in the soil, causing it to slowly become too acidic for crops to grow (a large scale livestock farm may emit as much as 5 million pounds of ammonia annually). In the U.S. alone, more than 260 million acres of forest have been clear-cut for animal agriculture.

So when we stare down at the meal on our dinner plates we must connect it to the land on which it was grown. As consumers we can place food into two new categories: rather than “organic vs. conventional”, we should think in terms of “sustainable vs. unsustainable”. As much as possible, before purchasing a tomato, apple, or pint of milk take the time to find out if it was produced using sustainable methods. Essentially this is a vote for ourselves, because sustainable agriculture will continue to feed us, and our children, for generations, while unsustainable methods are polluting, insatiable, and finite. If the CEO’s of today’s largest farms fail to learn from the past then they too will be finding themselves trying to grow crops without their most essential ingredient: quality topsoil, and this will happen just as the planet goes through another population explosion.

Sadly, as all this is happening much of the land that has been bought, battered or burned is in the tropical rainforest. The world’s rainforests represent one of the best cures for our tainted atmosphere but they are being removed at a pace that is almost too fast to fathom. Every year we lose 32 million acres of tropical rainforest - an area about the size of England. Of the original eight million square miles of tropical rainforest more than half has been burned or bulldozed, 70% of the former Amazon rainforest (our planet’s breathing source) is being used for grazing or cropland. Not too surprisingly then, for each hamburger that originates from a cow raised on rainforest land, approximately 55 square feet of forest has to be destroyed.

More puzzling still is that while more than half of the planet’s original rainforests have been clear cut to be used for livestock or crop production, most rainforest land is not an optimal setting for grazing. Large scale farms continue to carve out more rainforest land each year to accommodate beef and dairy cows, as well as massive amounts of soy being grown as cow and chicken feed. According to the nonprofit group Greenpeace: all the animals and trees in more than 2.9 million acres of rainforest were destroyed in the 2004-2005 crop season in order to grow crops that are used to feed animals. Additionally, nearly eighty-percent of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon results from cattle ranching. More than 38,600 square miles has been cleared for pasture since 1996, bringing the total area occupied by cattle ranches in the Brazilian Amazon to 214,000 square miles, an area larger than France.

The importance of the earth’s rainforests cannot be overemphasized. Under normal conditions rainforests are the most diverse and complex areas on the planet. The combination of limited sunlight (due to the overhead canopy), mixed with prolific rainfall (often 100 inches per year) makes it an optimal place for the growth of completely unique plants that are both rare, resilient, and medicinal. Some of the plants have evolved high up on the tree branches and are able to extract moisture directly from the air. Many others climb up the tree trunks to grab any sunlight that they can reach. And then there are the “heterotrophs”, a non-photosynthetic plant similar to a mushroom, that can live on the forest floor, finding nutrition in decaying organic matter and root systems. These dense forests are home to half of the planet’s animal and plant species; as an example, a four-square-mile area of rainforest may contain as many as 1,500 different types of flowering plants, many of which we still do not fully understand.

Besides the fact that the rainforest mitigates the effects of Global Warming, the rare and exotic plant life is an amazingly rich source of herbal and pharmaceutical medicine. At least 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide are derived directly from rainforest plants. Many of the compounds used to treat malaria, hypertension, bronchitis, diabetes, among other common diseases are found in abundance in tropical rainforests. According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, more than two-thirds of all medicines that have been found to have cancer-fighting properties come from rainforest plants. When we destroy rainforest land we are not only putting entire groups of species at risk of extinction but we are permanently destroying many opportunities for the continued health and survival of human beings.

When a diet is replete with animal protein it can be easy to forget that all of our food can be traced back to plants and soil. Humans can’t eat animals unless animals first eat plants. Animals can’t eat plants unless the land is rich and healthy enough to grow them. This simple fact of nature’s food cycle should remind us that all of our nutrients and amino acids come to us from plant life. We can therefore state, without hyperbole, that no soil means no life. This is a particularly sobering thought when we consider that most of the world is using it up faster than we can replace it, indeed, many areas of the once fertile and productive Middle East can no longer grow any food at all. Many scientists point to topsoil loss as an equally pressing problem as global warming, but as long as most varieties of food remain so abundant (at least ostensibly, if you happen to be among the middle class) then it rarely gets mentioned as a critical issue.

On a more personal level, by eating lower on the food chain, or at least finding out where our meat and soy comes from, we can all help to halt the ongoing destruction of the world’s tropical rainforests. If the slash and burn practices, that have been going on for decades, are allowed to continue at the present rate we will not only destroy one of nature’s most miraculous havens but we will also lose our single best ally in the fight against global warming. For this reason it is a mistake to think that these natural wonders belong only to the governments where they are located or to the corporations that exploit them. We should treat them as our own back yard, because whether you live in Brazil or Siberia the rainforests have many unseen affects on our planet’s atmosphere and on medicinal remedies, many of which are still yet to be discovered.