One hamburger at a time.
I have been writing a weekly preventive medicine column for the New Haven Register (it has spun off in many additional directions over the years, particularly with the advent of blogging) since 1996. Allowing for roughly a thousand words each time, and given that I have skipped a week only very rarely, that adds up to about 1.3 million words, or the equivalent of more than a dozen full-length books. It may interest you to know that, unlike books, this vocation has been entirely voluntary and uncompensated. The value for me has been in sharing messages I believe matter, and might make a difference.
At one time or another, I have covered nearly every topic germane to my field: heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, obesity, dementia; influenza, Lyme disease, Ebola, and of course SARS-CoV-2; drugs and supplements; chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia; research methods and distortions of science; ideology and epidemiology; screening and vaccines; diet and exercise; sleep and stress and social connections. The list goes on. Some of you have been here all along and know all about it, and to those in that rarefied group (hi, Mom!)- my thanks for your devotion, and my hopes that you’ve learned something useful. To the rest of you- pick a medical topic of interest and my name, and drop them into the Google search box, and there’s a good chance something will turn up.
Why this preamble? No, not because this is my swan song. That will ensue some day, of course, and perhaps fairly soon. But today is on the cusp of COP26, the great meeting of global leaders (so-called) to update our collective response to climate change and the dire peril of our planet. The preamble is to say: none of those topics, none of those 1.3 million words matter- if we don’t rise to the challenge of planetary health.
We will be healthy, vital people on a healthy, vital planet- or we simply will not be healthy, vital people. There are no healthy people on a ruined, inhospitable, and ultimately- for our kind of animal, at least- uninhabitable planet. We are marauding along in that very direction with stunning complacency. I’m with Greta, even though I have spent all these years trying to calm your troubled nerves: now, I want you to panic.
But let’s not stop there; panic is unproductive unless channeled into some action of merit. As Gertrude Stein famously said: a difference, to be a difference, must make a difference. Perhaps we can make one together.
The New York Times recently examined our progress in combating climate change in the lead up to COP26. They noted some progress, but concluded we are a long way from doing enough. To me, though, the salient element in their reporting was what went unmentioned: food. There was no mention of food, diet, meat, or beef- despite the outsized toll meat-centric diets exact as planetary degradations of every sort.
Similarly, when 200 leading medical journals simultaneously published a plea for the requisite climate and environmental action by world leaders, the same essential words- meat, beef- did not appear. We seem to be failing at directing either our money, or our eyes, to where our mouths are.
The conclusion has been reached, repeatedly and decisively, by those best situated to know that beef production and consumption at a global scale is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions; aquifer depletion; extinctions; deforestation; land use; cruelty and abuse to living creatures who feel much as we do; and pandemic origins into the bargain.
We know, as well, tempting as it is to blame Brazil’s deranged president, that the leading reason for the accelerating annihilation of the Amazon Rainforest -among the most iconic of natural treasures on this planet, the great incubator of biodiversity, and the lungs of the world – is the global demand for beef. Supply is just reaction; the inciting action is demand.
Demand means us, in our burger-loving multitudes. That means the power to make a difference resides with us, too.
I have something quite specific in mind: a globally coordinated, one-week boycott of beef in January. This will be “the” New Year’s resolution for 2022: I resolve to help save the Amazon Rainforest. I resolve not to look on passively as the founder of Amazon.com goes to space, and THE Amazon…goes to oblivion.
A one-week boycott is not enough to cost anyone their job, and that’s by design. It’s enough to serve notice that the global sourcing of beef must not come at the expense of pristine rainforest. This is not a general protest of meat consumption, whatever the merits of that might be. Rather, this very targeted action invites the better actors in the beef industry to expel the bad- or face punishment at the cash register. It serves notice that even many die-hard burger lovers consider running the treasure of biodiversity through a meat-grinder too high a price to pay.
There will be much, much more than this to do if we are to realize healthy, vital people on a healthy, vital planet- and bequeath the blessings of just such opportunity to future generations. But this is something we can do: don’t buy or eat beef for just one week in January. It’s a start. We own the power of demand; that matters only if we exercise it for good. The best way to predict the future is to create it. My hope is we all agree, whatever our differences: the future of earth must include the glories of the Amazon.
The health of people and planet are one. Accordingly, my non-profit, the True Health Initiative, is considering taking on the challenge of coordinating this global campaign. If we do, there will of course be dedicated web pages to take the pledge, sign up, lend support, and learn more. For now, I am reaching out through cyberspace to take your pulse. Would you join?
If yes, please email our project coordinator at Brittany@TrueHealthInitiative.org and tell us: I’m in. Your response will help determine our next steps; only in unity is the strength to make a difference. Thank you.
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is the Founding Director (1998) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and former President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He has published roughly 200 scientific articles and textbook chapters, and 15 books to date, including multiple editions of leading textbooks in both preventive medicine, and nutrition. He has made important contributions in the areas of lifestyle interventions for health promotion; nutrient profiling; behavior modification; holistic care; and evidence-based medicine. David earned his BA degree from Dartmouth College (1984); his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1988); and his MPH from the Yale University School of Public Health (1993). He completed sequential residency training in Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He is a two-time diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a board-certified specialist in Preventive Medicine/Public Health. He has received two Honorary Doctorates.