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Food Fret

By Mary Beth Regan

The problem is startlingly straightforward: Modern agricultural practices use a significant portion of the world's resources and have contributed mightily to the degradation of the planet's soil, water and air.

As the global population--now at 6.9 billion people--continues to increase, food consumption also will rise. For the planet to have sufficient resources to feed future generations, something must change.

"The current industrial system of producing food is based on cheap water, cheap land, cheap oil and cheap labor," says preventive medicine expert and environmental scientist Robert S. Lawrence. "The system simply is not sustainable."

Public health researchers play a critical role in advancing basic and social sciences, and public policy, to move the planet toward a healthier, more renewable way to produce and deliver food. But it is not an easy task. The challenges fall into two broad categories: How can public health experts leverage scientific know-how to make global agriculture more sustainable? And, how can experts push the limits of science to better understand and influence human behavior toward more equitable, healthier dietary choices?

The Bloomberg School's Center for a Livable Future acts as the nerve center for this research. The Center supports projects that examine everything from assessing the health implications of meat consumption to unraveling how antibiotic use in poultry and meat production may actually be cultivating dangerous microbes--including the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Meat consumption, for one, illustrates the sustainability toll. Right now, the planet is on the brink of a global food crisis, with 1 billion people worldwide malnourished. Excessive meat consumption by some isn't helping. The average American man eats 175 percent of the recommended daily meat allowance. It takes a lot of energy to produce that meat: about 7 tons of grain for every ton of beef. That's helping to throw out of kilter the carrying capacity of the planet.

As early as 1990, the late Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug showed that the Earth could produce enough protein to feed the world's population, if only people would shift to a grain-based diet higher in cereals, fruits and vegetables. That hasn't happened.

Public health experts now are making a full-court press to persuade individuals to make different dietary choices, armed with overwhelming evidence that excessive meat consumption is unhealthy. Consider: Red meat and processed meats have been associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, and may increase the risk of other cancers, including that of the prostate, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Still, for generations of Americans raised eating steaks, hamburgers and chicken wings, it can be tough to change. "We know the health impacts of excessive meat consumption," says Lawrence. "The next big question is: How do we motivate people to make healthier choices?"

As one intervention strategy, the CLF provides academic support for "Meatless Monday," a campaign now adopted by Baltimore City schools. The project highlights the health and environmental values of moving away from an energy-intensive meat diet. What's more, policy experts at the Bloomberg School recently have completed the evaluation of a promising pilot program aimed at lowering meat consumption in hospitals, for both environmental and health reasons.

"If people reduced their meat consumption even slightly, it would have a huge impact," says public health policy expert Roni Neff.