Conservation Biology Institute
Bridging conservation science and practice
November 20, 2012

Reflection before Thanksgiving

I need to eat A LOT less...

A week ago, I listened to Peter Menzel and Faith d'Alusio give an evening presentation summarizing their work over the last 10-20 years travelling around the world to document what people own in their homes, what they eat as a family, and what insects are being eaten around the world.  In their latest book, they explore the different diets people follow around the world. We saw over 200 photos taken by Peter Menzel, a professional photographer who used to work for National Geographic and Life Magazine, from his books Material World: A Global Family Portrait, Man eating bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects and Hungry Planet. His wife Faith used to be a news journalist and now narrates stories around Peter's photos, as she did in their latest book Around the world in 80 diets. They have funded their trips by mortgaging their house, from book proceeds and speaking engagements. They are dedicated to their task of documenting change in human lifestyles.

A week later, I still recall a handful of photos. One was a week's worth of food for a family living in Beijing (a lot of processed, packaged food) versus that for a family in rural China (mostly a lot of fresh vegetables and rice). This was a simple but telling reflection on the impact of urbanization and westernization on Chinese lifestyle and health.  Another set of photos showed Pima Indians from the USA, all obese, and we were told their populations had the highest incidence of type 2 diabetes in the United States. Their Mexican counterparts were lean from the hardwork of farming in the great outdoors south of the border with almost no diabetes in that population where people consumed unprocessed food and had daily exercise. 

Peter and Faith talked about industrialized societies who had to invent marathons to meet the human need for outdoor activity, which our bodies crave to be healthy. Peter showed us a rickshaw driver from India who consumes a little over 2000 calories a day (not enough), who works on his feet all day long, pulling his loaded cart behind him. The next photo showed an American trucker eating 5000 calories-worth of junk food at a truck stop in the United States. Then there were many sobering pictures of obese North Americans. Both Peter and Faith told us how they have seen their friends, people they knew, get fat, and die due to lack of exercise, processed foods, more chemically enhanced than natural, and high sugar content in their diets. Peter and Faith, witnesses of their time, of changes in the society around them and around the world.

In the question and answer session, someone asked "how they could just bear witness without intervening?". Faith told us how some mothers wanted her to take their children away to a better life. She explained she could not say yes, they have four children of their own. Peter and Faith told us about the US Aid they saw, providing GMO food to these starving populations, creating dependency on gifts and lessoning peoples will to work their own land, learning from past experience and aim for a more sustainable future. It was an evening of reflection as we near the holiday season and its food feasts.

A look in the mirror was telling me I eat too much. My footprint on this planet is huge. I sit in front of a computer all day yet I have 3 meals a day. Just like our society consumes too much petrol for unessential activities, we also eat too much. Food production to meet the wants of the developed world uses too much land, too much water, too much fertilizer, too many pesticides. I spend more time typing on my keyboard than tending my garden. Statistics show that people who spend more time outdoors live healthier lives. Change is necessary if I want a healthier life, aware of what others need on this planet, aware of my role at consuming more than my fair share.

On Thursday we will give many thanks, to the land that feed us, the clean water that keeps us from being thirsty or sick, the sunshine that makes our plants grow and our bodies generate Vitamin D, the wind that creates energy that can raise water from the deep ground or generate electricity. Many thanks indeed to our planet for supporting us, in all the meaning of the term, we the species that does not reflect often enough on the carrying capacity of the land it needs to survive, especially knowing that our climate is changing again and may jeopardize the ability of our tired soils to produce what we are so often taking for granted.

About the author:
Dominique Bachelet, Ph.D.
Dominique is a Senior Climate Change Scientist at CBI. She works extensively with a variety of climate scenarios to explore climate change impacts.
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