Continued: Earth Day Q&A with Mark Berman, MD

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In the first installment in this interview series, One Medical’s Mark Berman, MD, talked about becoming vegan, fighting climate change, and the hierarchy of choice regarding dietary decisions. Don’t miss the first part of this Q&A!

We’ve covered the organic vs. conventional debate on one:life before. Anything you’d like to add?

I agree with Dr. Thaler’s take on the topic, particularly his conclusion about organic food leading to less antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We use about 30 million pounds of antibiotics (roughly 80 percent of all antibiotics used) in conventional meat, egg, and dairy production. Without a doubt, this leads to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that ultimately infect people. If you’ve ever worked in a hospital, you understand how serious this issue is. We live in an age of super bugs. Presently, we see about 900,000 antibiotic-resistant infections occurring every year.We could make a big difference by eliminating antibiotics from our food chain. Let me get political for a moment: While our lawmakers must start standing up to the food industry, we can do our part by not buying conventionally grown animal products.

What’s most important, eating organic or eating locally and seasonally?

Ultimately, the answer depends on what lens you look through. In medicine, we often have a myopic lens and think about food only in terms of nutrients or impact on one particular disease. So, to answer this question from a personal health perspective only, there isn’t a very strong case for organic, local, or seasonal fruits and vegetables. One day we may have more evidence to support these food attributes, but at the moment we don’t. So if you must choose between eating only conventional fruits and veggies or none at all, you should definitely eat those non-organic or non-local fruits and veggies.

However, broadening that lens, there are lots of benefits to organic and local/seasonal foods that make them worth our money. For example, invariably, some farm workers develop serious and potentially fatal pesticide poisoning from applying the chemicals used in growing conventional produce. And although there isn’t conclusive evidence that small regular doses of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals make our food unsafe, it remains an open question. At the very least, it’s hard to imagine they’re good for us. Supporting small family farms also increases the economic health and well-being of our local communities. And eating seasonally will minimize the miles your food has to travel to get to you. Finally, eating a local, seasonal diet arguably vastly increases the pleasure you get from food by turning produce into a special occasion and ensuring peak flavor from the food you eat.

Why is it important to understand where our food comes from?

Simply put, we’ve become fully and totally disconnected from the source of our food. Most of us have no idea how our food is grown and harvested, so we don’t recognize how processed and adulterated it has become. By remaining in the dark, we support the atrocities of confined animal farming operations (CAFOs) and allow these operations to proceed with business as usual. And frankly, we don’t honor the heroes who are reinventing local and sustainable farming. We don’t all have to become as knowledgeable as farmers, but our collective interest in this topic will drive the change we all want. You can see that happening already, which is exciting.

If a person in New York eats an organic banana from Costa Rica that was farmed sustainably, is that a good choice? Why or why not?

This is a great question, as it illustrates the importance of thinking holistically and relatively. Overall, it’s a good choice. Bananas are healthy. Environmentally, there are pros and cons–for example, the banana was sustainably grown but shipped far. Socially speaking, it’s likely a positive economic force for Costa Rica and collectively drives demand for sustainable agriculture. But a good choice always means relative to something else. In the winter, relative to eating no fruit, the banana is a great choice. In the summer, when closer-to-home fruits are available, the banana is a poorer choice.

Where can people find a list of foods to buy organic?

Generally, you shouldn’t need a list to eat well and consciously. There are a few fruits and vegetables that, when conventionally grown, have extra pesticides, so it can be good to familiarize yourself with the so-called Dirty Dozen if you want to choose which produce to buy organic. But most grocery stores do a great job of listing which food is organic or sustainably grown. Alternatively, you’ll notice that the label on organic produce all starts with #9.

What’s the impact of processed foods on human health and the health of the environment?

The devil really is in the details. The words we use to describe food are often overly simplistic. “Processed” is a confusing word, because ultimately we have to process all food (e.g., wash it and cut it up) before we eat it. Many foods we can’t digest without some processing (e.g., shelling nuts). And extra processing of some foods can allow us to get more benefits from the food (e.g., grinding flaxseed). However, if we process many foods further by more grinding, refining, pressing, cooking, extracting, etc., we start to destroy the health benefits of that food and maximize its caloric content. The American diet contains way too many overly processed foods, especially refined grains and added sugars, and these foods are seriously harming our health.

It’s fair to say that processing food is also bad for the environment, as it requires extra energy to run the machinery to process foods, and adds massive amounts of plastic and paper packaging to our garbage mounds.

How do human pollution and waste factor into the picture?

Hugely. Arguably, if our human population were very small, we could be very wasteful without having a big impact on the climate and the environment. But we exist on a massive scale. In the US, we raise and kill over 10 billion land animals per year. Globally, because of westernization of diets and population growth, meat consumption is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999-2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050. It’s unclear how our earth can sustain this growth without massive environmental destruction. Waste is also a major factor. In the US, we throw away 33 million tons of food each year.

Thanks, Mark!


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