Earth Day Q&A with Mark Berman, MD

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Today marks the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day, a day intended to foster appreciation for the environment, and awareness of the issues that threaten the health of our planet–and, often, human health. Since its inception, Earth Day has grown into the largest civic observance in the world, with more than one billion people participating in Earth Day activities worldwide every year. This year’s theme is The Face of Climate Change, in recognition of the people who are most adversely affected by climate change, as well as those who are doing their part to address the problem.

In observance of Earth Day, San Francisco-based One Medical provider Mark Berman, MD, shares his thoughts on climate change, and offers insightful, practical advice for making choices that are healthy for you and the planet.

Why did you choose to become vegan?

When I was 15, I became taken with the idea that what we eat can determine our health, to a large degree. I wasn’t thriving health-wise and was inspired to learn there was something I could do about it. What made me change my diet in a comprehensive way was a sense of the profound connections our diet has to the health of the planet and all life on earth. The idea that one daily action could cause or relieve so much suffering on so many levels, while perhaps a touch simplistic, has remained incredibly compelling to me. Finally, I’ve always loved animals and dreamed of becoming a vet when I was a kid. It just didn’t make sense to me that we can love our dogs and cats with one hand and with the other commit equally social, intelligent, and beautiful animals to a life of misery and an early death.

What spring produce are you most excited about?

It’s hard to choose! I get excited about fresh fava beans, morels, and the very rare experience of nettles and fiddleheads. Berries are on my top 10 favorite food list, so I’m stoked about the bright strawberries that are beginning to appear. Mint is becoming bountiful and by association that reminds me of my annual overdose of basil pesto (sans cheese) coming up in the summer.

What does it mean to you to be a face of climate change?

It means being willing to confront the reality that our planet is in trouble. It’s scary to feel partly responsible for the fate of our planet. I sometimes feel I don’t do enough to lessen my impact on the planet or advocate for others to do the same. I live a fairly normal American life and can easily get caught up in the consumerism that is driving climate change. And yet, environmental stewardship is so important. Some of my happiest times are spent enjoying the great natural beauty of this planet, and it’s hard to ignore the onslaught of tropical storms that stem from climate change. So I do my best  to consider the environmental impact of my daily choices. I’m proud to be a part of the “us” generation that realizes our lives are about more than just ourselves. I’m tremendously inspired to see environmental innovations taking root. It feels great to be part of that collective action.

What are a few of the most impactful lifestyle adjustments we can make to fight climate change?

This may surprise you, but by far the most important lifestyle change you can make is to reduce or eliminate meat and cheese from your diet. There are many other lifestyle changes you can make, like using public transportation; walking or biking instead of driving; recycling; composting; and using energy efficient appliances; but these things pale in comparison to the impact your diet has on climate change.

What’s the true impact of our dietary choices on climate change?

Calculating the exact contribution of diet and lifestyle choices to the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) that cause climate change involves hundreds of factors and many assumptions. As a result, estimates vary, but agriculture probably accounts for 10 to 35 percent of all GHGE, with livestock accounting for 80 percent of those contributions. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 18 percent of GHGE is caused by meat and animal-product consumption, but others contend that meat consumption accounts for up to 51 percent of GHGEs. By comparison, personal transportation (e.g. driving) accounts for 12 percent of GHGE in the US. While the exact number will always be a subject of debate, as a general principle, animal foods require considerably more energy to grow than plant foods, simply because you have to feed plants to animals to make animal foods. Red meats (e.g., lamb, beef, pork) and cheese are especially inefficient.

The inefficiency of growing meat is the main problem that contributes to climate change, not the transportation of meat. Transportation of food from farm to retailer only accounts for 4 percent of the food’s emissions. So switching to local meat production doesn’t significantly reduce the climate change impact. But switching from a meat-heavy to a plant-based diet will. By switching to a fully plant-based diet you’d offset about 8,100 miles of driving per year. To put that in perspective, if you ate a fully plant-based diet for just one day, it would reduce more GHGE than if your entire diet was based 100 percent on local foods.

Changing your diet to be more plant-based also benefits the environment in other ways, as animal food production generally leads to significant fresh water use, soil erosion, deforestation, species extinction, and water and air pollution.

Tell me about the hierarchy of choice as it pertains to making dietary choices.

This is an interesting concept. Each of us weighs many factors to decide whether or not to buy or eat something; some factors are more important than others. For example, price, convenience, and taste drive most of our decisions. It’s very reasonable to consider these factors, but it’s also important to consider reordering that hierarchy and broadening the list to include the environment, our personal health, and the impact on other humans and animals.

For me, the easiest way to do so is to first choose plant foods over animals, then whole foods over processed foods, then organic, in-season and locally grown foods when I can find and afford them. This hierarchy still leaves me lots of choice and I’ll naturally choose the options I find most tasty and pleasurable, and which are easiest to find.

Editor’s Note: The Q&A continues! Check out our second installment in this Earth Day series with Mark.

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