A new study published this week examines over a dozen food groups and ranks them based on associated health risk and environmental impact. According to the researchers’ findings, per NPR, foods that carry a lower risk of disease, like fruits and vegetables, tend to take a lesser toll on the planet in terms of pollution, water waste, and land use than foods that carry a greater risk of disease, like red meats (though, apparently, that might be a bit overblown?). These metrics don’t totally square up, one to one; nuts like almonds, for example, are nutritious and modest sources of protein, but they’re also environmentally unfriendly due to how much water is needed to farm them. But overall, the study seems to say, the foods that are better for you are better for the planet, as well.
That’s all well and good, but I’m just not sure what to do with that information. The researchers’ analysis, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doesn’t tell me I should be doing anything with this information, but I feel like I should. I just don’t know what… which is honestly precisely how I should feel when presented with an abstract discussion of food choices that frames the choices I make as a matter of personal agency rather than something decided for me by the political and economic systems I live under!
Knowing that red meat, especially processed red meat, increases my absolute risk of mortality by as much as 20 percent, not to mention my risk for developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer, doesn’t necessarily give me the power to act on that knowledge under American capitalism. I might want to change my diet, but if I’m low-income, food-insecure—as more than 37 million Americans were in 2018—and live in what the Department of Agriculture dubs a “food desert” where pricier produce and whole foods might be nowhere to be found, it’s not guaranteed that I can. Even if I do change my individual consumer habits, forgoing red meat on account of the toll its production takes on our environment, that won’t change decades of government policy that have prioritized domestic production of red meat through farm subsidies while pushing fruit and vegetable production overseas, making the former food group cheaper to purchase than the latter two in the U.S.
There’s nothing wrong with knowing about the health risks or environmental impact of the foods we consume, obviously. Knowing things is great! But the implication, whether intentional or not, that we, as individuals, are fully in control of our food consumption is absurd. These choices are made for us at the structural level. We might be able to expand those choices on the individual level through accumulating personal wealth, but not everyone can count on that under our current economic system, which is also by design.
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