Half of all Americans consider environmental impacts when deciding whether or not to buy a product, according to a survey released this summer by Yale and George Mason universities.
But we show greater dedication to a method of food consumption that runs afoul of the best sustainability practices: the Standard American, or Western, Diet.
“Westerners are eating enormous quantities of sugar, beef, chicken, wheat and dairy products, and washing it all down with an amazing array of caffeinated and alcoholic beverages,” writes NYU Steinhardt’s Amy Bentley, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. “Americans in particular consume over twice the amount of solid fats and added sugars recommended for daily intake, and they consume far fewer fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains than those who lived in earlier eras—and less than experts recommend for optimal health.”
Bentley’s analysis, co-authored with former masters students Michael Bulger, Boaz Hillebrand, Allison Mountjoy, and Stephanie Rogus, is part of a curriculum adopted by TED Studies—educational materials created by TED and published by Wiley.
Their work, “Sustainable Consumption: Reworking the Western Diet,” is designed to offer a deeper understanding of the historical, social, economic, and political forces that have played a role in shaping our modern food system while offering alternative approaches aimed at producing a more sustainable structure—while also bolstering personal and global health. It includes videos of TED Talks’ speakers on related topics as well as analyses by Bentley and her students and additional reference material.
The central problem with the Western Diet, Bentley posits, is that it has bred overconsumption, which has brought on shortages in some parts of the world while spurring a range of health problems across an array of nations.
“Industrialized agriculture and the government policies that encouraged the mass production of food were intended to facilitate better overall nutrition and health around the globe, but they’ve also encouraged excess and—ironically—poor health in many societies,” the authors note.
This trend has put us on an unsustainable path.
“We must reckon with the reality of finite resources, including the water, oil, and arable land that have driven the modern agricultural revolution,” she and her co-authors observe. “Because meat figures so prominently in the Western diet, our ‘ecological footprint’ exceeds by a quarter the planet’s biocapacity.
“Most of the ‘stuffed’ reside in Global North, while most of the ‘starved’ dwell in the Global South. The financial crisis of the last decade, coupled with skyrocketing oil prices, created in some countries severe food shortages that led to riots.”
But there is some developing good news—growing awareness of food’s “genesis,” which is a vital step in bringing about change.
“Today more people are interested in the origins of their food, something that became increasingly difficult during the 20th century as agriculture evolved into an increasingly global, commodified enterprise,” the authors explain. “Today, widely available technologies can help us track our food from farm to table: how it was grown or raised, under what conditions, how it was processed and how it reached the market or the restaurant.”
Bentley is the author of Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity and co-editor of A Cultural History of Food in the Modern Era, among other works. Her book, Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Nutrition and the Transformation of Food in the United States, is forthcoming (2014) from the University of California Press.