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New President Must Confront Global Food Challenge

By Caroline Trapp, M.S.N., C.D.E.
This opinion piece was published on Oct. 27, 2008, in the Houston Chronicle.

It might be the first world crisis facing our new president. Fifty years ago this fall, President Harry S. Truman called on Americans to avoid meat one day a week to free up grain to feed millions of starving people in a war-ravaged Europe. Today, we're about to elect a new leader—and, like Truman, whichever man we pick will confront a global food emergency.

World hunger has been pushed from the headlines by the election and the ongoing economic meltdown. But the problem, exacerbated by skyrocketing food prices, hasn't gone away. The World Bank now predicts that the number of malnourished people in the world will rise to nearly 1 billion this year. More than 220 million people are on the brink of starvation—about twice as many as last year.

Here's where it gets complicated. As a nurse practitioner specializing in the care of people with diabetes, I also know that millions of Americans are being hit hard by the opposite problem: growing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to high-fat, high-calorie diets. These health problems are also reaching epidemic levels among emerging middle classes in developing nations.

Diabetes offers one disturbing example. If you need proof that high-fat diets take a serious toll, consider America's booming market for prosthetic legs. More than 1,600 diabetes-related amputations are performed every week in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of unhealthy diets and other poor lifestyle choices, some experts believe the nation's amputee population will double by the middle of this century.

What does a man in Pittsburgh losing a leg to complications of type 2 diabetes have in common with a Haitian woman in Port-au-Prince losing a child to malnutrition? These tragedies actually have a powerful common denominator—and it's one our next president must acknowledge and confront.

Simply put, we have developed a global appetite for meat that would shock anyone from Truman's time. Americans now eat an average of more than 200 pounds of meat a year—about double the global norm. But affluent sectors in other countries are catching up: In China and India, middle-class people are increasingly adopting a Western-style diet heavy in meat and dairy products.

The growing global appetite for meat is driving chronic disease rates through the roof among those who can afford this artery-clogging habit. A recent study in the journal Circulation found that people in 52 countries who ate a meat-heavy Western diet had a 35 percent greater risk of a heart attack than those who consumed little or no meat and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Here in the United States, one in three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her life, according to government estimates. Studies have repeatedly found that vegetarians and people whose diets are based on plant-derived foods are less likely to develop diabetes, compared with people whose diets are fattier or centered on meat dishes.

Meanwhile, the animal agriculture system that supports our meat-heavy diets vacuums up huge quantities of grain and other resources—threatening the very survival of poor people around the globe. The majority of corn and soy grown in the world today is fed to animals raised for meat. And when these crops are consumed by cattle instead of hungry people, the waste is appalling. Estimates vary, but grain-fed beef produced in the United States requires as much as 10 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of meat.

Will our next president, whoever he turns out to be, have the wisdom to echo President Truman's long-ago call for Americans to choose more meatless meals? One thing is clear: If we can't find the will to change our meat-heavy eating habits, millions of people around the world, rich and poor alike, will pay a terrible price.

Caroline Trapp, M.S.N., C.D.E., a nurse practitioner in Southfield, Mich., is director of diabetes education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.



 

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