So this morning, Australian Shapeling Marg sent us an article with the headline, “Americans must diet to save their economy.” Yeah, really. The basic idea is, since producing food uses so much energy, we could halve our energy demands and hold off fuel price increases if we all just stopped eating so much. Yeah, really.
Our friend Tari is not only a fat rights activist but a goddamned hippy an ecologically conscious badass who pays serious attention to where and how her food is produced, in hopes of having the smallest possible impact on the planet. I figured she could rant about this one far better than any of us could, and I was right. (She’s also dang speedy with a rant!) Tari, thank you so much. Shapelings, please enjoy. –Kate
By Tari Follett
Want to save the US economy? Go on a diet.
So says New Scientist environmental reporter Catherine Brahic (big time Sanity Watchers on the comments, of course). I have to admit, although I was skeptical at first, by the end of her writeup, I totally saw her point and was on the verge of calling Jenny! Or, you know, NOT.
So, why is it that we must diet to save the economy? Because the economy is tanking due to the energy crisis:
That’s the message ecologists are trying to get across this week. They say the apparently looming energy crisis could be averted if US residents cut their calorie intake.
David Pimentel of Cornell University and colleagues have drawn on an extensive body of existing studies to highlight the wastage in the US food production chain. To bring their point home, they have estimated how much energy could be saved by making a few relatively simple changes to the way corn is produced.
Wait…where’s the part in there about going on a diet? I mean, anyone who’s read their Michael Pollan has heard about how horrible the industrial food system is, putting corn into every fucking thing in the grocery store, supporting inhumane CAFOs and environmental devastation, oppressing farm and factory workers around the world, yada yada yada. Telling Americans to go on a diet is NOT the same thing as changing the way corn is produced, and considering how much “diet food” is chemically-flavored corn byproduct, I don’t think it would have quite the effect Brahic seems to think it would.
‘Cause, see, the big problem with corn production is not that people eat too much. It’s that corn farmers grow too much. (Hint: it’s the system, not the people.) Moving swiftly on…
Their conclusion is that energy demands could easily be halved. That could stave off the prospect of further rises in the costs of fuel, they say.
To do that, however, would require a considerable change in the average US diet. The average American consumes about 3747 kcal per day compared to the 2000 to 2500 kcal per day recommended by the US Food and Drug Administration.
The 3747 kcal per day figure does not include any junk food consumed.
Producing those daily calories uses the equivalent to 2000 litres of oil per person each year. That accounts for about 19% of US total energy use.
Okay, so I used some advanced Google-fu to try to track down what David Pimentel (a noted biofuel skeptic, longtime ecologist, and generally reasonable science type) and his colleagues actually said in whatever published report Brahic is talking about. I just couldn’t imagine that someone who knew the intricacies of the industrialized food system, and its devastating environmental and economic impacts, would boil it all down to telling people to stop shoving baby donuts in their pieholes. Especially since, in the very quote above, it’s the reporter drawing that false conclusion – energy demands being halved is not the same thing as people eating fewer calories. Most of the food-related calories Pimentel is referring to come from the fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides being sprayed on the production end of the system, transit costs, and that sort of thing….not so much the actual kcals in the baby donut itself.
I couldn’t find any recent statements or research from Pimentel. (If anyone else tracks it down, pass it on – I’d dearly love to review it.)
Brahic (who, as far as I can tell, is using Pimentel’s research – wherever it came from – as a vehicle to promote her own views) next moves on to the ever-popular “go veggie” argument. Now, as a committed flexitarian (meaning I eat mostly veggie with occasional meat), I agree that reduced meat eating has a huge environmental impact – especially if it’s mostly (energy intensive) factory farmed meat being cut out. Seriously, I think taking money away from those sick de-beaking fucks at Tyson is a wonderful thing…but it has nothing to do with going on a diet. Just switch it up to some nice ethically-raised free range chickens from your local family farmer, and you’re cutting the fossil-fuel kcals in your food without necessarily changing your caloric intake one whit. (Of course, that’s disregarding the limitations of class, location, and finances that make this not so much a workable solution for lots of people.)
Even Doc Pimentel agrees with that:
In 2004, Pimentel estimated 6 kilograms of plant protein are needed to produce 1 kg of high quality animal protein. He calculates that if Americans maintained their 3747 kcals per day, but switched to a vegetarian diet, the fossil fuel energy required to generate that diet would be cut by one third.
The next part is a little trickier. Brahic is using some crazy new math I don’t really follow.
In addition to the 3747 kcals, the average American consumes one third of their calories in junk food and Pimentel and colleagues suggest this could be cut by 80% and the total calorie intake be reduced by 30%. That could drastically cut the amount of energy which goes into feeding Americans, as junk food is typically low in calories, but energetically expensive to produce.
Okay, for starters, where the fuck is she getting the data that says the average American consumes 3700 kcals, PLUS a third more calories in junk food? Say what? That’s over 5600 kcals. Every day?
Seriously? I mean, the odious Morgan Spurlock didn’t even quite pull that off by eating at Mickey D’s three times a day… and I somehow doubt that’s a habit of the average American. In fact, per the latest data (2004) from the UN Food and Agriculture Office, Americans average 3770 kcal per day. Now, I’m not sure if FAO is including junk food in there or not, but I’m guessing they probably don’t count junk food calories separate from regular ones (especially since they have a dietary breakdown that includes fats and sugars and other junk-food-type ingredients right there on the same page).
What’s really just pants-pissingly hilarious, though, is the bit about reducing that phantom third-of-overall-calories-from-junk-food by 80%, which somehow reduces the overall number by 30%. Now, I wasn’t a math major, but lemme see if I can add this up: 3747 + 1874 (the extra third, assuming that 3747 is two thirds) – 1499 (80% of the 1874 junk food calories) = 4122 kcals. Hang on a sec, 70% of 5600 is only 3920! Hey, wait…maybe she lives in a land where numbers don’t have a constant value?
I also particularly LOVE the “junk food is typically low in calories” line. Make up your own joke.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with a lot of the actual, substantive points of the article. Factory farming is horrible for animals, the environment, the economy, and for people. Eating less meat demonstrably reduces overall energy usage on a global scale. Single serving packaging wastes energy and materials needlessly. Reducing the amount of meat and processed food we eat is a step towards better physical and environmental health for most people.
But you know what it ain’t? A diet.
In trying to stay abreast of what’s going on in the environmental movement, I see a lot of fatphobia. The constant flourishing of a fatass as the foremost symbol of Classic American Overconsumption is a popular theme, and speaking out against it in environmental circles often a difficult and thankless task. In that context, quite frankly, this is a pretty mild example of the usual “if we stopped burning fossil fuels and eating meat, we’d all be skinny vegans riding bikes everywhere” rhetoric.
It’s a cheap shot, though, and the reasons for making changes to how we look at what we eat are strong enough to stand on their own – without bashing fat people, without using Madison Avenue marketing smoke and mirrors, without playing on the engineered fears and insecurities of a constantly bombarded populace. But then, Brahic and her editors (who knows which of the two slapped the headline on this article?) aren’t in the business of actually making the world a better place. They’re looking for clickthroughs and ad revenue… and everyone knows, chicks can’t resist an article with “diet” in the