The Human Body, a Microcosm of the Earth’s Environment
There’s a clear connection between the human body (how we treat it) and the planet.
What If I told you that a “healthy you” is better for the planet, and a “healthy planet” is better for you? Would you disagree? Probably not. To put it in more clear terms, the behaviors, habits, practices and substances that are good for you are also good for our environment. Think of a scenario where you are asked to inhale the fumes of any number of fossil fuel products. You’d probably think the person making this request of you is insane. You’d be correct. It’s an insane request. Having prolonged exposure to and Inhaling toxic substances would likely result in your being poisoned.
You’d feel nauseous, have abdominal pain, feel dizzy, possibly lose your vision, and lose consciousness. Ultimately you could die. Assuming you live, you may develop cancer. The same goes for prolonged exposure to rubbers, motor oil, paint and rubber cement.
The good news is I’m not asking you to do that. But there’s also bad news. Those same substances (that we wouldn’t willingly ingest) poison the very foods we eat, and it doesn’t stop there. These synthetics have similar effects on the planet. The difference you ask? The human body experiences negative effects at more alarmingly accelerated rates. In the scenario where you’re exposed to toxins, what takes only minutes to make you ill might take years to kill the ecosystem in which you live.
The human body is a microcosm of the environment around us.
Here’s the bottom line. What we eat, how much of it we consume (or in some cases waste) and the behaviors that lead to those actions have similar effects on the planet. Don’t think so? Keep reading.
What’s bad for humans is bad for the environment, and vice versa.
There are many things bad for humans. We’ll not cover all of them here. However, one example can simply be an ingredient commonly found in household goods, high fructose corn (HFC) syrup.
As you may know HFC syrup is prevalent in soda, candy and other common household items like bread, juice, cereal, granola bars and ice cream. Imagine being told to consume items containing this ingredient on a regular basis. By the way, many of us do! But, many of us also know HFC syrup isn’t “good” for our bodies. It’s when HFC syrup is consumed in excess that we fall ill.
However, feeling these negative effects on your body could take months or years when compared to the quick poisoning you’d experience when inhaling fumes. But, over time you’ll likely experience health related issues. Which ones you ask? Regular consumption of HFC syrup can lead to heart disease and diabetes for starters.
But it’s no secret that HFC syrup is also linked to the obesity epidemic.
Now that’s just the effects on the human body. Similarly, because of how and from where it’s sourced, it’s bad for our environment. Here’s why.
It’s innocently made from corn, a crop widely grown in the flyover states of America. But corn is much more sinister than you may know.
First and foremost, corn is a water-intensive crop. In regions of the United States where it’s grown there’s too little natural rainfall. Farmers are sometimes forced to irrigate corn crops using groundwater.
You see, corn isn’t a crop that’s naturally grown in states like Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa and Indiana. This results in farmers more aggressively seeking water from other sources that deplete groundwater supplies. Additionally, it’s a crop that requires more than a healthy dose of fertilizer. States with larger crops risk fertilizer pollution of their land. I should also mention corn is the largest feed grain crop, covering approximately 90 million acres of land. That’s 4% of the United States.
Groundwater is important because it’s a source of recharge for lakes, rivers, and wetlands. It’s also the source of drinking water for many. It’s also in finite supply. The more it’s used the less we have in reserve.
This increases the risk of water scarcity.
Unfortunately, as our planet warms more water and fertilizer must be used to keep the corn crops alive in their unnatural habitat. It creates a cycle that has negative consequences. But, to make matters worse, corn production is believed to be linked to air quality pollution. You may think that has more to do with the production of fertilizer and how the corn is shipped, but you’d be wrong. It’s assessed 86% of all air pollution from corn production is traceable to the actual farms where the corn is grown.
And here’s a fun fact that’ll surely make your head explode.
Most corn production isn’t even grown for humans. Nearly 90% is grown for livestock feed and ethanol. Think about it like this. Most corn crops aren’t for the corn-on-the-cob we all eat at family cookouts. Nope. It’s to feed the cattle, pigs and poultry that are processed into the fast-food menu items that are slowly killing people and for the ethanol that powers our vehicles.
You may be saying, Jerome, HFC syrup and negative effects of corn production are hardly related. Maybe. After all, most corn production is for animal feed and ethanol, not human consumption. To think most corn crops are grown for HFC syrup production is incorrect and misleading. But, here’s my point. Just like the heavy diet of (corn based) HFC syrup is bad for human health, so are the massive corn crops for the planet’s environment.
And let’s not forget, even though we can eat corn, its nutritional value is widely controversial.
Yes, it has fiber and vitamins, however, it’s high in starch, can spike blood sugar levels and can prevent weight loss if consumed in excess. It’s no super food.
Regardless, if you do your research, you’ll see similar trends with other big industries like cattle production, dairy and wheat. Excessive production and consumption of any of those is bad for both personal and environmental health.
According to the United States Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Americans over-consume refined grains, proteins, oils and solid fats, sugars and sodium.
It’s also estimated that over 40% of the land in the United States is dedicated to farmland.
We must question the reasons why.
Getting a grip on overconsumption.
Just as humans get sick when ingesting toxins, the same happens when we over-consume foods from the local grocers. Our bodies transform and we become more susceptible to diseases and illness.
While my first example focused on HFC syrup, this remains true even if you were to exchange that with grains, proteins, fats or sodium.
And it’s not limited to items we know to be bad for it. Even too much of a “good thing” can be bad for the human body.
For example, when we drink too much water we can become “overhydrated”. Severe symptoms of overhydration can include nausea, muscle weakness, seizures and even slipping into a coma.
Overconsumption also changes the physical makeup of the planet as resources are depleted, just as it changes our bodies. Like our vitality, the plants, wildlife, water we drink, air we breathe and minerals we purpose decrease.
Think about it. Overconsumption (in our personal lives when scaled) reduces the planet of the very things we need to survive.
It’s estimated humans consume more per year then the planet can replenish. In fact, it’s calculated humans consume 1.7 times the Earth’s resources annually.
This has ripple effects with negative outcomes.
When supplies run low, we try and manufacture our way out of the problem.
We genetically and hormonally modify plants and animals.
We create unnatural “cures”.
We manipulate the environment in a way that has implications beyond our fathom.
The more we seek to modify, manufacture and synthesize, the unhealthier the substances we create become.
Even when we choose to mine, grow or harvest too much of a single resource we destabilize the balance and natural order of this planet.
One (of many) examples of this is our overconsumption of a natural and seemingly harmless item, honey. We over-consume honey, and to keep pace with the market, honey farmers corral bees in bee farms. This shortens their lifespan. It’s leading to their extinction.
Without bees the very plant blossoms that need to be pollinated will no longer get pollinated.
Before you know it, we’ll have affected the crops that feed us.
Here’s what’ll chap your behind. While we over-consume, it’s also estimated that we waste nearly 40% of all the food produced.
So, to be clear, we use far too many resources, and yet we still waste close to half of all that we harvest. Can someone tell me what’s wrong with this picture?
When talking about food specifically, it’s estimated that food waste accounts for around 8% of all the greenhouses gases produced. That’s nearly four-times greater than the aviation industry.
Solution? We need to stop waste at the source.
This means curtailing our overconsumption behavior and sourcing only what’s needed. This will require a shift in what and how we eat.
Having a health-oriented food system could be the key to saving the planet (and our own health at the same time).
We can’t tackle the problems of health and obesity without addressing the food system. In that same conversation we must also address behaviors that lead to overconsumption because they’re linked. If we can address overconsumption, we might be able to solve both personal health and environmental issues.
You see, the food system (and the linked behaviors) was created in a different era, one shaped by decades of government incentive programs and consumerism. It was through the lens of capitalism, and the belief that agrarian values and lifestyles were inherently virtuous.
Those things coupled with early forms of nutritional science and significant events in history (i.e. The Great Depression, WWI, WWI and 20th Century Overproduction) got us to where we are. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the same “big food” companies that benefited from those eras are also the ones that continue to shape the Dietary Guidelines.
While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for many of our current dietary consumption guidelines, there are forces in the food industry that maintain an incredible influence through lobbying.
As the USDA continues to draft the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines, I suspect there are companies that would like some information omitted. If I were a betting man, I’d say these companies will lobby hard to keep the Dietary Guidelines from suggesting to American’s to limit consumption of processed meats and soda and even that breastfeeding is best for babies.
To the USDA’s credit, in 2015 they rewrote their guidelines for healthy eating. What changed? They incorporated sustainability into the discussion. It’s not enough to only provide guidelines on what’s healthy for the body, it now includes what’s healthy for the planet. If you ask me this is past-due considering human and planet health are linked (in my opinion). If you’re serious about addressing environmental issues you must also talk about the health of humans. To me they can’t exist in their own silos.
To a degree, these Dietary Guidelines shape our food production and consumption habits.
They influence what’s on store shelves, in our fridges and pantries and what’s available at restaurants.
So, is it a coincidence that three-fourths of the American population has an eating pattern that neglects vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils? Is it by chance that more than half of the population is meeting or exceeding recommended portion sizes of grains and meats? Is it by accident that many also exceed the recommendations for added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium?
Ponder that for a second.
To me it makes sense that many in the United States over-consume calories. The result? More than two-thirds of all adults and nearly one-third of all youth in the United States are either overweight or obese.
I also believe those behaviors are shaped by “big food”. Those same behaviors strip our planet of the very resources we need to thrive.
You see, food production and overconsumption has an impact on our bodies and the planet at the same time, and we’re now at a point where we must dismantle a system that’s spent the last century pushing misleading information and creating ill-informed policies that drive destructive social behaviors.
Okay, so what do we do now?
I could suggest we all eat less beef because we’d likely decrease our risk of diseases and health risks, while at the same time reducing the amount of water consumed and greenhouse gases created. Or I could demand that we all eat less highly processed foods and reduce the amount of salts, sugars and refined grains we eat because it’ll reduce our carbon footprint.
But that’s not what this is about.
What this is about is identifying the change that’s needed in society.
A part of this is acknowledging that the food system is rigged against us in a way that favors those creating the foods that are most harmful. It’s partly questioning what children are taught about food and nutrition in schools and at home. It’s even about how we can take agency in our own lives to make better decisions.
I’m not pushing for humanity to espouse dietary habits of professional athletes. I’m saying there’s a correlation between human and planet health and we can do something about it… only if we choose.
This is about our individual choices and how that (when scaled) cascades beyond our individual person.
Perhaps, if we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see, there’s a chance what we see translates to our impact on the environment.
This is about being Responsible AF, and it starts with each of us.
Note: The thoughts and views expressed in this post reflect my personal views alone and are not those of Marriott International or any of its brands
About the author: Jerome Tennille is the Manager of Social Impact & Volunteerism for Marriott International. Jerome is also an independent consultant and advisor in the subject matter of Sustainability and Social Impact. Prior to that Jerome held the position of Senior Manager of Impact Analysis and Assessment for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national organization that offers help, hope, and healing to all those grieving the death of a loved one serving in America’s armed forces. Jerome also served on the board of directors of Peace Through Action USAfor four years and also serves on the PsychArmor Institute Advisory Committee for the School of Volunteers & Nonprofits. Jerome holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in operations management and a Master of Sustainability Leadership (MSL) from Arizona State University. Jerome is designated as Certified in Volunteer Administration (CVA) and is also a veteran of the US Navy.