Baltimore, Maryland - Public health has come full circle in the very place where the rounds of scientific medicine began. It's an indication of the influence of Johns Hopkins school of medicine that the universal phrase "doing the rounds" comes from medical students here in the 1890s who followed the first teachers of modern medicine into patients' rooms around the university's multi-storey dome.
A short walk from the famous skylit dome is the office of Dr. Robert Lawrence, an associate dean and director of the Center For A Livable Future. Unlike conventional health care, which emphasizes internal medicine, the eco-style public health promoted in this relatively new Johns Hopkins centre connects environmental to personal health.
Diet is the meat of the matter for an April 9 conference held here linking diet, food production and the environment, and proposing new ways of "eating for the future."
"Unraveling this complex set of relationships is a task only slightly deranged individuals would take on," Lawrence says in his welcoming address. But this relationship, a new generation of environment and health advocates believe, is where they'll find the smoking gun that will lead to a new food ethic.
In the case of cigarettes, everyone knows the lid was blown off the issue when second-hand smoke in the general environment was found to do almost as much harm to innocent bystanders as first-hand smoke to direct smokers. That's when anti-smoking laws became standard.
The pollution of soil, air and water by food production methods made necessary by the obsession with lots of cheap meat is this industry's second-hand smoke. The three leading causes of premature death in North America - heart disease, stroke and cancer - are often tied to the over-consumption of meat. But this bad habit also creates pollution that affects everyone else.
The Johns Hopkins public health school, like 26 other such institutions across the United States, is coming on side with a "flexitarian" call to reduce meat consumption. These schools endorse a national campaign of dietary moderation called Meatless Monday.
The average American, with the average Canadian close behind, eats 220 pounds of meat a year, twice the average person's protein requirement. If the whole world moved toward this rich American diet, food production would literally have to double in the next 20 years, Lawrence says.
That's because livestock raised on an industrial scale consume staggering amounts of cereal grains: about 7 pounds of grain for every pound of beef, about 4 for a pound of pork and 2 for chicken. With about 10 billion farm animals (mostly poultry) raised each year in North America alone, that's a lot of fecal waste, enough to pollute groundwater with nitrates and residues of antibiotics and other unsavoury materials. It takes a lot of water and energy to raise livestock on grains better fed directly to humans: 2,500 gallons of water for a pound of beef, and 35 kilocalories of fossil fuel energy for one calorie of beef, for instance.
Meat lust drives agricultural expansion into areas that humans have never inhabited so intensively before, Lawrence says, with the result that foods and farmers are now facing a host of pathogens, many of which are jumping species barriers. This is one of the factors underlying the dramatic rise in swine flu and similar contagions that may threaten human health in terrifying and perhaps incurable ways.
The newest and most persuasive information released at the conference came from Dr. Ben Caballero, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Human Nutrition and a member of two key committees that will set standards and guidelines for North American diets. Though Caballero's findings may seem conventional to people familiar with the counterculture, they're earth-shaking in a field long dominated by animal agriculture, where two out of four of the best-known food groups are animal products.
There is "no requirement" for animal protein in the human diet, Caballero said, though it is "a resource." In evaluating nutrients, we must now reckon with their role in disease prevention, not just that of preserving physiological functions or health, he says.
Animal products provide high-quality protein with all the amino acids needed for human digestion and absorption. They are also nutrient-dense providers of several crucial minerals, he said. In poor countries where food is scarce and inadequacy diseases such as iron deficiency anemia are common, animal products may be the easiest way to meet bodily needs.
But in the industrialized world, where a range of beans, grains, leaves, milk and eggs are readily available and can be easily combined to produce complete protein and all minerals, "meat is not needed to meet daily requirements," said Caballero. Given that meat is low in vitamins, high in cholesterol and linked to pollution and unequal distribution of world resources, "certainly in the United States we should be ready to do everything possible to reduce our requirement for animal sources." Caballero holds that all the ways to create a healthy diet start with three food groups: grains, fruits and vegetables.
It's not easy to predict how the new dietary science will affect government policy toward agriculture. In the U.S., only 1 per cent of government subsidies go to support fruit and vegetables, the mainstays of a diet designed for health and disease prevention. In Canada, beef ranchers got a billion-dollar bailout after the mad cow fiasco. Chicken farmers facing devastation from avian flu will join the handout lineup. Nothing like those amounts will go to support the diets of children - estimated at about 10 per cent of all children across North America - who lack access to healthy grains, fruits and vegetables.
Healthy diets, after all, are not what agriculture is about in our obsolete food system.