You Can Help Save the Amazon One Hamburger at a Time

As I write this, I have only just received my personal copy of Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 4th Edition. For any who have written a textbook, you know how gratifying it is to get that baby in your arms after so long a gestation. For those of you who have not, my advice is: don’t. It is very painful.

I mention the book because I appended a few chapters at the end where I vented my particular passions, and in no case more ardently than the very final entry, Chapter 52: The Planet is Your Patient. In that chapter, I tell the following story.

Some time ago, in a pre-pandemic world where talks involved a podium and humans shook hands, I addressed a group of health professional colleagues, followed up with a book signing. During the talk, I incorporated my customary rant: “you can no longer legitimately claim to be a ‘health’ professional if you don’t advocate frequently, and fiercely, for the health of the planet. There are no healthy people on a ruined, uninhabitable planet.”

The book-signing line gave me the opportunity to gauge the response to my harangue, and overwhelmingly it was a blend of gratitude, and relief. These were well-informed people, fully aware of the current impacts and ominous trajectory of climate change and environmental degradation. They were prone—as am I—to lie awake at night worrying about it. But they did not realize it was in their professional purview to address it every day with clients and patients and thereby, take constructive action. In my role as “the guy from out of town with slides,” I authorized this and my colleagues lined up to say “thank you!” For me, this was as surprising as it was gratifying. I had been unaware that health professionals were awaiting a license to address the single greatest health threat of our time.

Here, with the help of the redoubtable Dani Nierenberg and my friends at Food Tank—I want to extend that same message to you.

You need not to be a health professional for the planet to be YOUR “patient,” too. You need only ever have loved a forest, or seashore, or alpine meadow; you need only ever have savored a fresh summer fruit; you need only ever have relished the soft, sweet promise of early Spring breezes. Really, you need only live here.

And all the more so if you live here and love a child. You need only care that our children and grandchildren, to say nothing of theirs, have a world with water to drink and food to eat; with glaciers and archipelagos; with lions, and tigers, and bears; with coral reefs and rainforests.

Let’s start with the lungs of the world, one of the most iconic marvels of nature, and a premier incubator of biodiversity on the planet—the Amazon Rainforest. The Amazon is not just being destroyed as we look on; it is being destroyed at an accelerating rate. We are running out of time to save it. Failing to do so means explaining to the generations that follow us why they don’t get to have one of those, any more. The shame in that boggles the mind.

So if all of that is in our purview, what can we do about it? We can put our motivations where our mouths are, literally.

The single leading driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin is the global demand for beef. Sure, Brazil’s horrible president is part of the problem. Sure, giant meat packing corporations and misdirected investments are part of the problem, too. But ultimately, if enough of us simply refused to buy beef so long as doing so imperiled pristine rainforest, then the supply side problem would go away.

We, the people, are the food demand. So we, the people, actually do have control over the food supply—if only we choose to exercise it. We aren’t entirely at the mercy of those huge corporations, misguided politicians, and misdirected investments. True, they own the supply. But we, the actual people, in our collective, righteous might control our demand. And demand prevails over supply. They will stop making what we refuse to buy, every time. There is hope in that, and there is, as well, a mandate. If we can, then I would argue we must.

This is a proposition and a plea to do exactly that. The single leading driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin is the global demand for beef. So let’s all come together, for one week, and collectively say “no” to beef if sourcing it involves burning down rainforest. Let us express our righteous indignation in a global #NoBeefWeek challenge. Please take the pledge; join the challenge; support the cause (donations will be split evenly between the campaign itself, and reforestation efforts in the Amazon); and invite your friends.

Take the Pledge; Join the Challenge; Support the Cause; Invite Your Friends

No, this is not a general protest of beef. Beef can, of course, be sourced without burning down rainforest to do it. Not all beef is the problem, although in general the world does need to eat considerably less to stay within sustainable boundaries. This campaign, however, is specifically focused on saving the Amazon, and saying “no” to burgers made from the treasure of irreplaceable biodiversity.

No, beef is not the only problem—the Amazon is also being burned down to grow commodity soybeans, which in turn are used to feed poultry along with cattle, among other uses. But the specific focus on beef is justified as our first step, because it is the leading driver of rainforest loss.

You likely didn’t know that what’s on your plate, and the fate of the planet, were quite so indelibly linked. In the lead up to COP26, the great meeting of global leaders (so-called) to update our collective response to climate change and the dire peril of our planet, the New York Times took stock of our status on their rarefied front page. They noted some progress, but concluded we are a long way from doing enough. To me, though, the salient element in their reporting was what went unmentioned: food. There was no mention of food, diet, meat, or beef—despite the outsized toll meat-centric diets exact from the planet. Similarly, when 200 leading medical journals simultaneously published a plea for the requisite climate and environmental action by world leaders, the same essential words—meat, beef—did not appear.

This is a crucial omission both because diet at the scale of 8 billion hungry Homo sapiens has a colossal impact on the planet, and because it is the one area where each of us actually has the power to take meaningful action every day.

We will be healthy, vital people on a healthy, vital planet or we simply will not be healthy, vital people at all. There are no healthy people on a ruined, inhospitable, and ultimately—for our kind of animal, at least—uninhabitable planet. We are marauding along in that very direction with stunning complacency. I’m with Greta, even though I have spent all these years trying to calm my readers’ troubled nerves: now, I want you to panic.

But let’s not stop there; panic is unproductive unless channeled into some action of merit. As Gertrude Stein famously said: a difference, to be a difference, must make a difference. Perhaps we can make one together.

A one-week pause in beef buying is not enough to cost anyone their job, and that’s by design. It’s enough to serve notice that the global sourcing of beef must not come at the expense of pristine rainforest. As noted, this is not a general protest of beef consumption, whatever the merits of that might be. Rather, this very targeted action invites the better actors in the beef industry to expel the bad or face punishment at the cash register. It serves notice that even many die-hard burger lovers consider running the treasure of biodiversity through a meat-grinder too high a price to pay.

There will be much, much more than this to do if we are to realize healthy, vital people on a healthy, vital planet and bequeath the blessings of just such opportunity to future generations. But this is something we can do: don’t buy or eat beef for just one week in April. It’s a start. We own the power of demand; that matters only if we exercise it for good. The best way to predict the future is to create it. My hope is we all agree, whatever our other differences might be: the future of Earth must include the glories of the Amazon.

To take the #NoBeefWeek challenge and support this important cause, please visit: https://nobeefweek.org/

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