Archive for November, 2011


November 9, 2011

The Harvard School of Public Health Debate held Oct. 20, 2011 on the health impact of the US food system plus environmental Impact notes in bold added by the writer.


Walter Willett the Chair of the Nutrition Department at The Harvard School of Public Health. –  Judging by its impact on human health the American grain based food supply is a disaster with 75% of supermarket food unhealthy. We have too much refined grain, too much sugar and too much red meat in the American diet.

Barry Popkins Professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. – We did it to ourselves. In the 50’s we ate healthy food and the American people were healthy. We believed that animal protein was healthy. The science changed but the grain based food system and the lobbies that support it remained. Today 75% of the food supply has too much sugar, too much fat, too much salt and is unhealthy. Also in the 50’s, the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico. Pamlico Sound, and all Eastern Estuaries began to suffer from hypoxia and sedimentation due to excess fertilizer applications particularly to nitrogen uptake inefficient corn and mismanagement of tilled farming systems. By the 70’s the underwater grass (SAV’s), which provided habitat and food for Bay species, disappeared. Today all species have declined substantially and the system is facing ecological collapse. Record Oxygen dead zones and record sediment intrusion occurred in both the Gulf and Chesapeake Bay in 2011. These Eastern Estuaries are thermometers for the ecological health of nearly 50% of the US. Land area. 

David Ludwig Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. – The mother of an 8 year old girl patient who weighs 200 pounds caused by diet not genetics tells me the child is influenced by icons on the food at the supermarket due to clever marketing by children’s TV programs. We evolved from a diverse system of many foods to a food system using four grain based raw materials: corn, soy beans, wheat, rice and the animals which eat these raw materials. We eat a lot of high calorie food, which has little nutrient value. Example: nuts are high in calories but are of value because they are also high in protein and other nutrients.

Gary Williams Agricultural Economist at Texas A&M and a defender of the status quo. – He was dead wrong in his theory that low income causes poor food habits. Many studies including China studies by Barry Popkin and Cornell University’s China Study show that increased consumption of grain based meat and sugar causing poor health increases with affluence. His assertion that unhealthy food tastes better than healthy food is again not true. We eat a lot at a Northern Italian restaurant in Easton MD. owned by a world-class chef formerly of Harry’s Bar in Venice and Paris. This food makes the steak and potatoes based food at Ruth Chris Steak House seem like the junk food served by MacDonald’s. He made two valid points (1) can we produce sufficient healthy plant food in the climate and soil of the US corn belt which requires research into the ultimate capacity of greenhouse production now in its infancy in the US but showing great promise? And (2) will China step in and produce bad food if we do not? Judging by the number of Countries involved in the ongoing world cancer study including China and the recent move by Denmark to tax pizza and other unhealthy Western foods, I believe a world agreement on restricting unhealthy food production is possible.


Rather than taxing unhealthy food an approach being tried in New York and Denmark, which concerns some people. I believe a better approach is public education (see the HSPH My Plate recommendations) combined with nationwide regulation of fertilizer application rates, mandated cover crops, and the many public health and environmental issues associated with CAFO food animal production. These actions will make unhealthy food more expensive. Everyone on the panel agreed that price has an affect on food choices. 


Opinions of the writer are in bold                                                                                    Clik on Harvard Debate to see the full video debate