Home » What’s Wrong With What We Eat – TED Talk by Mark Bittman (Transcript)

What’s Wrong With What We Eat – TED Talk by Mark Bittman (Transcript)

Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman is a bestselling cookbook author, journalist and television personality. His friendly, informal approach to home cooking has shown millions that fancy execution is no substitute for flavor and soul. In this TED talk, he speaks on what’s wrong with the way we eat now (too much meat, too few plants; too much fast food, too little home cooking), and why it’s putting the entire planet at risk. 


 Mark Bittman – Food Writer

I write about food. I write about cooking. I take it quite seriously, but I’m here to talk about something that’s become very important to me in the last year or two. It is about food, but it’s not about cooking, per se. I’m going to start with this picture of a beautiful cow. I’m not a vegetarian — this is the old Nixon line, right? But I still think that this — may be this year’s version of this.

Now, that is only a little bit hyperbolic. And why do I say it? Because only once before has the fate of individual people and the fate of all of humanity been so intertwined. There was the bomb, and there’s now. And where we go from here is going to determine not only the quality and the length of our individual lives, but whether, if we could see the Earth a century from now, we’d recognize it.

It’s a holocaust of a different kind, and hiding under our desks isn’t going to help. Start with the notion that global warming is not only real, but dangerous. Since every scientist in the world now believes this, and even President Bush has seen the light, or pretends to, we can take this is a given.

Then hear this, please. After energy production, livestock is the second-highest contributor to atmosphere-altering gases. Nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gas is generated by livestock production — more than transportation. Now, you can make all the jokes you want about cow farts, but methane is 20 times more poisonous than CO2, and it’s not just methane.

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Livestock is also one of the biggest culprits in land degradation, air and water pollution, water shortages and loss of biodiversity. There’s more. Like half the antibiotics in this country are not administered to people, but to animals.

But lists like this become kind of numbing, so let me just say this: if you’re a progressive, if you’re driving a Prius, or you’re shopping green, or you’re looking for organic, you should probably be a semi-vegetarian.

Now, I’m no more anti-cattle than I am anti-atom, but it’s all in the way we use these things. There’s another piece of the puzzle, which Ann Cooper talked about beautifully yesterday, and one you already know.

There’s no question, none, that so-called lifestyle diseases — diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers — are diseases that are far more prevalent here than anywhere in the rest of the world. And that’s the direct result of eating a Western diet.

Our demand for meat, dairy and refined carbohydrates — the world consumes one billion cans or bottles of Coke a day — our demand for these things, not our need, our want, drives us to consume way more calories than are good for us. And those calories are in foods that cause, not prevent, disease.

Now global warming was unforeseen. We didn’t know that pollution did more than cause bad visibility. Maybe a few lung diseases here and there, but, you know, that’s not such a big deal. The current health crisis, however, is a little more the work of the evil empire. We were told, we were assured, that the more meat and dairy and poultry we ate, the healthier we’d be.

No. Overconsumption of animals, and of course, junk food, is the problem, along with our paltry consumption of plants. Now, there’s no time to get into the benefits of eating plants here, but the evidence is that plants — and I want to make this clear — it’s not the ingredients in plants, it’s the plants. It’s not the beta-carotene, it’s the carrot. The evidence is very clear that plants promote health. This evidence is overwhelming at this point. You eat more plants, you eat less other stuff, you live longer. Not bad.

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But back to animals and junk food. What do they have in common? One: we don’t need either of them for health. We don’t need animal products, and we certainly don’t need white bread or Coke. Two: both have been marketed heavily, creating unnatural demand. We’re not born craving Whoppers or Skittles. Three: their production has been supported by government agencies at the expense of a more health- and Earth-friendly diet.

Now, let’s imagine a parallel. Let’s pretend that our government supported an oil-based economy, while discouraging more sustainable forms of energy, knowing all the while that the result would be pollution, war and rising costs. Incredible, isn’t it? Yet they do that. And they do this here. It’s the same deal. The sad thing is, when it comes to diet, is that even when well-intentioned Feds try to do right by us, they fail. Either they’re outvoted by puppets of agribusiness, or they are puppets of agribusiness.

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