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Most Americans Don't Consider Environmental Impacts of Food Choices, but Are Willing to Eat More Plants, Study Finds

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One way to improve the environmental impact of how people eat is to make it a point of conversation. TommL / Getty Images

Recent books like We Are the Weather advocate for considering how our dietary choices affect the climate crisis, but new research shows that most Americans are not discussing the environmental impacts of their diets with friend and family, as Inverse reported.


The bright side is that almost everyone surveyed said they were willing to eat more fruits and vegetables, while more than half said they were willing to cut down on red meat and choose plant-based alternatives, according to a new report of more than a thousand adults in the U.S. by Yale University and the nonprofit Earth Day Network, as The Verge reported.

The report, Climate Change and the American Diet, found that most survey participants noted a lack of information as the greatest barrier to making plant-based choices. That knowledge could influence nutrition guidelines and food marketing, if policy makers were willing to advocate for climate-friendly policies and stand up to the powerful beef and dairy lobbies. As Inverse reported, making facts about plant-based meat alternatives more accessible could make a big difference, and food labels are the ideal medium to share information.

"If we do not make the connection between food that we're eating and climate change, we're doing ourselves a disservice," said Jillian Semaan, food and environment director at the Earth Day Network to The Verge. "The most immediate action anyone can take [on climate change] today is to look at what they're putting on their plate and what they're putting in their body."

One way to improve the environmental impact of how people eat is to make it a point of conversation. The survey, which gathered answers from more than 1,000 Americans representing a cross-section of society, found that 70 percent rarely or never talk about the environmental impact of their food choices with friends or family. Nearly two-thirds of the Americans surveyed report having never been asked to eat more plant-based foods, and more than half rarely or never hear about the topic in the media, according to a summary from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

"Many American consumers are interested in eating a more healthy and climate-friendly diet," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in a press release accompanying the new report. "However, many simply don't know yet which products are better or worse — a huge communication opportunity for food producers, distributors and sellers."

In addition to the 70 percent of people who do not talk about the climate impact of the food they eat, there were some other surprising trends that Inverse reported:

  • 94 percent: Are willing to eat more fruits and vegetables
  • 54 percent: Are willing to cut down on red meat
  • 91 percent: Are "moderately" concerned about health
  • 67 percent: Are open to plant-based foods — fruit, vegetables, and dairy alternatives — but only if they taste better than their animal-based alternatives
  • 63 percent: Would increase eating of plant-based food, if it costs less than meat
  • 30 percent: Hear information about how food affects global warming at least once a month
  • 50+ percent: Want to hear more information about food's environmental impact
  • 50 percent: Would eat more plant-based foods if their friends and family did
  • 13 percent: Would eat more plant-based foods if celebrities did

As The Verge pointed out, meat usually has a much larger carbon footprint than fruits, vegetables and grains. Raising animals for food is resource intensive, taxing land and water supplies. Demand for cattle has led to massive clear-cutting of the Amazon rainforest. There's ample evidence that for people who live in affluent countries, cutting back on meat is the single best thing they can do to fight the climate crisis.

"This data is a wake-up call for the climate movement," said Semaan in a press release. "Animal agriculture is one of the major drivers of our climate crisis, we need to provide people with the relevant information that connects food choices, animal agriculture and climate change."

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.