Mark Bittman: Eating Right Can Save The Planet In his new book, Food Matters, Mark Bittman writes about the environmental impact of industrial farming — and how individuals can make a difference by cutting down on the amount of animal products they consume.

Mark Bittman: Eating Right Can Save The Planet

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


If you're hoping to change the world, the writer Mark Bittman says you can start by changing what you eat. Bittman wrote a book called "Food Matters." Mixed in with the recipes in this book is an argument about how your diet can affect more than your health. He told Steve Inskeep the next time you pass on the cheeseburgers, you could help save the planet.

Mr. MARK BITTMAN (Author, "Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes"): It's not that challenging. We all enjoy vegetarian meals from time to time. I'm just advocating that we enjoy more of them.

STEVE INSKEEP: Here's why Mark Bittman is the latest author to argue for eating a little less meat. When you eat, say, a steak, somebody had to grow a cow, feed it for years, butcher it, transport it to market, all of which takes more energy than if you just ate some corn.

Mr. BITTMAN: Beef happens to be the worst. There are fish that are not quite so offensive, farm-raised fish that are not quite so offensive. But it's also worth looking at environmental damage that's done by all, let's just say, industrial farming - from fish farming to chicken farming, to, for that matter, egg and dairy farming. All has an environmental impact, and as someone said to me recently, every breath each of us takes has environmental impact.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, if I just stop breathing, the whole problem would go away.

Mr. BITTMAN: Your carbon footprint shrinks proportionately for the amount that you're alive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BITTMAN: So, if you do go away, your carbon footprint goes to zero.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BITTMAN: But the fact is there is environmental impact in every agricultural process. But for people who want to make a difference, you can take a quick look at these different processes and see that by eating fewer animal products - and by animal products I mean all animal products, from dairy, eggs, fish, meat, et cetera, and more plants, and it's very much the Michael Pollan mantra, which is eat food, mostly plants. And my take on this is that proportionally, if you eat, say, 10 meals that include meat a week, which is not uncommon in the United States, where people eat 200 pounds of meat a year. So, a lot, right? Half a pound a day, more or less. If you eat a couple of meals less of meat each week, you're doing yourself - for a variety of health reasons - and the planet, in a smaller way but not an insignificant way, if we all did it, obviously - you're doing all of us a favor.

INSKEEP: The food writer Michael Pollan, he's been on this program more than once, and he's recently been in the news because he's been advocating different national policies having to do with food, in saying that we can't really deal with problems like energy unless we deal with food. I get his arguments on a national level. I understand where he's coming from there. Are you arguing that individuals could make a significant difference, though?

Mr. BITTMAN: I am arguing that individuals could make a significant difference. If the United States processes - which is a nice word for kills - ten billion with - that's with a b - billion animals each year - that is, we raise and slaughter 10 billion animals a year for consumption; 10 percent less is obviously nine billion - that would have both an environmental impact and an impact on all of our mutual health.

INSKEEP: Although people aren't going to want to do that 10 percent unless they're still getting a good meal, I suppose?

Mr. BITTMAN: Well, there's nothing wrong with eating smaller amounts of meat. There's nothing wrong with eating meals that have no meat whatsoever. And you know, in "Food Matters," I give recipes for doing so, but I almost don't even want to say that. I want to say, look, it's quite common sense that you can eliminate animal products from some of your diet.

INSKEEP: Mark Bittman, I see that you've divided some of the recipes in this book, "Food Matters," by meal. And you've got a chapter here on different breakfasts. And I want you to sell me on a breakfast that fits your requirements. And you need to know in advance that I could eat breakfast three times a day. So, how am I going to get a good breakfast that I like and still fit with your requirements?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BITTMAN: I had for breakfast a bowl of oatmeal with maple syrup in it, so I, you know, and I was quite happy with that. Now, if you're not happy with that because it's not enough for you, or maybe three times a day would get to be...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BITTMAN: A bit much for you, I would say at lunch you might have that same bowl of oatmeal with perhaps some, oh, I don't know, scallions and soy sauce on top, which would be very Asian, but still pretty good.

INSKEEP: Soy sauce oatmeal?

Mr. BITTMAN: Oh, my God, it's great. And for dinner, I don't know, a poached egg on your oatmeal, since you're having oatmeal three times a day now. But it's - seriously, I eat whole grains.

INSKEEP: But I shouldn't be eating an egg, right, because that's an animal product?

Mr. BITTMAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: You're saying - not that I never have an egg, but I should eat less of them, you're saying.

Mr. BITTMAN: Well, I would say you should not have an egg seven times a week. Although if you wanted to have an egg seven times a week, I would then argue that you don't have cheeseburgers seven lunches a week. The general rule, though, is, I probably eat 70 percent less in the animal kingdom than I did two or three years ago. But that's a much different diet than the way I used to eat, where I'd wake up in the morning and eat the kind of breakfasts you were just talking about, eggs and bacon and toast or pancakes or whatever. And then maybe have a sandwich with meat for lunch, or a hamburger for lunch or, you know, pasta with meat or, you know, big carbohydrate lunch. Now, it's really - my daily - my in day eating is really fruits and vegetables for the most part, and then at night, I go back to eating, kind of, old style.

INSKEEP: Was it hard for you to change your diet, given that what's available is what's available, especially when you're out going to restaurants or trying to get a quick lunch or whatever else?

Mr. BITTMAN: Well, there are challenges, but the rewards are incredible. So, first let me speak about the challenges. The challenges are, as you say, what's available is not the ideal diet. But you can go out - and I've done this all over the world - you can go out to a store and buy yourself a bag of fruit or a bag of fruit and vegetables, if that's how you want to eat, and walk around snacking on that stuff all day. It's not the most sophisticated and satisfying diet, but it works.

We're not going to see - as individuals we're not going to see an impact we're having on the environment or on climate change, obviously. But for me, when I started eating the way I'm describing, I lost 35 pounds, which was about 15 percent of my body weight. My cholesterol went down 40 points. My blood sugar went from borderline bad to just fine. My knees, which were starting to give out as a result of running at too high a weight, got better. And I had had sleep apnea, which one doctor suggested was a result of being overweight, and that went away. So, all of those things happened within a few months and that's some serious positive reinforcement there.

INSKEEP: That, and feeling like you're changing the world.

Mr. BITTMAN: Well, feeling like you're changing the world, yeah, that's a nice thing, too.

INSKEEP: Mark Bittman, thanks very much.

Mr. BITTMAN: It's been great to talk with you.

INSKEEP: His new book is called "Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And we've got an excerpt from "Food Matters" and a recipe from Mark Bittman's Breakfast Bread Pudding at This is Morning Edition from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep, I'm Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.