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RHR: Fixing Our Broken Food System, with Dr. Mark Hyman


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I’ve often said that health is not just an individual endeavor—a multitude of other factors contribute to it, including our food system. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I talk with Dr. Mark Hyman about his upcoming book Food Fix, which delves deeply into the problems in our food system and discusses how they can worsen global crises like the chronic disease epidemic, climate change, poverty, and more.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • What’s wrong with our food system
  • How our food system affects our children
  • The role regulation can play in our health
  • Access to healthy food in underserved populations
  • The damage that our industrial food system causes
  • Hyman’s Food Fix Campaign

Show notes:

Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m really excited to welcome my good friend and colleague Dr. Mark Hyman as a guest. Dr. Hyman’s a practicing family physician and internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in the field of Functional Medicine. He’s the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, the head of strategy and innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, a 12-time New York Times bestselling author, and board president for clinical affairs for The Institute for Functional Medicine.

He’s the host of one of the leading health podcasts, The Doctor’s Farmacy, and he’s a regular contributor to several television shows and networks including CBS This Morning, Today, Good Morning America, The View, and CNN. He’s also an advisor and guest co-host on The Dr. Oz Show. If you’ve been following Functional Medicine for any length of time, I’m sure [you know] about Dr. Mark Hyman. He is really one of the modern pioneers of this movement and perhaps more responsible for advancing Functional Medicine as a concept and as a practice than any other person in the world.

Today, we’re going to be talking about his new book, Food Fix, which I believe is one of the most important books that’s been written in this century. That may seem a little hyperbolic, but I think you’ll agree with me, by the end of this podcast. Food Fix really focuses on the systemic problems in our food system and how they contribute to the chronic disease epidemic. And I’ve often said before that health is not just an individual endeavor; we really have to address the systemic problems that contribute to ill health, and that’s really what Mark’s new book Food Fix is about. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

Chris Kresser:  Mark Hyman, my friend. It’s such a pleasure to have you back on the show. Welcome.

Mark Hyman:  Thanks so much for having me, Chris. This is an important subject we’ve got to talk about. This is what we both care so much about, and I’m so excited to share this with you and your community.

The Problems with Our Food System

Chris Kresser:  Yes, as I said in the intro, I think this is possibly one of the most important books that has been written and will be written in this century. I know that may sound hyperbolic for some people, but given the scale of the challenge we’re facing, and I know you saw this study published last week, Mark, predicting now that one in two Americans will be obese by the year 2030. And one in four will be seriously obese, severely obese, which is a whole new category we’ve had to create.

So this is really, like, an existential threat that we’re facing on the same level of climate change and other things that seriously threaten the future of humanity. And, as you and I have both talked about before, health is not just an individual choice or an individual endeavor; it’s really a society-wide effort that we need to make. So let’s talk a little bit more about that. I know you mentioned in the book that diet is now the number one cause of death in the world. So maybe we could start there.

Mark Hyman:  Yeah. Well, thanks, Chris. I think that what you said was really important, which is, it’s about disease, but you mentioned [it] sort of on the scale of things like climate change. But what really was clear to me after working on this book and practicing medicine for 30 years was that everything is connected. That our food system, as a whole, is probably the biggest driver of most of our global crises. Obviously, chronic disease, we’ll get into that, the economic burden of it. We talked about how in the book, one out of two federal dollars will be for Medicare within five years. And that’s a crazy number if you think about it.

Chris Kresser:  Wow.

Mark Hyman:  And it’s getting worse. It’s the number one driver of climate change, environmental degradation, loss of our soil, our water resources, biodiversity. It’s the biggest driver of social injustice. It’s a huge contributor to poverty, violence, and mental health issues. Not to mention kids’ poor academic performance [and] national security. So this is really one issue that, if we pull on the thread, we see how it’s all connected. And the good news is by working on fixing the food system, we can solve all these problems.

Chris Kresser:  That’s a really critical point. I don’t think many people really consider that when they’re making choices about food, that it’s not just a question of nutrition. I mean, we, of course, everyone’s familiar with all the debates about which diet is best. Low-carb, low-fat, plant-based, Paleo, vegan, etcetera. But we often don’t think of the fact that our food choices are also political, social, and economic, and environmental acts. It’s not just about what we eat from a nutritional perspective. Every time we put something into our mouth, we’re essentially making a vote on all these global issues that we’re facing.

Mark Hyman:  It’s so true. And I think that is, it’s both a terrifying thought and a very empowering thought because we actually understand the impact of our choices and our behaviors. And we also understand the linkages to what’s going on in our policies, [and] then it’s a very empowering thought that, wait a minute, I can be part of the solution. And also realize that it has to happen on a bigger scale. And I think, so the book really lays out, not just, it’s not called Food Apocalypse, which it could have easily been called.

But it’s called Food Fix, which maps out the solutions for citizens, businesses, and policymakers to fix the problem. And it’s going to require a significant level of awareness so people really understand these problems and linkages. Because I don’t think most, for example, policy makers do. I, for example, spent two hours on a boat this summer with a U.S. senator, and he’s a very open, interesting guy. And he was really unaware of these linkages, unaware of these connections. And I was sort of struck by that. I was like, wait a minute, the [people] who are making our policy are not aware that these are the issues that we have to face. And they’re all dealing with them in silos. It’s a problem. It’s sort of like Functional Medicine for the food system, as opposed to all these separate different issues. It’s really one issue. If you get to the root cause, you can really solve them.

Chris Kresser:  Right. Yeah, that’s why I’m so excited about this book, because I think a lot of people aren’t aware. It’s just not on their radar. It’s not something they’re thinking about. And so, this book, and then the campaign that’s associated with it, which I want to talk about a little later, I think is really going to help bring this forward and into people’s awareness and make it as big of an issue in terms of the public consciousness as it really deserves to be and needs to be if we’re going to address these challenges we’re facing.

I mean, let’s talk a little bit about the food system and diet and their contribution to this epidemic of obesity and chronic disease that is now literally crippling our healthcare system or our “sick care” system, depending on what you want to call it. Not just here in the United States, but now worldwide. And it’s going to lead to $50 trillion of expenditure to treat chronic disease just in the next 20 years and possibly bring down governments and economies all around the world. So it all starts with food.

Mark Hyman:  It’s completely true. And I think if we look at some of the new data. Smoking or whatever, but it turns out that according to the Global Burden of Disease study of 195 countries, lack of good foods and too much bad foods kills over 11 million people a year. I think that’s an underestimate, actually.

When you start to look at the other chronic diseases that are causing people to die and you add them all up, and you see what [diseases] are caused by food, like diabetes and heart disease, and other things, it’s probably upward of 40 or 50 million people a year. Probably three quarters of all deaths on the planet are contributed to or are caused by our food, our ultra-processed food. And the ultra-processed food we’re eating is 60 percent of our calories. It’s corn, wheat, and soy turned into all kinds of factory-made science projects. And [for] every 10 percent of your diet that comes from processed food, your risk [of] death goes up by 14 percent. And the side effect of that is [a] huge economic burden.

You mentioned $50 trillion, but looking at how you slice and dice it, according to macroeconomic analysis, the cost to our society in both direct and indirect costs is going to be $95 trillion over the next 35 years. Just to put [it] in perspective, that’s an annual amount that’s 91 percent of the total tax collected by the U.S. government. So it’s over like …

Chris Kresser:  Much more than the GDP [gross domestic product] of the six largest economies of the world.

Mark Hyman:  And yes, and also, it’s probably more, that amount is more than the total economy of the world when you add up. It’d be over 35 years. But even things like [the] Medicare trust fund is going to run out of money in five years. By 2025, 48 percent of our mandatory federal spending will be for Medicare, which means there’s, like, half of the money left for everything else, and it’s completely unsustainable. And we know that the food that we’re eating is so nutrient depleted, that it’s so inflammatory, it’s so toxic to our microbiome, it’s so toxic to our brain chemistry and so inflammatory, that it’s driving all these other issues, which isn’t just obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

It’s affecting our kids’ academic performance. We’re 31st in the world in math and reading, and our kids are struggling with ADD [attention deficit disorder] and behavior issues. The data on that is striking. The data on violence. Who thought violence is connected to food? But in violent prisoners in prison, giving them a healthy diet reduced violent crime by 56 percent. And if they added a multivitamin, it reduced it by 80 percent. And the same thing with kids in juvenile detention centers. Their bad behavior was reduced by 91 percent. The use of restraints by 75 percent. Oppositional behavior, dramatically lower. Suicide, 100 percent drop in suicide in these kids in this one large study of 3,000 kids, where they swapped out healthy food for the bad food in these centers.

So there’s a huge impact on our intellectual capital, our emotional capital, on the divisiveness in our society. I mean, we think of why our society is so divided and why we are having so much conflict in politics, and even the nutrition diet wars is, I think, the example.

Chris Kresser:  Right. And a total distraction from what we really need to be focused on.

Mark Hyman:  Totally. And part of the problem, I just had David Perlmutter on my podcast. He was talking about the effects of inflammation on the brain in decoupling the limbic system from the frontal lobe. And what that means is you have a fight-or-flight reptile brain, your lizard brain, which is the old brain that’s not great at making good decisions, except saving your life. And your frontal lobe, which is the adult in the room.

So, if you have an emotional reaction to response and you get activated, you can’t really control it. Which is why there’s so much divisive behavior, why our decisions are so poor. And it was sort of a striking, another striking fact from, David Perlmutter and his son wrote this book, Brain Wash, about how our food is driving behavioral issues and emotional conflict.

Chris Kresser:  We’re kind of stuck in our limbic system and the amygdala [is] running the show rather than our frontal cortex.

Mark Hyman:  Exactly.

Our food doesn’t just impact our individual health; it’s also behind global crises like climate change, social injustice, poverty, and much, much more. Check out this episode of RHR for more on the problems with our food system. #optimalhealth #wellness

How Our Food System Affects Our Children

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit more about kids because this is something we’re both passionate about, how the food industry preys on children specifically. It preys on everybody, but the effects are especially insidious with kids. So let’s talk a little bit about those tactics and how we can address that starting with young kids in schools and cafeterias and the food that they’re served.

Mark Hyman:  It’s so huge. Obviously, kids are sicker and fatter than ever. Remember there was that one overweight kid in your class growing up. One kid who had a behavioral issue. Now it’s one in 10 kids have ADD and 40 percent are overweight. And obesity rates have tripled since the 1970s. And now, one in three kids is overweight or obese. I mean, that’s pretty striking. And one in four teenagers has type two diabetes or prediabetes, which is really crazy.

Chris Kresser:  It’s scary.

Mark Hyman:  I never saw that when I was growing up, and you see fast food infiltrating the schools in dramatic ways. One, this is like 50 percent of schools, they have fast food served in the cafeteria, like McDonald’s Monday, Taco Bell Tuesday, [and] Wendy’s Wednesday, and these [foods] are what kids get to eat. And there’s an incredible abundance of these processed foods. And then marketing to these kids through schools that all the advertising that goes in from soda companies, the big food companies that is driving their behaviors and their choices. I mean, they now have Coca-Cola ads in the locker rooms, in the toilet stalls in the bathroom.

So there’s a lot of good things that have happened, for example. Trying to solve that with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that Michelle Obama championed. And she tried to mandate [that] the hundred thousand public schools provide healthier foods. And it improved the nutrition standards. But it didn’t really go far enough, right? You still can get all kinds of junk food in there.

And now, unfortunately, the Trump administration has rolled back a lot of those guidelines, and the kids aren’t eating the food. They’re throwing it out. I mean, there were 111 food companies, trade groups, industry organizations that lobbied on this bill, and it was put into play as a group called the School Nutrition Association, which sounds really nice.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, all the groups have those kinds of misleading names, right?

Mark Hyman:  Right. It’s like an industry-funded lobby group and their $10 million budget comes from big food companies like [Coca-Cola] and Kraft and Domino’s Pizza. I mean, and they watered down the guidelines. Pizza is a vegetable; French fries, they’re a vegetable, right? Ketchup, it’s a vegetable. And it’s pretty terrible. So the kids are really suffering. It affects not only their weight and their long-term health, but also their cognitive function.

Chris Kresser:  Their mood and their behavior, like you said before.

Mark Hyman:  Yeah, and now the things that are okay under the guidelines are things like pepperoni pizza from Uno, chicken nuggets, funnel cakes, chocolate muffins, sugar-soaked Slush Puppie beverages, those are all approved under the current guidelines, which doesn’t make any sense.

Chris Kresser:  It’s just insane.

Mark Hyman:  But the good news is people are really trying to shift this. A friend of mine, Jill Shah, I write about in the book, created something called the My Way Cafe where she found out how to refurbish kitchens in schools at a low cost. Because they only had deep fryers and microwaves. She hired top chefs in Boston, in these Boston inner-city schools, to create delicious foods that were within the school nutrition guidelines, and even more importantly, within the school nutrition budget.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Mark Hyman:  Which means that they could provide the same food at no extra cost. I mean, better food at no extra cost. And these kids are performing better in school, their behavior’s better, they’re having less issues. It’s pretty; it’s pretty amazing.

Chris Kresser:  That sounds great. Yeah, grassroots solutions like this, I think, can go such a long way because they prove out the model, and then that model can be scaled up and exported, not just here in the United States, but elsewhere.

Mark Hyman:  Yeah, and they’re not the only ones. There are really great groups that are trying to solve this in schools. I think Conscious Kitchen is one of them. And there are really great groups that are working on this. So I feel like there’s so much to be done. The other issue, though, is in food marketing, and this is really a problem. Because they used to be just in the obvious places, on TV, in print, and so forth. Now it’s stealth marketing, and the Institute of Medicine produced a report even before the internet saying how bad it was. And now, it’s 10 times worse. And they’re hijacking kids’ brains.

They’re using all kinds of emotional targeting. And they’re really driving huge amounts of marketing toward these kids. I mean, [in] 2016, 56 of the biggest food companies placed 509 million banner ads and impressions on Cartoon Network [and] Nick.com. They placed 3.4 billion ads on Facebook and YouTube. I mean, and the WHO [World Health Organization] is like, “Hey, this is not okay.” They’re using powerful digital marketing tactics that don’t even come off as advertising. It’s sort of like advert games that are fun games they give kids for free that drive them to McDonald’s. And it’s, they’re looking at kids’ brains with imaging so they can actually see what lights up their pleasure center in their brain.

Chris Kresser:  Brain hacking.

Mark Hyman:  Yeah, I mean, it’s scary. It’s not just like, “Oh, we don’t really know what we’re doing.” They use these ads. They know what they’re doing.

Chris Kresser:  Intentionally manipulative. Yeah,

Mark Hyman:  Yeah, exactly. So we’ve got to protect our kids. I mean, a friend of mine said, if a foreign country was doing to our kids what we’re doing, we would go to war.

The Role Regulation Can Play in Our Health

Chris Kresser:  We’d be at war. Absolutely. Without a doubt, without a doubt. Let’s talk a little bit about the role of regulation. This is a controversial issue, of course. People politically, people have ideas about how much the state, whether we’re talking about actual U.S. states or federal government should get involved. Let’s talk a little bit about soda tax as an example, and the effects that that has had, where that’s been done. And then other things that governments, both here domestically and abroad, might do to intervene and whether you even think that’s a good idea.

Mark Hyman:  Well, I think there’s a whole issue of the nanny state. And I think people are opposed to that, and the government getting involved in their choices. But it’s important to remember that we do have laws that protect citizens. For example, we have seatbelt laws, [and] we have emissions for cars. The car manufacturers [were] all up in arms, and now emissions are a thing people accept. We mandate baby seeds, we mandate vaccinations, which [we] may or [may] not think is a good idea, but we do have efforts in our country to protect our citizens.

Chris Kresser:  We used to prevent industry from polluting our water sources and air that we breathe.

Mark Hyman:  Right, exactly. So I think there’s really great evidence around how to use fiscal policy to drive change. And I think there have been enough soda taxes that have been in place where they’re effective, and we can argue whether they’re politically good or not. But they work. This is why the food industry, the American beverage industry, spent $38 million trying to defeat them in California. And thank God that Michael Bloomberg and [the] Arnold Foundation spent about $20 million of their own money to actually allow them to pass. I mean, that’s what it takes, right? A couple of billionaires saying, “Hey, wait a minute, we’re going to fight back.” But when you look at the data, they really do work.

There’s a reduction in soda consumption, there’s an improvement in health, there’s a reduction in weight, and it actually works. And that’s why they fight it. Now the problem is that the food industry fights back. So I’m not sure you’re aware of this, Chris, but in California, there were four towns that did pass [the] soda tax in the 2016 election, and that was only because of Bloomberg and [the] Arnold Foundation. However, right after that, the food industry decided [on] a new tactic. And this has nothing to do with soda or anything. They just created a ballot measure that would prohibit local governments from passing new taxes to pay for schools, fire departments, police stations, whatever, without a true third majority, which would be very impossible and would cripple local governments in California.

They spent $7 million promoting this ballot initiative, which they couldn’t care less about. But they used it to bribe Jerry Brown who was probably the most liberal governor we’ve ever had in America to pass a preemptive law that prevented any future soda taxes or junk food taxes. So, and they did it at the last minute. They said, “We’ll pull it. We’ll pull the ballot measure if you pass this,” and they did it five days before the election, and they just went through without any kind of, like, awareness until after. And they’re doing this in state after state after state. So they’re fighting back and they’re using Big Tobacco’s …

Chris Kresser:  Playbook.

Mark Hyman:  Playbook, yeah. So, we see in places like Mexico, where they’ve had taxes for awhile, they work. Soft drink sales plunged, while water consumption increased. We see the same thing in Philadelphia where we’ve seen similar taxes and [in] Berkeley. So there’s been a lot of analysis of that. And according to PLOS Medicine, which is a research journal, over the course of a decade, this tax in Mexico would save 19,000 lives, prevent 200,000 new cases of diabetes, and lower Mexico’s healthcare costs almost a billion dollars. So it works.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I think the biggest, I mean, I’m with you on this, Mark. But I do have mixed feelings because the biggest risk with this, it’s pretty clear, everybody agrees that there should be a soda tax. But what about a saturated fat tax? What about when [the] government starts making decisions, which was actually proposed? I don’t know if it ever happened in Norway. But you can sometimes get the idea of taxes based on consensus paradigm science, which, as we know, isn’t always accurate and can change over time. So, I think, overall, I agree with that approach, but I am a little nervous about the direction that that could go in.

Mark Hyman:  Yeah, it’s true. I mean, in the book, I talk about how Chile put in sweeping reforms, which I think are being really looked at carefully and scientifically. But it had [a] dramatic impact. And they did a whole sweeping set of things. An 18 percent soda tax. They put warning labels on the front of boxes, they got rid of cartoon characters like Tony the Tiger. But their warning boxes are saturated fat, salt, and sugar, which may not be the right approach, right? Because then the food company can dial up and down these ingredients, but it’s still a step forward. But you’re right, there is danger in it. But what they did also was eliminate any marketing to kids between, like, 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. on any place.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Mark Hyman:  Internet, TV, print, everywhere. And they found there was a four-fold reduction compared to the taxes of junk food and processed food by eliminating the advertising. So the marketing is a bigger factor and a bigger lever than taxes. The problem in this country is something called the First Amendment.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Mark Hyman:  Which is being used by these companies to actually …

Chris Kresser:  Argue that they have a right to do that.

Mark Hyman:  Yeah, yeah, that it’s an impingement on free speech and that you shouldn’t be limited. And I think, I don’t know if there’s anything in the First Amendment that says we can’t protect our children. I just don’t know that.

Access to Healthy Food in Underserved Populations

Chris Kresser:  Right. Yeah. We’re living in a much more complex environment now than when those, [when] the Constitution was written. And I’m not arguing that those principles aren’t still valid. But I think there’s a lot of nuance now that didn’t necessarily exist at that point. Let’s talk about the other side of this in terms of government programs. They can have great benefits, but they can also be problematic and contribute to the problem. And one example of that is the food stamp program. So let’s talk a little bit about some of the issues that that is causing.

Mark Hyman:  Yeah, for sure. Well, I think a lot of the problems we have today, I come to really realize, were not the result of bad intentions, right? So our current agricultural system, our food stamp program, dietary guidelines, they were all coming from good intentions. And we decided we need to grow more food, grow more calories, grow more starchy calories, and all that’s great. We need to feed people.

And so, the focus was on giving people an adequate amount of calories, but not concerned about where those calories came from. And it turned out the most calories to be produced through all the government support were processed food calories that are essentially soy, wheat, and corn turned into all kinds of manner of industrial food products. And the food stamp program serves about 46 million Americans, one in four kids. It’s a really great support for these people who are struggling just with food insecurity.

So it’s really helped solve food insecurity. But the dark side of it is that it is driving these people to be more sick and have more chronic disease because the majority of calories purchased, 75 percent, are junk food, and 10 percent is soda. And that’s about $7 billion a year. That’s about 30 billion servings for the poor every year. So there’s, the problem with it, now the program is called SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. The problem is there’s no nutrition in the assistance. It’s all malnutrition. And I think there’s a large effort to try to put nutrition back in the food stamp program. And I think that’s where, there are incentives, for example, for purchasing healthier food with double bucks at farmers’ markets.

Disincentives could be in place for bad food, and I think there are ways to do it that are politically palatable. The challenge is, I just morally have a problem with the government paying for that many servings of soda for the poor when we know it’s a huge contributor to disease. And Coca-Cola is the biggest welfare recipient in America with 20 percent of the American revenue coming from food stamps. Walmart is about, probably 20 percent of all the food stamp dollars go to Walmart. Now, they may be buying organic vegetables, I don’t know, but my guess is they’re probably not. And I think it’s probably one of the biggest government programs.

It’s the biggest component of the Farm Bill. So, really, it shouldn’t be called the Farm Bill; it should be called the Food Bill. And it’s about $735 billion over 10 years, and there are huge fights on trying to improve the SNAP Bill. And in the book, I detailed how a lot of the congressmen and senators are bought and paid for by the food industry, and are saying, “Well, it’s all about exercise. It’s not really about, not really about sugar or other foods. It’s really about exercise.”

Chris Kresser:  It’s ridiculous and totally contrary to what the research says.

Mark Hyman:  Yeah, right. You can’t exercise out of a bad diet.

Chris Kresser:  I have a personal story about this, when I was back in school and I was interning in a clinic with a large underserved population, primarily Latino. And we had kids who were coming into the clinic, I mean, this was 15 years ago, and it was already a big problem with childhood obesity in that community. And many of the families were on food stamps, and they were, the foods that they could buy, one of the foods that, I would ask often what they were giving their kids, and often these kids were drinking, like, a liter of orange juice a day.

And I would talk to the moms about it, and they would say, “Well, this is, I was told this was healthy. Orange is a fruit and fruit juice is healthy. It says right here.” And they would show me the literature that they got about healthy food choices. So, oftentimes, people are trying to do the right thing, but they’re not getting the right guidance or support in the choices that they’re making.

Mark Hyman:  You’re 100 percent right. I mean, I was part of that movie Fed Up and I went down to this family in North Carolina, South Carolina, and they were struggling to lose weight. The father couldn’t get a new kidney unless he was able to actually lose 45 pounds. They were crying because they were trying to do the right thing and didn’t really know how. And I went into their kitchen and they were having Cool Whip, because it said zero trans fats on it. It was a healthy topping. Their salad dressings were full of refined soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup, and they thought that was a good dressing.

And there was one thing after the other, and they were trying to do the right thing, they just didn’t know. And I simply went through their kitchen, took everything out of their cupboard, showed him what the ingredients were, why they were a problem. And they got it and I said, “Well, here’s how you cook a simple meal from scratch using real ingredients,” which they’ve never done.

Chris Kresser:  Right, right.

Mark Hyman:  And never learned how to do. And they were able to do it. I just gave them a cookbook and a guide to eating well for less, and they were able to lose 200 pounds as a family over a year. The son ended up going on to lose 138 pounds and now is in medical school.

Chris Kresser:  Amazing.

Mark Hyman:  And I wrote him a letter of recommendation for medical school. I mean, it’s not that hard. And they were living on food stamps and disability in one of the worst food deserts in America. And they were able to figure it out. And so, if they can figure it out, like, I think it’s possible for all of us.

The Damage that Our Industrialized Food System Causes

Chris Kresser:  Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk more about the food system itself. I mean, one of the biggest issues, of course, is we have this massively industrialized food system where processed and refined food comprise 60 percent of the calories that Americans consume. And one of the most common solutions that we often hear is that we should further industrialize the food system.

There was an article in The Guardian not too long ago by George Monbiot that really proposed lab-grown food as the solution to our food system woes. What do you think about that? And if that’s not the solution, what is?

Mark Hyman:  Well, I’m all for innovation, and I think there are great tech solutions, but, actually, I met with Uma Valeti who’s the founder of Memphis Meats, which was growing lab-grown meat, and we were talking about the entire sort of lifecycle analysis of the process. And, like, well, it’s a very energy-intensive process. It also uses farm materials, basically, feed, grain, and other sources of feed.

Chris Kresser:  Often GMO monocrops.

Mark Hyman:  They come from industrial agriculture. I said, “Uma, you could literally transform this industry by getting regenerative ag crops and supporting those, just like General Mills is doing and now even, I think, Kellogg’s is encouraging, and Danone and Nestle. And, too, you could use a renewable source of energy to fuel your farm. I mean, to fuel your plan.” An example of this is kind of cool.

Food waste we haven’t talked about, but it’s a huge problem. And in Massachusetts, they eliminated the ability of any companies that make a ton of food waste or more a week to throw it out. And farmers, dairy farmers are struggling to make a living, and it’s really hard. And so, they basically came up with this model where they build these anaerobic digesters on their farms. And they get three tractor trailers full, full of food waste every day, and they throw it in there, and they throw some cow poop in there, and it basically creates electricity for 1,500 homes. It makes the farmer $100,000 a year, which is a lot because they, on average, farmers lose about $1,600 dollars a year. It ends the food waste issue [and] it helps deal with the manure problem. It’s, like, a win, win, win.

So there’s a lot of great innovations around things where they could, for example, power lab meat based on that, for example. So I think I’m not against it, but I just think it’s probably not the solution. And what turns out, and this is really exciting, is that, we didn’t talk about it yet, but the food industry as a whole, and this was a shock to me, is the number one cause of climate change. It’s also the number one solution.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Mark Hyman:  And the things that are driving it are:

  • Deforestation
  • Soil erosion
  • Factory farming of animals
  • Food waste
  • All the transport
  • Refrigeration
  • Processing
  • Packaging of food

When you add it all up, it’s basically 48 to 50-something percent of our climate problem, which is bigger than fossil fuels. So we have to really think about a different way of farming that reverses climate change.

And the good news is that way of farming, called regenerative agriculture, which is a very specific way of building soil, conserving water, [and using] less chemicals, more biodiversity, pollinators, etc. produces more food, better food, [and] more profit for the farmer while building soil, reversing climate change, creating resilience to drought and floods and weather extremes and makes the farmer a lot more money.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Mark Hyman:  It’s like a win, win, win.

Chris Kresser:  And creating [a] great livelihood for people. I mean, my listeners will be familiar. We just had [on] Will Harris from White Oak Pastures who you probably are familiar with.

Mark Hyman:  Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chris Kresser:  On the show, and he talked about, like, the independent analysis by Quantis International found that they sequester three and a half pounds of carbon per pound of beef produced. Whereas Impossible Burger, which is a lab-produced meat, a fake meat, is emitting three and a half pounds of carbon per pound of beef. So it’s, Impossible Burgers certainly far more, emits far less carbon than conventional beef, which is 33 in that comparison, but it’s amazing that regenerative agriculture is actually a net carbon sink and is a more environmentally responsible way of feeding people than fake meat and probably lab meat. Although we don’t have an existing analysis on lab meat yet.

Mark Hyman:  Yeah, that’s 100 percent right. I think, people say you can’t feed the world; it’s not scalable. But if you look at all the degraded land we have in the world that needs to be restored, we can. In fact, the UN [United Nations] recently said that we could stall climate change by 20 years, simply by taking two of the 5 million hectares of degraded land around the world and spending $300 billion, which is just about the military spend of the entire world for 60 days, that we could convert the two of the 5 million hectares of degraded land back to regenerative ag, and that would stall climate change by 20 years. That to me is staggering. I mean, this isn’t my opinion. These are top scientists.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, and give us food security because without soil, healthy soil, we have no food security. We don’t currently really know how to produce food without soil. And none of the technological or lab solutions that are being proposed do anything to address the decline in soil quality that is really, again, one of the most serious threats that I think humanity is facing right now and not one that’s very well understood.

Mark Hyman:  Yeah, it was shocking to me when I started reading about this. The UN says we have 60 harvests left. The Obama administration produced a report on soil, [which] said [we had] 80 years left. But we basically are running out of soil, because we’re turning it into dirt, which can’t grow food, and we are going to be screwed. And it’s probably a more rapid and existential threat than anything else. Even climate change.

I mean, it’s causing climate change. I don’t know if you realize this, and I certainly didn’t, that 30, 40 percent of all the carbon in the atmosphere, of one trillion tons of carbon, 30 to 40 percent of it is from the loss of our topsoil over the last 150 years, which is because of the way we farm. And that to me was a shock because if that’s true, then the converse is true, that we can put the carbon back in the soil using an incredible carbon capture technology that’s available everywhere in the world. It’s free. It’s been around for billions of years. It’s called photosynthesis.

Chris Kresser:  Yes, absolutely. I mean, the solution is not to eliminate farming; it’s to return farming to its roots, really, and practice a way of farming that, as you said, can restore soil quality and ecosystems and reduce the release of chemicals into the food system, which I want to come back to, and into the environment, and provide meaningful livelihood for people who are doing it. Yeah, it’s really notable to me that in the same way that you’re talking about, fixing the food system, it doesn’t just address our diet and nutrition quality. It addresses so many of these social, economic, and environmental problems.

Let’s talk a little bit about chemicals. Because we haven’t touched that much on that yet. So we’ve got chemicals in our crops and in our food system. We’ve got industrial agriculture massively contributing to this. We’ve got genetically modified plants, pesticides, [and] toxins leaching into the ground, contaminating aquifers, rivers, and streams, and tainting the food supply. What are the impacts of this? I know you did a lot of research on that. And how can we address this?

Mark Hyman:  There’s a lot of issues. Obviously, the health risks of things like pesticides. Farmers’ risk of Parkinson’s disease is 70 percent higher than the average population. We’re seeing pesticides being linked to cancer, type 2 diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, [and] developmental disorders. Some studies show that 41 million IQ points have been lost in kids exposed to pesticides. These are real issues. And then, of course, we’ve got the glyphosate. This is the most abundant chemical that’s used in agriculture.

Essentially, it’s herbicides that are used on so many different plants. And it was, yeah, it’s been banned in many countries. Here we just had, the EPA said it was safe to use, unfortunately. But there have been billion dollar lawsuits that have been won because it’s linked to cancer. It also causes destruction of the microbiome. I mean, the Impossible Burger has 110 times as much glyphosate as required to destroy the microbiome [in] animals like rats in animal studies. And so, we’re dealing with these horrible consequences in people. When you look at the study of Hispanic workers in Salinas Valley, which is our big agricultural hub, they’re 59 percent more likely to get leukemia, 70 percent more likely to get stomach cancer, [and] 63 percent more likely to get cervical cancer. They have 40 percent more phosphate pesticide in their urine, including pregnant and breastfeeding women. I mean, it’s a mess.

But I want to talk about fertilizer because this was, again, news for me as I began to research this. Fertilizer, how bad is that? It’s just a little nitrogen. What’s the big deal? But it turns out that the fertilizer is produced, it’s a massive industry, and it’s produced using a very energy-intensive process. And the number one users of natural gas from fracking are the fertilizer companies. And the fracking wells produce 30 or 40 percent more methane than conventional oil wells, which is adding more to climate change. Then when you put it on the soil, it turns to nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent to greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And then, it destroys the life of the soil.

So the microbiology, which is required to extract nutrients, it’s required to build carbon, all these wonderful things that the soil does, it sort of kills it, and along with herbicides and pesticides. And then, the runoff of the fertilizer into our waterways, rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans cause these algae blooms, sucks all the oxygen out of the water, [and] ends up causing massive dead zones. For example, in the Gulf of Mexico, there’s one the size of New Jersey, which kills 212,000 metric tons of fish. I mean, who’s paying for that, right? And then, there are 400 of these around the world the size of Europe, which a half a billion people depend on for food. So, like, how do we even start to think about that?

And the good news with regenerative agriculture [is] you don’t need fertilizer. You have animals making the fertilizer, you have plants making the fertilizer, and you actually make money from your fertilizer instead of [it] costing money. So I think we have to sort of come to terms with this chemical industrial agriculture from a number of points of view. One is the human health consequences, the environmental consequences, the effect of these pesticides on our pollinators. I mean, we’ve lost 75 percent of our pollinators. That’s terrible. Without pollinators, it’s like without soil, we can’t grow many of our crops.

And so, we have, we can’t keep going this way. And I feel like this is why it’s such an imperative, why I wrote this book, why it’s such a departure for me. I think it’s really a different kind of book for me. It’s a political book. It’s about how we take action to solve these problems. And I’m working with an incredible team to actually create a whole campaign around this. And one of them is a Republican strategist, and I’m a Democrat. And so, I’m like, pretty, pretty clear about some of my views in the book.

But I was struck: why is this guy who’s spent his whole life working on certain types of policies, why would he take the time to come up and meet and be part of this initiative? And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Well, I read the book and it just really made it clear to me that this is the central issue of our time, and we have to solve it. And I think this is one of the most important books of the last decade, and I just, I feel like I need to be part of this.” And I was like, “Wow.” And he’s, like, volunteering his time, and it’s pretty impressive.

Dr. Hyman’s Food Fix Campaign

Chris Kresser:  Good for him. I mean, it’s so clear that this issue crosses political lines. I mean, maybe the proposed solutions might vary a little bit depending on one’s politics. For example, the role of government regulation, things like soda taxes. But I think it’s virtually impossible to disagree, whatever your political inclination is, that this is one of the biggest challenges we face and it’s urgent that we address it. So, yeah, tell us a little more about the campaign and how that’s going to complement the book.

Mark Hyman:  Well, I mean, I wrote the book because I felt like it was imperative to tell the story. And that was the first step. But what was really exciting to me is a number of people reached out to me and wanted to do something bigger, and one of the guys was a guy who helped Bono launch his incredible One campaign that raised $87 billion for AIDS and poverty relief in Africa through Congress in a bipartisan way. And he really knows how to run stuff in Washington. And he put together a whole team where we’ve got a policy group, a grassroots movement group, a business C suite group for partnerships. I mean, it’s really, really exciting.

And I think that there’s such a deep understanding of these issues in this group. We’ve got incredible champions that are coming together to create this. We’ve got donors. We have celebrities. We have policymakers on board. So I feel like this is a really good crucial moment where we can actually make this happen. And it’s not, whether the current administration stays or not, I think there are ways of getting things done in Washington that are a little below the radar. And I think this is how we’re going to work and be deliberate and strategic. And I’m so excited about doing this. It’s called the Food Fix campaign.

And you can learn about it on our website, FoodFixBook.com or FoodFix.org where the site’s coming up probably [in the] next month or so. So I think it’s really an exciting effort because I feel like I’m worried about my children and their children. And what does the future look like for all of us? And connecting the dots has been my life’s work. And can, I began to think about, thinking about it’s not just about food and health and Functional Medicine, but connecting the dots that affect all these issues, and that are really imperative for us to solve.

Chris Kresser:  Well, I’m so glad that you wrote this book, Mark. I know it is a bit of a departure for you, but I really feel like I agree 100 percent with what others have said, [that] it’s, for sure, one of the most important books of the decade, if not the century. I really believe that this is on the same scale as climate change, and some of the other existential threats that we’re facing, and threatens humanity in a similar way.

So, and I firmly believe, as you know, and we’ve discussed that, we won’t be able to address this just by supporting individuals to make better choices. Because individuals are part of a system. They’re part of this really complex web of influences that are often unconscious and very, very difficult to avoid entirely because our kind of basic brain programming is working against us in that way. So I think change, I’m not abdicating personal responsibility here. We all definitely have personal responsibility, but I think we really have to move beyond that. And I know that was kind of a key insight for you, recognizing this after doing what you’ve done for three decades, that this is more, this goes beyond individual choice.

Mark Hyman:  Exactly. I mean, it’s such a bigger thing, and we all can be part of it. And I think we often feel discouraged and frustrated by the state of things that we’re in. We don’t have the power to change things, but we do. I mean, just look at what happened the last few weeks with glyphosate. General Mills, which, in their Cheerios, they were outed for having more glyphosate than vitamin A or vitamin B. They announced that they’re going to phase out all glyphosate from their products by 2025, which is fantastic. Which means it’s going to change the supply chain; it’s going to change how farming is done. General Mills, same thing. They committed to a million acres of regenerative ag. Nestle, Danone, all these big companies are really focused on this issue and are acting on it because consumers, people like you listening, are making different choices, demanding different things and asking for different products. And I see this happening.

And I was very skeptical about any movement in the food industry. But it’s possible. And there are other levers. There are people using financial leverage, for example, investment levers, where this one guy, Jeremy Kohler, [who] I talked about in the book, essentially decided to gather 12 trillion assets. He’s a private equity guy. And he basically got $12 trillion in institutional assets and told these companies to get together to get all the big fast food companies to get antibiotics out of their feed and their supply chain by a certain date. And if not, they were going to divest of those companies.

So, for example, there are big investors in McDonald’s [who are] going to sell all their shares, [and] it’s not going to be good. So they basically all agreed. And they got 20 companies, the top 20 companies to get antibiotics on their feed. So there’s a lot of hope, I think, in this space, and I think there’s a lot of possibility. And I’m really excited about it.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely, I am, as well. So I think a lot of people listening will want to get involved and be a part of the solution. So where can they learn more about the book and pick up a copy? And if people want to get involved in this larger campaign, is there a way to do that yet?

Mark Hyman:  Yes, for sure. So FoodFixBook.org. I’m sorry, FoodFixBook.com is the main website and there’ll be a link on there for the Food Fix campaign. That’s probably the easiest way to get it. And we’re still launching it. [The] official launch date is going to be May 2020. But it’s pretty exciting. We’ve got a 45-page strategy document. We’ve got incredible networks. We put together business leaders and scientists and policymakers, and it’s just really pretty exciting.

So I’m very, very happy that you had me on your podcast. I think it’s really important to tell the story. And I think we’re just in this moment in time where it’s, like, I think the perfect moment for this all to sort of happen.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely, Mark, and I just have so much gratitude and appreciation for you in having the courage and willingness to write this book and get this message out there. Because I really believe it’s one of the most important of our time. So thank you.

Mark Hyman:  Thank you.

Chris Kresser:  Okay, everybody, thanks for listening. Keep sending your questions in to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.

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