Author: Karyn Knox

Karyn Knox serves as the Chief Development and Partnerships Officer for the Educated Choices Program (ECP), an international academic non-profit organization focused on providing free science-based education surrounding the impact of food choices and our current food system on human and planetary health. Karyn is committed to helping people create a healthier life and planet and is dedicated to empowering individuals to be the change they want to see in the world. She firmly believes that when people are given the proper information and opportunity to make positive changes for themselves and the world around them, they will rise to the occasion! Karyn holds degrees in Non-Profit Management and Wildlife Conservation and has years of experience working within the non-profit sector. She has been asked to speak at Food Technology and Alternative Protein Summits around the world and brings with her a unique perspective on the role that education plays in behavioural change and how the younger generation thinks about and accepts the concepts surrounding plant-forward dietary choices and their impact on human health and the environment.

The Ethics of Eating  

Food’s Role in Culture 

Food has been an essential component of cultural identity for as long as humans have walked the Earth. One’s geographical location, religion, ethnicity, economic status and family traditions all shape how we think about food. These factors determine the food environment in which we grow up, how we eat as adults and how we raise our children to think about food. What we eat, where we get it, who prepares it, when we eat it and who we share it with all shape us as individuals and as a society. However, it may now be time to rethink some of our food traditions and how they impact others and the world we share.  

Meat, in particular, plays a prominent role in many cultures. For example, the dietary guidelines in a traditional Jewish Kosher diet restrict what meat and dairy products can be consumed, and in what combination for spiritual health. Other religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, which have a doctrine of nonviolence, often observe abstinence from meat. Holiday traditions often center around meat, such as eating lamb for Eid El Kabir and turkey on Thanksgiving Day. We often experience a sense of belonging in community groups that share food. Whether it is a neighborhood barbeque, family meal, or formal catered event, social gatherings commonly include sharing a meat-based meal.  

The types of foods deemed acceptable within a culture vary significantly by geographic location. For example, in the US most people consider eating cats and dogs unthinkable, and it became illegal in 2018 due to a bipartisan congressional bill. Many other countries have passed similar laws. However, what we consider pets in the US are still considered food in other territories. 

Food System Societal Concerns 

Growing knowledge about animal-based food, its production method and its impact on human and planetary health have caused many people to adopt a more plant-rich diet in recent years. It is becoming increasingly well-known that conditions in concentrated animal feedings operations (CAFOs) are unsanitary and inhumane. What we don’t hear so much about are the conditions in which the employees at CAFOs and meat processing plants work daily. According to Food in Canada, the meat processing industry has one of the highest injury rates among all manufacturing industries. Workers in these facilities must repeat the same motions thousands of times daily, frequently leading to repetitive-strain injuries, chronic pain, numbness, cuts, lacerations, and permanent nerve damage. Conditions are made worse by the unreasonable expectations placed on an often-undersized workforce resulting in some workers performing up to 24,000 knife cuts and lifting 15 tons of meat every day. Slips and falls in the facilities’ wet and humid conditions are also common, as well as illnesses due to exposure to hazardous chemicals, dust and animal waste particles. These workers are also at high risk of developing depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

COVID-19 worsened the situation due to crowded conditions experienced by employees forced to continue working during the pandemic. A 2021 US House Select Subcommittee report stated that 59,000 workers at the five biggest meat-packing plants tested positive for COVID and that at least 269 died from it. Moreover, most of these workers are paid minimum wage, which keeps them close to the poverty line. 

Employees of the meat industry are not the only ones suffering from the meat production process. Studies show that lower-income communities are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation caused by animal agriculture. The lower cost of land and the less restrictive regulations on emissions due to diminished political power and resources in these areas make them targets for the placement of factory farms and processing plants. For example, in North Carolina, the number of pigs living in factory farms is close to the total number of humans. The associated nitrate contamination of groundwater has caused health problems for those nearby, including blue baby syndrome, a condition in which a baby’s skin turns blue from inadequate oxygen in their blood, often leading to death. In addition, air pollution from the spraying of faecal matter-filled lagoon water can lead to severe respiratory illnesses. Due to their location, low-income Black, Brown and Indigenous communities are almost twice as likely to experience health issues due to living within three miles of a pig farm.   

Dairy farms cause similar health hazards for those living nearby. In Tulare County, California, where 65% of the residents are Latinx, a drinking water crisis was caused by nitrate runoff from dairy farms. Residents have been severely affected. The rate of miscarriages is double the average for the state. To add insult to injury, residents pay three times as much as those in other areas for water that is unfit to drink. 

 If our current food system has so many problems for the health of our society and planet, you would at least expect it to be efficient at feeding the global population. Sadly, that is not the case. Nearly half the people on Earth are malnourished, yet populations continue to grow. The consumption of meat and dairy products is growing, and it cannot continue to do so. Livestock currently takes up nearly 80% of global agricultural land yet only produces approximately 20% of the world’s supply of calories. This is due to the “feed-to-calorie ratio.” For example, feeding 2,000 calories of grain to a cow only results in 60 calories of beef, a loss of 97% of calories, according to Environmental Research Letters. Research suggests that it is possible to feed everyone a nutritious diet on existing croplands, but only if we see a widespread shift towards a plant-based diet.  

Being a Part of the Solution 

While systematic changes are needed to address these issues, individual behavior changes can also have an impact. According to World in Data, if everyone moved to a plant-based diet we could reduce global land use for agriculture by 75%. The rule of supply and demand tells us that diminishing demand for meat products will result in a decrease in meat production. These injustices cannot be addressed from the top down only; it takes all of us “voting” with our dollars to make impactful changes. 

To resolve the cultural issue around traditionally accepted foods we need to change our own food choices plus create an environment where others feel it is acceptable to do so. This means ensuring that family holiday meals are meat-free or have plant-based options. It means adding veggie burgers to the grill and removing the pressure to eat what everyone else is eating. Food service professionals and event coordinators can make tasty and visually appealing plant-centered dishes a regular part of their offerings. The point is to make it clear that eating meat is not required to be socially accepted and participate in traditions. The world needs change, and it is everyone’s responsibility to act to support that change. Together we can right the wrongs and move forward to a more equitable food system.  

by Karyn Knox, Chief Development and Partnerships Officer at the Educated Choices Program, a non-profit that provides free science-based education on the impact of food choices and the food system on human and planetary health.  

Healthful Eating – Providing a Supportive Food Environment

Increased Focus on Preventative Healthcare 

Over the past two years, there has been a significant increase in the focus on health and fitness in the U.S. and beyond, much in part due to the impact of COVID. To be exact, a  Preventative Care Study performed by digital health company Rally Health, Inc. found that 44% of Americans place more focus on health and wellness than prior to the pandemic. This shows a positive trend. However, an alarming number of people only think of preventative healthcare as getting an annual check-up. Fewer than half of the people surveyed reported exercising regularly and eating healthfully. Most people don’t truly understand the link between lifestyle choices, such as the food they eat, and the prevention of diseases before they occur. Many saw firsthand the increased impact of COVID on individuals with underlying health conditions, but they don’t know what steps to take to avoid developing those conditions themselves.  

The Role Food Plays in Human Health 

 According to World Health Organization (WHO), the top three leading causes of death are Ischaemic Heart Disease, Stroke and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. These all fall under a broader category called cardiovascular disease, responsible for about one-third of all deaths in the world. Most heart attacks are caused when the blood flowing through our coronary arteries to our heart is blocked, usually by a buildup of plaque. A stroke happens the same way, but the blockages occur in the arteries that carry blood to our brain.   

These blockages occur when an artery has narrowed over time as a result of plaque buildup. This process doesn’t happen overnight but rather occurs over a long period of time. The disease process often begins when we are young and what we eat greatly contributes to how much plaque builds up in our arteries.   

The plaques that block our arteries are primarily made up, in part, of fat. Saturated and trans fats in our diet can be harmful when consumed in high amounts. The vast majority of these saturated fats are found in animal products, and harmful saturated and trans fats are also found in processed junk food. The more of these products we consume, the more these fats build up in our bloodstream – and can then deposit along our artery walls. Harvard Medical School recommends limiting the intake of saturated fats – which are found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods. Decades of sound science have proven it can raise your ‘bad’ cholesterol and put you at higher risk for heart disease. 

The plaques that block our arteries are also made up of cholesterol. Cholesterol is only found in certain types of foods. And the only foods containing cholesterol are animal products – because all animals, including humans, produce cholesterol. While required for specific processes in the body, our bodies make all the cholesterol we need, so we actually don’t require any additional intake through our diet.  

Also among the top ten leading causes of death worldwide are diabetes and certain types of cancers that are linked to food intake inefficiencies or surpluses such as excess sugars or inadequate consumption of fiber, among other things. Obesity, Osteoporosis, and other chronic illnesses also have strong ties to dietary choices. In short, a large majority of the chronic illnesses that plague our population and sadly lead to death could potentially be prevented and/or reversed by lifestyle changes such as improved diets. 

Foodborne Illnesses 

Our food system also played an important role during the pandemic. In addition to how it impacts individuals due to underlying conditions, food is linked to many public health concerns, such as zoological diseases and antibiotic resistance among humans.  

Pathogens that are transmitted from animals to humans and cause disease are called Zoonotic Diseases. Examples of zoonotic diseases that have caused widespread illness and death in the last 100 or so years are the Spanish Flu, Avian Flu, Ebola, Swine Flu, SARS, Mad Cow Disease, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The continued use and consumption of farmed and wild animals put us at risk for future disease outbreaks. And 60% of all pathogens – like bacteria and viruses – that cause disease in humans originate in animals. A public health physician from the World Health Organization states that as long as people eat meat, there is going to be some risk of infection.

Viruses and bacteria are abundant on modern farms. These infectious microorganisms can spread rapidly in tightly packed sheds and barns and pose a public health risk to humans. It is common practice to regularly administer antibiotics and other drugs to farmed animals to prevent the spread of disease. In 2013, for example, it was estimated that over 118,000 metric tons of antibiotics were administered to farmed animals around the world. However, the overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistance, meaning the bacteria is able to thrive even in the presence of these medications. These resistant bacteria strains can affect humans through contaminated animal products, produce, cooking surfaces, and the environment through contaminated waste. According to the World Health Organization, “antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels in all parts of the world” and “is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” 

Education is the Answer 

Image: Educated Choices Program

With all of these scientific facts pointing to the link between human health and food, how is it that the majority of people don’t truly understand what healthy eating is and how much of an important role it plays in preventative care? The answer is a lack of education. Society is generally overwhelmed with marketing efforts promoting supposed “healthier” options and fad diets. They are confused by labeling on store shelves that claim to be “low fat” and “light.” What is missing is a solid foundation of education that teaches them food literacy, in which an individual is given the ability to understand food in a way that they develop a positive relationship with it and can navigate, engage, and participate within a complex food system. Society needs and deserves to have the ability to make dietary decisions that support the achievement of personal and public health.   

Studies show that when given clear scientific evidence to show how food impacts their health and the world around them, the majority of people make positive changes to their diet. These changes are most often motivated by the desire to be healthier and have a longer “health span,” the part of a person’s life during which they are generally in good health.  

Food service providers, school administrators, wellness program managers and restaurateurs can be part of the solution and can assist their customers and students in achieving their wellness goals. They all play a key role in providing the type of food environment that makes it possible for people to make healthier choices in the places they eat most often. The four most stated barriers to positive changes are associated with taste, followed by what foods are most widely accepted or available near them. This means that those who serve communities can eliminate those barriers by making healthful and plant-forward food choices delicious, convenient, and mainstream.

Along with this powerful opportunity comes one to educate their consumers and local communities about the benefits of making improved food choices. Food literacy programs that give people the opportunity to learn how food affects their bodies, coupled with decision-making tools to apply in real life, are proven to be the most successful in inspiring change. The education portion of these programs can consist of presentations and discussions to provide the foundation of knowledge upon which to make informed decisions. These can be part of a company or school wellness retreat or shown in a community venue. Education can also include the labeling of food in a way that helps them identify the best options easily while providing descriptions that sound enticing. For example, using the colors, textures and origins of dishes make an option sound interesting, and the label of “heart healthy,” “plant-rich,” or “no added sugars” reinforce it as a healthful and delicious choice. Ideally, these two approaches should be combined to allow people to make informed decisions and receive positive reinforcement when making future food choices. This not only helps to ensure the success of the plant-forward menu initiatives that food service providers are launching globally but also improves the health of their customer bases.  

Dedication and Consistency 

There is a rule of seven in marketing claiming that a message must be seen seven or more times before a prospective customer remembers it. This holds true in that most behavior changes do not occur overnight but rather one decision at a time until it becomes the new norm. Consistency in providing a positive food environment that offers educational resources and real-time decision-making tools can play a key role in creating a more healthful society and food system.  

With an attendance of over 3700, primarily those from the food service industry, at the most recent Plant Based World Expo North America, up roughly 20% from the year before, it is evident that the demand for plant-based products to meet the needs of students and communities around the world is growing exponentially. This is promising news for the health of generations to come. 

For more information about free food education programs available for your school, university, healthcare facility, company, or community, visit or contact [email protected] 

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Plant Based World Pulse is a go-to resource for the plant-based industry. Offering high-value insights, educational content, and the latest information year-round, it compliments the annual industry events Plant Based World Expo North America in New York City and Plant Based World Expo Europe in London.