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Primatologist Jane Goodall Urges Humans to Revise Their Diets

In Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating (Warner Books), Jane Goodall mixes new research with her past experience studying chimpanzees in Tanzania. Written with Gary McAvoy and Gail Hudson, the book looks at how food consumed by people in the Western world affects their health, the global environment and animal welfare.

Jane Goodall says her work as the self-described "chimpanzee lady" helped inspire her new book. Starting in the mid 1980s, she became increasingly concerned that chimpanzees were being hunted and sold for food. That led her to the broader conclusion that many of the problems facing Africa result from what she calls "unsustainable" life styles - some exported from developing countries. In Harvest for Hope, she writes that much of the food people in those industrialized nations eat is unhealthy, and that their eating habits pose a three-fold threat.

"One is the environment," Dr. Goodall explains. "Huge areas of fertile forest are being cut down to provide grazing for cattle. As people are getting more prosperous they're demanding more meat. Secondly, what we eat affects animal welfare. And third, the effect of our food on human health--you've only got to think of the obesity epidemic, all the allergies produced by the pollution of food from agricultural chemicals."

Jane Goodall also explores in her book what she sees as the potential hazards of genetically engineered crops like corn, or maize, altered by seed companies to produce their own natural pesticides. She urges readers to shop at local farmers' markets whenever possible, and to buy foods that have been grown organically. And for those who don't want to adopt a vegetarian diet, she encourages reduced meat consumption, with an emphasis on free range meats, those derived from animals that were not constantly confined indoors as they were raised:

"A heavy meat-eating diet is something to be avoided. It's not good for us to eat lots and lots of meat anyway, but also if we're buying these factory-farm animals, they've got residual antibiotics, and they've got hormones in them. And for me, knowing how the animals are treated, the piece of meat on the plate symbolizes fear, pain and death."

Harvest for Hope also includes profiles of people leading the crusade to change the way people eat today. These include John Mackey, who founded the Whole Foods grocery chain. "He's trying to recompense the workers in developing countries that produce the food he's importing and make sure they do well," the author says. "He's using organic food as much as possible. He's got an entire staff devoted to insuring that any of the meat products that come in are humanely raised. He's done a huge amount to change the way people think."

But organic and free range do not always mean more humane, says Philip Lobo. He is the communications director of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a coalition of livestock producers and others who make their living raising food animals. Mr. Lobo notes that access to the outdoors also means access to predators and disease. And he says today's agribusinesses work actively to promote animal welfare. "The reality is that modern agriculture today carefully monitors things like air flow through a barn and water delivered to the animals, so each animal can get the levels of water, of nutrition, of light that will help it lead the least stressful life possible."

Mr. Lobo also disputes the idea that today's agribusinesses are threatening natural habitats. He points out that crop yields per acre have risen dramatically in recent decades. "Biotechnology has made that gain possible. That has allowed farmers to be productive on fewer acres, and they threaten fewer acres of forest and other endangered land."

As for Jane Goodall's assertion that much of the food eaten in the western world is unhealthy, Mr. Lobo believes that is contradicted by the fact that people are living longer today. If he and Dr. Goodall agree on any point, it is the need to stay informed about what we eat. She is working to change eating habits through the Jane Goodall Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, which has launched a program for young people called Roots and Shoots.

"We're going to be giving them ideas for how they can grow their own food," Dr. Goodall explains. "I was with a group of children in Austin--they come from a very poor part of the city--and the principal of this elementary school has got the kids to change a little piece of the school yard into a garden. They grow their food and they all become chefs, standing up and telling you why their favorite foods are broccoli and spinach. It's wonderful."

While she finds encouraging signs in these new programs, Dr. Goodall says she also continues to draw on the lessons she learned in Africa. "First of all, the waste in our societies. We buy far more food than we can eat. So you learn when you're out in the developing world people can eat far less. They seem healthier and stronger, and out in the countryside anyway, they're not eating all the chemical pesticides and fertilizers, because they can't afford them. So the food is healthy, and the water stays healthy."

Jane Goodall ends her book noting that individual changes in food consumption can have a huge impact, on both politics and corporate policy. She says mindful eating begins with an understanding of where our food came from, and ends with a better world for everyone.