June 22, 2009

The AMA’s Support for Sustainable Food Systems: They Sure Can Talk the Talk

Aliza Fishbein

Aliza Fishbein

Guest Blogger

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

President Obama spoke at the AMA conference last week

President Obama spoke at the AMA conference last week

Last week at the American Medical Association’s 158th annual meeting in Chicago members passed a resolution that supports the advocacy of sustainable healthy food systems. This is a landmark time for environmentalists since the AMA had previously endorsed healthy food alternatives and minimizing the environmental impact of certain foods, but never before has it publicly recognized the dangerous effects of the current industrial food manufacturing system. The AMA issued a statement making clear the benefits of more healthy and sustainable food systems. They get it: “Healthy food is part of a sustainable food system, in which food is defined not only by its nutrient content, but also by how and where it is raised, grown, processed, and distributed.”

The resolution piggybacked a report issued by the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health that recognizes the ecological footprint of industrially produced food, understanding that it contributes to antibiotic resistance, climate change and air and water pollution. Combating these causes of damage to the environment is a preventive treatment for illnesses and conditions such as asthma. This preventive approach is all the rage as it is consistent with President Obama’s stance on healthcare reform, and who wouldn’t want to be in the President’s good graces?

The major buzzword of the week is “sustainable,” a term used by the President himself when addressing the large AMA meeting on June 15th. Sustainable food systems seem to fit into the sustainable healthcare picture that the President is pursuing. Not to mention, the idea of sustainable food systems has already been on his radar, something he implied when describing the White House victory garden which is in place to educate children on the significance of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.

For years public health activists have been defending the benefits of a sustainable food system. Now that the AMA has assumed a stance in favor of sustainability, hopefully physicians will also adopt the stance and begin to market it to their patients.

Jamie Harvie, the director of the Health Care Without Harm Sustainable Food Work Group, emphasized the increasingly significant role doctors are playing in terms of education and leadership, particularly now in the midst of the president’s plans for healthcare reform. I turn that around and ask whether or not sustainable food systems are even a high priority for the AMA and its members during this tumultuous time. After all, the resolution only consisted of three sentences of “recommendations” within an 87 page document full of other unrelated resolutions. While symbolic of an increasingly progressive era in medical advice, the resolution is non-binding. It is now up to the AMA to decide how they will pursue this mission and see that it’s encouraged by physicians across the country.

Even if the AMA requires sustainable food systems be taught, or at least promoted, in medical schools it could be years before their budding doctors advance these concepts in their practices. As for endorsing healthier food systems in federal legislation, we’ll have to see if they can walk the walk.

Even if the HCWH is promoting their “Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge” and members of Congress are excited about the new “Blueprint for Health” who is to say that the pledges will be honored? Pledges, just like resolutions, are often not implemented. Just look to one of the most famous environmental pledges that were not seen through by the United States, the Kyoto Protocol, which included the U.S. as one of the key signatories but has not yet been ratified by the government. What we need in this country regarding sustainability is accountability.

I will end by praising the AMA for taking this step in supporting sustainable food systems, but urging them to set out certain timelines with goals; one for federal legislative incentives and one for themselves in educating and requiring of their members to educate their patients.

– Aliza Fishbein

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