Suzy Amis Cameron’s office is overflowing with books. Afternoon sun streams into a space that also includes family photos, ample working area, and an oft-used whiteboard. An environmental advocate, mother of five, and married to director James Cameron, Amis Cameron may be Hollywood A-list, but she certainly doesn’t act it. She’s far too busy trying to make the world a better place for future generations.
Conversation with Maranda Pleasant
“I am deeply grateful for all I have,” she explains, “and I have the platform, opportunity, and responsibility to make a positive difference at this critical, urgent time for our biosphere.” To that end, she has founded a school, several organizations, a farm and marketplace—all with serious sustainability-related missions. Most recently, she and her husband founded Food Choice Taskforce, focused on showing the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and climate change. Here, Amis Cameron talks with Thrive about what drives her.
Maranda Pleasant: What led you to become an environmental advocate?
Suzy Amis Cameron: I have had many amazing moments in my life—but two moments shaped my personal mission. The first happened twenty-five years ago while diapering my first child, Jasper, and learning about the nasty chemicals in diapers. I couldn’t believe that it was permissible for noxious chemicals to be next to precious baby skin. This started me on a path to learn all I could about the environmental and health impacts of products we use, which led me to think about the environment as a whole.
MP: What was the second moment?
SAC: The second big moment came three and a half years ago. At the recommendation of a friend, I watched the documentary Forks Over Knives. It shattered the myth that we need animal protein for maximum health. On the contrary! It features the latest research and science that shows that meat and dairy consumption can contribute to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Talk about a wake-up call. As a mother, it’s my job to feed my kids as healthily as possible. I really thought I was doing everything right, but so much of what I believed was dead wrong.
MP: It does really fly in the face of what we’ve been taught.
SAC: Big time! I came from a big Oklahoma family. We were taught that we had to drink milk to keep our bones strong, and meat and potatoes were the norm. Vegetables made minor appearances in meals.
MP: Did you change what you eat as a result?
SAC: Yes! I had no idea that watching Forks Over Knives would completely alter the course of my family’s life. My immediate task was to get my husband, Jim, to watch it with me. We both have heart disease and cancer in our families, and I felt like it was almost life or death. The bottom line, though, was that Jim was as struck by the science and medical research as I was: immediately, we converted our kitchen, pantry, and family meals to plant-based. There was just no need for animal protein anymore.
MP: You make it sound so simple.
SAC: Jim and I are pretty passionate—and once we make up our minds, it’s game on. I began to read everything I could get my hands on, and I learned that animal agriculture also has a devastating impact on our planet. Here I was, a committed environmentalist, and I had no idea that the livestock sector is the second largest cause of human-made greenhouse gas emissions and the leading contributor to ocean dead zones, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. This made it even more urgent for us to go plant-based. It was a no-brainer. Having said that, my friend Kathy Freston, who is a vegan cookbook author, told a story recently about how it took her two years to go com - pletely plant-based. It’s a process and involves re-learning how to grocery shop, cook, pack a school lunch, order at a restaurant, you name it. For our family, it wasn’t without hiccups and a steep learning curve—and with that came the desire to share all that I learned with others, especially mothers.
MP: What do you say to all of the bacon and cheese lovers about going plant-based?
SAC: I am not trying to wrestle bacon away from anyone, I promise. It’s not about 100% perfection or dogma, yet it is about making the right food choices as much as possible. Reducing your meat intake is the quickest, easiest thing you can do to care for the environment, hands down. It felt liberating that there was a simple, elegant solution that touched on every aspect of our environment. I hope that as people discover the impact of animal agriculture on our planet, that they will make planet friendlier food choices as often and as soon as possible.
MP: Has your plant-based mission extended beyond the Cameron family kitchen?
SAC: Plant-based eating is such a “win-win-win”—good for the environment, our health, and animals—that it now informs just about everything I do. At MUSE School, for example, which I cofounded with my sister Rebecca Amis, we started One Meal a Day for the Planet, (OMD for short and the brainchild of our Head of School, Jeff King) which is the first plant-based school lunch and snack program in the country. In this first school year, the MUSE community will save 80,000 gallons of water per student and staff member.
MP: Was there resistance?
SAC: We had to answer parents’ concerns—many of which I’d had myself—about nutrition, such as the classic, “How will my child get enough protein?” Naturally, we consulted with chefs, nutritionists and doctors, such as Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Dr. Barnard explained that studies have shown that children whose diets emphasize plant-based foods grow as tall or taller than their meat-eating friends, and that they can also gain a measure of protection from future health risks. He also points out that some studies have even found that children eating plant-based diets have higher IQs.
MP: What are three quick and easy changes people can make for the planet?
SAC: First, try choosing a veggie burger over a cheeseburger. One cheeseburger requires 634 gallons of water to produce. You can cut your “foodprint” in half simply by making plant-based choices. Second, try replacing cow’s milk with nut milks, starting with your coffee and some of the amazing coconut and soy creamers out now. Third, I’d suggest replacing butter with coconut or olive oil. One stick of butter is 366 gallons of water, not to mention, the livestock sector uses the land equivalent to all of North America and two-thirds of South America.
Forks Over Knives documentary and companion book
Comfortably Unaware by Richard Oppenlander Devour The Earth (on YouTube)
China Study Cookbook
Engine 2 Diet by Rip Esselstyn
Native Foods by Tanya Petrovna
First photo: ANDREEA RADUTOIU PHOTOGRAPHY | Second photo: Brandon Hickman