When the federal government releases its guidelines for healthy eating at the end of the month, the updated version may reflect not only what’s best for human health but the health of the environment, as well. The dietary guidelines are issued every five years and as the new recommendations are being drafted, “an advisory panel to the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments has been discussing the idea of sustainability in public meetings, indicating that its recommendations, expected this month, may address the environment,” the Associated Press reported.
Once they are finalized, the new guidelines will be reflected in the USDA’s MyPlate icon, which replaced the famous food pyramid in 2011.
As study after study has shown, meat production takes a heavy toll on the environment and reducing their meat consumption may be one of the most impactful steps an individual can take to live more sustainably. Research published earlier this year in the journal Climactic Change found that global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock increased 51 percent from 1961 to 2010. Another study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified beef production in particular as having a significant impact on the environment: Beef requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken and 11 times more water, and its production results in five times more greenhouse gas emissions per calorie.
As the global population grows and the standard of living in countries like China improves, demand for meat is projected to rise, prompting some scientists to urge people in wealthier nations to curb their meat consumption. “Eat meat, but less often — make it special,” Prof. Mark Sutton, lead author of a U.N. Environment Programme 2013 study on meat consumption, told the Guardian. “Portion size is key. Many portions are too big, more than you want to eat. Think about a change of culture that says, ‘I like the taste, but I don’t need so much of it.'”
The study published earlier this year in Climactic Change pointed to not only the emissions reductions that come from eating less meat but the health benefits, as well: “the researchers noted ‘significant trends’ toward higher intake of fiber and fruits and vegetables and lower intake of saturated fat as animal-based foods decreased in diets.”
A draft recommendation for the U.S. government’s new dietary guidelines circulated last month reflects both of those potential benefits, according to the AP report. Consuming more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods is “more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average U.S. diet,” the draft stated.
Researchers from the University of Michigan looked at the current USDA dietary guidelines last year and determined that a shift from the current average U.S. diet to one that followed the guidelines “could result in a 12 percent increase in diet-related GHG emissions.” The researchers underscored the significantly higher emissions associated with animal-based foods, particularly those from beef and dairy cows, compared to plant-based foods and call for greater attention to the environmental implications of recommended food patterns.
When the current guidelines were updated in 2010, some medical professionals expressed continued frustration with the recommendations and the agency’s ties to the meat and dairy industries. “I had hoped that the USDA would be able to give Americans the clear advice about diet that they deserve,” said Dr. Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, and chair of the Dept. of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. “However, the continued failure to highlight the need to cut back on red meat and limit most dairy products suggests that ‘Big Beef’ and ‘Big Dairy’ retain their strong influence within this department. Might it be time for the USDA to recuse itself because of conflicts of interest and get out of the business of dietary advice?”
If the new guidelines do indeed recommend more plant-based foods at the expense of meat, the meat-production industry is ready for a fight. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association released a statement from Richard Thorpe, a Texas medical doctor and cattle producer, in response to the committee’s sustainability discussions. Thorpe pointed to “a large body of strong and consistent evidence supporting lean beef’s role in healthy diets” and said he was “deeply disappointed that the Committee missed this opportunity to positively influence the American diet by blatantly disregarding sound science and removing lean beef from a healthful dietary pattern.”
Some members of Congress have signaled their disapproval, as well. “A massive year-end spending bill enacted last month noted the advisory committee’s interest in the environment and directed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ‘to only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors’ in final guidelines,” the AP reported. While the directive is not legally binding, it warns of a battle between the Obama administration and Congress if the committee elects to move forward and take the environmental impact of Americans’ dietary choices into consideration.