Climate

New USDA Guidelines Leave Out Sustainability

CREDIT: Associated Press

When the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services release their updated dietary guidelines this year, one highly-publicized section will be missing.

The dietary guidelines, a government document that provides details on what makes up a healthy diet and lifestyle, won’t include discussions of how sustainability relates to diet. In a blog post Tuesday, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell outlined their decision not to include the topic of the environment — something many in the environmental and public health communities have pushed for over the last year — in the guidelines, which are updated every five years and whose latest version is due out this fall.

“Issues of the environment and sustainability are critically important and they are addressed in a number of initiatives within the Administration,” the two secretaries write. “In terms of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), we will remain within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA), which is to provide ‘nutritional and dietary information and guidelines’… ‘based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.’ The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.”

Sustainability first emerged as a potential topic of inclusion for the dietary guidelines last year, during a meeting of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a group of scientists responsible for coming up with recommendations for the guidelines. Then, the committee included sections on sustainability in its advisory report.

“A diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet,” the report states. “Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns.”

The committee’s reference to the climate and environmental impacts of a person’s diet excited environmentalists, who saw it as a way for the federal government to educate the American public about food’s — and specifically meat’s — link to climate change. Studies have found that meat-eaters contribute 50 to 54 percent more food-related greenhouse gases than vegetarians do, and that, in terms of emissions, agriculture is worse for the climate than deforestation.

So it was no surprise that environmentalists were disappointed by USDA and HHS’ decision Tuesday. Not just because the federal government missed an opportunity to link food choices with environmental issues, but because there appeared to be significant support for the inclusion of sustainability in the guidelines: one analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity looked at the 29,000 public comments on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s report, and found “overwhelming support” for including sustainability. And six health and food experts wrote a letter in Science last week saying that “the issue of scope is not the overarching concern, but a political maneuver to excise sustainability from dietary discussions.”

“It’s frustrating to see the Obama administration again allow politics to trump science,” Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The decision to treat sustainability and dietary health as separate issues only benefits industry profits while putting our health, our environment and the future of our food system at risk.”

The politics Feldstein is referencing include major pushback from the meat industry, which pounced on the issue as soon as news of the advisory committee’s discussions of sustainability got out last year. The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) issued a statement in December 2014 that blasted the committee for addressing sustainability, saying that the committee’s “focus on sustainability is objectionable because it is not within the committee’s expertise” — a claim of sustainability being beyond the scope of the dietary guidelines that Vilsack and Burwell ended up agreeing with.

“Meat and poultry are an integral part of the American diet and the DGAC’s failure to recognize the role of lean meat as a component of a healthy eating pattern is concerning and ill considered,” NAMI stated. “It also reflects either an astonishing lack of awareness of the scientific evidence or a callous disregard of that evidence, again calling into question the entirety of the recommendations submitted by the DGAC to the agencies.”

Ricardo Salvador, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program, told ThinkProgress that he doesn’t think there’s much doubt that this pressure from the food industry played into HHS and USDA’s decision. Industry pressure clearly influenced Congress, which last year tacked on a list of directives to a spending bill that included “concern” that the scientific committee “is showing an interest in incorporating agriculture production practices and environmental factors” into their recommendations.” The document “direct[ed] the Obama administration to ignore such factors in the next revision of the guidelines.”

“The way that this has played out shows that there are clear politics behind it,” Salvador said. The food industry, he said, was worried that if the guidelines tied environmental health to food production, profits would be affected. “Everybody who has been following this process and knows who’s speaking with whom knows food industry executives have been in the office and pressuring the secretary on this issue.”

Salvador, along with noted food experts Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and Olivier De Schutter, published a piece in Medium this week that calls for the creation of the country’s first National Food Policy, a plan that would incorporate issues surrounding hunger, climate change, environmental degradation, health, and inequality — topics that are usually tackled through “piecemeal and often contradictory approaches,” even though they’re “interlocking problems that can best be addressed through a unified and coordinated policy focused on their common denominator: the food system.”

One of the main arguments of the piece, Salvador said, is that a lot of the dysfunction present in the food and agricultural system arises because the country doesn’t recognize the connections within the food system. Wage inequality is connected to the exploitation of labor for food production he said, just as climate change is related to producing and shipping food — and as climate change impacts the production of food.

“This is an instance where we would all really benefit from making those connections,” he said.

The connections won’t be made this year, at least not in the dietary guidelines. But some agree that it’s only a matter of time before the country realizes that the heavy rains and droughts that decimate crops and the overfishing that’s depleting the oceans mean that diet is inexorably tied to sustainability. The public needs to realize that first, Salvador said, before the government can be swayed.

“What policymakers are able to do…is not really ultimately decided by the backroom politics. It’s really decided by culture of the nation,” he said. “We will decide — as with civil rights movement and the marriage equality movement — that as a culture, we’re not going to put up with a food system that exploits nature and people. When that happens, politicians wont have a choice.”