Americans Should Consider Eating Less Meat For Environmental Reasons, Scientists Say

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Americans shouldn’t just think about their own health when choosing what foods to eat — they should also consider the health of the environment, according to an influential scientific panel.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), a panel of scientists that makes recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on every five years when the agency updates its Dietary Guidelines, published its 2015 report Thursday. In it, the DGAC states that adopting a sustainable diet helps ensure that future generations will have access to the foods we have access to now. It also stated that “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.”

Right now, Americans aren’t doing a great job of eating with the environment in mind, 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 authors write, going on to say that the U.S. as a whole currently eats more animal-based foods and fewer plant-based foods than is recommended in diet patterns singled out by the report as more sustainable choices, such as vegetarian and Mediterranean-style diets.

Meat has long been known to be a carbon-intensive food. Last year, a study found that individuals who cut back on or eliminate meat have significantly lower carbon footprints than those who don’t. Meat-eaters, according to the study, contribute 50 to 54 percent more food-related greenhouse gases than vegetarians and 99 to 102 percent more than vegans. And a study this month found that, emissions-wise, agriculture is worse for the climate than deforestation.

The DGAC report notes that though a diet higher in plants and lower in meat is advisable for environmental reasons, “no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status” — basically, a person doesn’t have to cut out meat entirely in order to cut his carbon footprint. When Vox used the IEA’s Global Calculator to plug in 152 calories of meat per day for the average person’s diet — instead of the 220 calories of meat per day that the IEA projects for mid-century — carbon emissions projections fell significantly, showing that a decrease in meat consumption can have a major impact.

This was the first time that the DGAC included sustainability in its report, which will be considered by the USDA as it works to update its dietary guidelines. The 2015 set of guidelines will be released this fall.

Multiple animal welfare and environmental groups have praised the report. Forty-nine of these organizations sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsak and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell urging them to incorporate the DGAC’s recommendations on meat into their 2015 guidelines.

“Americans rely on USDA and HHS to make evidence-based recommendations that inform our well-being,” the letter states. “Abundant science now illustrates the synergies between healthy dietary choices and a sustainable food system, both of which, in turn, impact public health.”

The prospect of advising Americans to consider sustainability in their dietary choices has gotten some groups up in arms, however. The North American Meat Institute said in a statement that the DGAC’s “foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise,” calling the sustainability recommendations “akin to having a dermatologist provide recommendations about cardiac care.” And last year, Congress passed a CRomnibus spending bill that included a non-binding directive to the USDA to “only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors,” in its guidelines.

The DGAC report is now open for public comment, and those comments will be taken into account as the USDA creates its new guidelines. The USDA could choose to not include certain aspects of the report into its guidelines, but as the Washington Post notes, “major deviations” from the recommendations aren’t common.