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It’s time to incorporate sustainability into America’s Dietary Guidelines

In this op-ed, Lindsay Gaesser makes the case for incorporating sustainability into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

As a graduate student in nutrition science and policy, I am more mindful than ever of my food choices and the environmental impacts of the agricultural production systems behind those choices. For ethical and ecological reasons, I try to limit my animal-based food consumption—heck, I even made it six whole months as a vegan! But while a plant-based diet may be more sustainable for the environment, one thing I learned during that six-month period is that it is not sustainable for me. In fact, I fondly remember the moment I chose to end my well-intentioned herbivorous stint by indulging in a bison burger on a whole-wheat brioche bun with all the fixings. I delighted in the flavors and the aromas of that burger like a shark in chummed waters. But I digress.

Although this recovering vegan has no plans to relapse, I do try to consume meat responsibly in an effort to quell my inner omnivore’s dilemma. I also doubt that I am alone in this boat. While it may be unrealistic to ask Americans to stop eating meat entirely, it is reasonable to ask that we do it more sustainably and more responsibly. As current dietary patterns and population growth continue to put pressures on available natural resources, addressing food system sustainability becomes increasingly important. Without attention to food sustainability, a food insecure future is inevitable. That being said, I believe that sustainability and natural resource concerns should be at the forefront of discussions regarding U.S. dietary ideals in the future, and here’s why.

The genesis of the Dietary Guidelines

Before the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) release a new edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), the departments convene a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) made up of independent experts to review and synthesize current scientific and medical evidence in nutrition. Covering topics identified by the USDA and HHS, the DGAC develops an Advisory Report that outlines its science-based recommendations to the federal government for the development of the new edition of the DGA. While the Advisory Report informs the new edition of the DGA, it is not policy nor is it binding.

In the most recent cycle, the 2015 DGAC addressed the sustainability of our food system for the first time ever. In its review, the DGAC noted that plant-based diets are more healthful and environmentally responsible than the average American diet. The DGAC’s proposal to include environmentally sustainable food systems in the DGA sparked a contentious debate, mostly with pushback from the meat industry. And although the process for establishing this recommendation was consistent with what is expected of the DGAC in developing its report, the USDA and HHS ultimately omitted this information from the final guidelines. In spite of this, the DGAC recommendation signified a mainstream shift toward sustainability and its contribution to food and nutrition security for present and future generations.

Why this is important

The environmental impact of food production is considerable. Globally, food production is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of freshwater use, and up to 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. It is also the largest cause of species biodiversity loss. These impacts are exacerbated by certain dietary patterns. Specifically, the major findings regarding sustainable diets are that a diet higher in plant-based foods and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with a smaller environmental footprint than is the current U.S. diet.

A comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems and food choice revealed that ruminant meat, such as beef, goat, and lamb, has impacts up to 100 times those of plants, while milk, eggs, pork, poultry, and seafood have impacts up to 25 times higher than plants per kilocalorie of food produced. Further, a study in The Lancet Planetary Health assessed the environmental footprint of the three different dietary patterns recommended in the 2015-2020 DGA—healthy U.S.-style, healthy Mediterranean-style, and healthy vegetarian—for six categories of environmental impacts (climate change, land use, water depletion, freshwater eutrophication, marine water eutrophication, and particulate matter). The study found that the healthy vegetarian pattern produced a 42 percent to 84 percent lower burden than the other two diets for all impacts except water depletion, which was similar among the three diets.

The 2015 DGAC acknowledged that climate change, shifts in population dietary patterns, energy costs, and population growth will continue to put additional pressures on available natural resources, which further constrain the capacity to produce adequate food in the future. As such, the DGAC advocated for altering individual and population dietary choices in order to meet current and future food needs. As further research is conducted and best practices are evaluated, additional evidence will inform both supply-side participants and consumers on how best to shift behaviors locally, nationally, and globally to support sustainable diets. According to the DGAC, linking health, dietary guidance, and the environment would promote human health and the sustainability of natural resources and ensure current and long-term food security.

Precedent for integrating sustainability into dietary guidelines

There is a growing wave of national dietary guidelines authored with sustainability in mind. For example, the Netherlands’ state-funded nutrition authority issued an aggressive new set of national dietary guidelines in 2016 that placed hardline consumption limits on meat and animal products. Specifically, the guidelines recommend limiting red meat consumption to 300 grams per week, in large part due to the livestock industry’s massive environmental impact. Similarly, the Swedish Food Agency recommends no more than 500 grams of red and processed meat per week because, of all foods, meat has the greatest impact on the climate and environment. Lastly, the Brazilian Ministry of Health released dietary guidelines in 2014 recommending limited consumption of animal products, as they result in a food system that is more stressful on the environment, animals, and biodiversity in general.

Although sustainability is an unresolved issue with respect to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the language in the Dutch and Swedish guidelines, the precedent of Brazil, and similar moves by other nations in the coming years will build an unassailable precedent for sustainability considerations when it comes time for new U.S. dietary ideals in the future. Without attention to food sustainability, a food insecure future is inevitable. Because sustainable diets contribute to food and nutrition security for present and future generations, it is imperative that sustainability and natural resource concerns are integrated into the DGA.

What next?

Although the topic list for 2020 does not include the sustainability of our food supply, an engaged public can revive the dialogue around the inclusion of sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines in the long term. During the 2015 DGA comment period, 19,000 of the 29,000 public comments received focused on sustainability—97 percent of those comments were positive on its inclusion. With the development of the 2020-2025 DGA underway, it is imperative that the public get involved in this process to ensure that sustainability and natural resource concerns are at the forefront of discussions regarding U.S. dietary ideals.

To submit a comment electronically, click here. For access to Docket FNS-2019-0001 to read background documents or comments received, click here.

Lindsay Gaesser is a second-year AFE student at the Friedman School and has a J.D. from the University of Oregon School of Law. She did her summer internship with the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law and currently serves as the communications director for the Future of Food and Nutrition Conference. In her spare time, she enjoys cycling, exploring the outdoors, and sharing good food with good friends.

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