When the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, they outlined several diets that are more sustainable or environmentally-friendly than ones that most Americans consume. These diets, vegetarian, vegan, and the Mediterranean diet, consume little or no meat or animal products. In the report, they cited the affect of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of raising cattle compared to raising other forms of animal protein like seafood or poultry. Basically, raising cattle causes more environmental degradation than raising other livestock or even growing plant-based protein foods like lentils and other legumes.
This marks the first time the Advisory Committee addressed issues of sustainability in their report. However, the committee merely makes recommendations and it’s up to the USDHHS* and USDA* to compile the actual guidelines that Americans are supposed to follow.
So, when the 2015 Dietary Guidelines came out a couple of weeks ago, sustainability is not mentioned. The guidelines sidestep the issue of sustainability and do not explicitly state to eat less red meat. Rather, they promote healthy eating patterns of eating more nutrient dense foods and less sugar, among other things. Don’t get me wrong, I support this approach since it simplifies things for Americans. It makes sense. Americans need simple, easy-to-follow nutrition guidelines.
However, since the Advisory Committee made it a point to discuss sustainability in the food system, I feel it was the duty of the USDA and USDHHS to at least mention it. The fact that the committee discusses it begins to highlight the importance of sustainable eating patterns as well as linking food and the environment. I realize that there is a portion of the population (me included) who are hyper-aware of the effect raising food has on the environment. I mean, this is where the localvore movement stems from along with those who support GMO food labeling.
Are other countries addressing this? Sort of.
Sweden, for instance, released their 2015 Dietary Guidelines. And they simplified the whole thing down even to give one-minute advice:
They go a little further than this, as well, give practical Eco-smart food choices:
Why this matters
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but Climate Change is real and will affect our food supply at some point. The United States, as a world leader, should take the initiative and make recommendations regarding food and sustainability. This is a serious issue and one that is being ignored due to the influence of powerful lobbies and politics. Growing food in a sustainable manner or following more sustainable eating habits (eating less red meat, consuming sustainably raised seafood, eating more fruits and vegetables, eating less processed foods, and reducing food waste) is not a political issue. Rather, growing food sustainably (or even eating sustainably) looks to reduce our carbon footprint and reduce the stress food production puts on the environment, all while providing healthy food for everyone to enjoy. However, along the way this issue has become political, which is disappointing and not helpful to future generations.
Perhaps in 2020, when the next Dietary Guidelines are due, the USDHHS and the USDA will formally address sustainability. Based on the current political climate in Washington, DC, I won’t get my hopes up. I will continue to do my part, however small, and eat less meat, more fruits and vegetables, curb my food waste, and source as much food locally as I can.
*United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
Roos, E. Environmental concerns now in Sweden's newly launched dietary guidelines. FCRN. June 11, 2015. Available at http://www.fcrn.org.uk/fcrn-blogs/elin-roos/environmental-concerns-now-sweden%E2%80%99s-newly-launched-dietary-guidelines
Eco-Smart Food Choices, Sweden. Available at http://www.livsmedelsverket.se/en/food-habits-health-and-environment/food-and-environment/eco-smart-food-choice/