How US government diet guidelines ignore the climate crisis | Environment


tTo keep the climate livable, most scientists agree that switching to renewable energy alone isn’t enough — Americans need to change the way they eat, too. Environmental and public health advocates are pushing for a new strategy to get there: including climate analysis in official U.S. dietary guidelines, which dictate what goes into billions of meals eaten across the country each year.

Every five years, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services jointly publish a new version of the guidelines. They form the basis for the public dining guide MyPlate, formerly MyPyramid, as well as many government-sponsored meal programs, such as National School Lunch. Historically, these guidelines have narrowly focused on human nutrition, but some now say they should be expanded to include climate considerations.

In the current 150-page edition for 2020-2025, the role of food in the climate crisis is not mentioned at all. Climate groups say this is a abdication of responsibility, with Americans feeling the effects of a warming planet more than ever. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate legislation in US history, does little to tackle the food system.

“Climate change poses many threats to human health and nutritional security. We can’t take these things apart,” said Jessi Silverman, senior policy officer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Her group and 39 others, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote a letter in May calling on the government to include sustainability in its 2025-2030 dietary guidelines, which are now under development.

A sustainability component would encourage Americans to eat less meat and dairy, which have a significantly higher climate impact than nutritionally comparable plant foods. “It would be virtually impossible to even meet the two-degrees [Celsius] mitigating global temperature change without including a substantial reduction in beef intake,” said Mark Rifkin, senior food and agricultural policy specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity, another signatory to the letter.

A table of USDA and Health and Human Services nutritional guidelines compared to the recommendations of climate experts. When it comes to protein, experts recommend replacing animal proteins with plant-based ones. As well as switching from a cup of milk to a glass of water.

Current guidelines advise Americans to eat far more animal products than is sustainable, says Walter Willett, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. The primary diet chart recommends 26 ounces of protein from meat, poultry and eggs per week, compared to just 5 ounces from plant foods, although there are alternative charts showing how vegetarians can get the same nutrients without meat. They also say “still basically three servings of dairy a day, which is actually quite radical because our current consumption is 1.6 servings a day,” he said. “To recommend just three servings of dairy and not say anything about the environmental impact if people actually do is just completely irresponsible.”

Because most Americans are deficient in fiber and fruits and vegetables, not animal products, Rifkin, a dietitian, said climate-focused guidance would align with what the public needs nutritionally. It would also help address other problems arising from the meat-heavy US food system, he said, including the risk of future pandemics, food security and pollution from concentrated animal-feeding activities, which disproportionately affect communities of color.

A proposed list of questions released in April to the scientific panel advising the guidelines did not include sustainability. That worries proponents, but they say it’s still early. Janet de Jesus, HHS’s guidance staff, said sustainability could still be included. “We’re not saying it won’t be in the dietary guidelines — we’re not saying that at all,” de Jesus said. “It is a high priority for HHS leadership to tackle climate change.”

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, countries such as Germany, Brazil, Sweden and Qatar have included sustainability in their dietary guidelines. Canada’s Food Guide recommends choosing plant-based foods more often for the environment. Germany has reduced its meat consumption per capita by 12% since 2011, Vox reported last month, and the food and agriculture minister recently prioritized a shift to more plant-based foods.

Proponents say a change in U.S. dietary guidelines could have a similar impact. “The guidelines have a lot more impact than I think a lot of people realize,” Silverman said. Federal food aid programs must comply with guidelines and determine how millions of people eat. The National School Lunch and National School Breakfast, for example, served more than 7 billion meals a year to tens of millions of children before the Covid-19 pandemic. The guidelines also affect cafeteria food served in government offices, hospitals and other institutions, and used in nutrition education programs.

National School Lunch’s reach makes it “uniquely positioned to influence the dietary patterns of American children and adolescents and could help address the environmental impacts of food systems,” according to a recent Communications Earth & Environment article.. Meat contributes disproportionately to the impact of school meals on climate and land and water use.

With government programs and other large institutions serving so many meals, sustainability advocates have focused in recent years on influencing their decisions about how to buy food. California allocated $100 million earlier this year to help schools serve more plant-based meals.

This isn’t the first time the environment has been at issue in the country’s dietary guidelines. In 2015, the government-appointed panel of nutritionists that recommended the 2015-2020 guidelines addressed sustainability in its scientific report. “In general, a diet higher in plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lower in animal foods, is more health-promoting and associated with a smaller environmental impact. ‘ the panel wrote.

But after protests from the meat industry and Republican lawmakers, the recommendation to eat more plants was dropped from the final guidelines. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal at the time, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said sustainability was outside the scope of dietary guidelines and compared the scientific committee to his granddaughter “coloring outside the lines.”

“It’s really condescending stuff,” Bob Martin of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future said of Vilsack’s comments. “The people involved in this were highly qualified.”

Agribusiness has a long history of influencing dietary guidelines, and that will no doubt play a role this time around. The meat and dairy industry spent $49.5 million on political contributions in 2020 and another $15.9 million on lobbying the federal government.

Food industry groups also routinely report lobbying about federal food policy. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association lobbied more than $303,000 to keep beef in dietary guidelines between 2014 and 2016, according to federal lobbying data. Several industry groups, including the North American Meat Institute, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Turkey Federation, have already discussed the process for the 2025-2030 guideline. “[W]While it is an important topic, sustainability is beyond the scope of dietary guidelines,” the National Pork Producers Council wrote in a public comment in May.

While environmental advocates face an uphill battle, much has changed since the failed 2015 effort to integrate sustainability, said Jessi Silverman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I think public pressure to have concrete policies to tackle climate change has increased tremendously over the years.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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