Those who have spent a modicum of time looking at my blog posts, Facebook or Twitter posts should have a pretty good idea on where I stand with regards to diet. I am, after all, “The Plant Based Eater”, so it shouldn’t be much of a mystery. But this post is not about diet, per se, but about how science and politics mix (hint: like oil and water). Case in point, today, is the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 (Eighth Edition). I saw a great comment on another blog stating that the writer didn’t need the government to tell him what to eat and that we are the only species that listens to others about what to eat. True, as far as it goes. But I suspect we’re also the only species that is willing to systematically profit from the exploitation of own species, so that argument seems a little thin.
So, back to the Dietary Guidelines. Approximately every 5 years the United States Department of Agriculture publishes an updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans. According to the message from Ms. Burwell (Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) and Mr. Vilsack (Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture) the Guidelines
“is an essential resource for health professionals and policymakers as they design and implement food and nutrition programs that feed the American people, such as USDA’s National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, which feed more than 30 million children each school day. The Dietary Guidelines also provides information that helps Americans make healthy choices for themselves and their families.”
As you might imagine, it is quite a process that starts with the convention of nutrition scientists as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. These nutrition scientists then get together and prepare a consensus statement, which is submitted to the above mentioned Secretaries of HHS and USDA as the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. This is a 571 page document complete with references, tables, charts, and, most of all, the best recommendations that our trusted advisers could agree upon. The report is then received by HHS and USDA and, almost a year later, the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is released.
As you might imagine, the Scientific Report and the final Guidelines are not exactly the same. So much so that one group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) along with a number of individual physicians is suing the USDA and HHS for what they believe to be recommendations that are unhealthy. If you want to know more about that, there is a press release from PCRM. But I want to look at the environmental piece that the good people making the Scientific Report took the time to include.
The Part D. Chapter 5: Food Sustainability and Safety section chapter summary states:
The major findings regarding sustainable diets were 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 (as discussed in Part B. Chapter 2: 2015 DGAC Themes and Recommendations: Integrating the Evidence) and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet. This pattern of eating can be achieved through a variety of 1686 dietary patterns, including the “Healthy U.S.-style Pattern,” the “Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern,” and the “Healthy Vegetarian Pattern” (see Part D. Chapter 1: Food and Nutrient Intakes, and Health: Current Status and Trends for a description of these patterns). All of these dietary patterns are aligned with lower predicted environmental impacts and provide food options that can be adopted by the U.S. population. Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a potentially larger environmental impact in terms of increased GHG emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns. This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and the plant-based foods are lower, than proposed in these three dietary patterns. Of note is that no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve food sustainability outcomes.
Of course we all know that a plant-based diet is more health promoting, but here they went on to say that the average U.S. diet has a potentially larger environmental impact, which is a pretty lame statement without a lot of teeth, but they said it. And I promise you that if you search the published Dietary Guidelines, you will not find a single mention of sustainability or environmental impact of food choices and diet. So what happened between the Scientific Report and the final Guidelines? Politics.
It also turns out, this happened. In December 2015, about a month before the Guidelines were released, Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs), largely considered to be one of the two most influential “think tanks” in the world, released their report Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption in which they clearly state the key findings:
- Our appetite for meat is a major driver of climate change.
- Reducing global meat consumption will be critical to keeping global warming below the ‘danger level’ of two degrees Celsius.
- Public awareness of the issue is low, and meat remains off the policy agenda.
- Governments must lead in shifting attitudes and behaviours.
I can only imagine that the U.S.D.A. writers either don’t read or chose to ignore this landmark report, which gathered international attention and one would have to assume it’s the latter. Because the U.S.D.A. is not an agency with a mission to foster, educate, and protect the taxpaying public of the United States, it is an agency with a mission to promote all things agriculture in the United States. And the three major products of U.S. agriculture, according the USDA are grain, red meat, and milk. And according the Chatham House, the biggest driver of climate change is cattle.
So what’s the answer? Clearly the U.S.D.A. needs to get out of the business of advising Americans what to eat. This represents a clear “agency” problem in that the U.S.D.A. is not acting as an agent for the people, but as an agent for agribusiness. I’d like to think that the HHS could take this on, perhaps as part of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) but the Food and Nutrition Board of the IOM has not proven themselves to be any more reliable than the U.S.D.A. At this point, I don’t have an easy solution, but if our government doesn’t begin to take climate change more seriously, we’re all going to be in trouble.