Will the USDA Finally Start Telling Americans to Eat Less Meat?

Nutritional guidelines will get an update next year, and sustainable food advocates are hoping that a new department hire will signal a shift in the country’s nutrition policy.

(Photo: Silvio Verrecchia/Getty Images)

Jul 16, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Every five years, the federal government updates its recommendations for how Americans should eat. Traditionally, those recommendations have focused almost exclusively on nutrition issues, but that could change when the United States Department of Agriculture releases its updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2015. Environmental sustainability may enter into the USDA’s suggested diet given the increasingly serious impact population growth, climate change, and environmental degradation are having on food production.

Naturally, climate-change skeptics and industrial-food advocates have opposed the infusion of environmental concerns into the dietary guidelines, such as the suggestion that Americans eat less meat. Some of them are now bristling at the person chosen to lead the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which heads the nutrition guideline revisions every five years: Dr. Angela Tagtow, a longtime nutrition expert and sustainable-food advocate who recently served with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and serves as managing editor of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. Given her track record on the intersection of sustainability and nutrition, industrial-food advocates probably have reason to be afraid.

“A sustainable and resilient food system conserves and renews natural resources, advances social justice and animal welfare, builds community wealth, and fulfills the food and nutrition needs of all eaters now and in the future,” Tagtow said in a 2011 guest lecture at Utah State University.

Dr. Sean Cash, Associate Professor at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, sees the move as a clear signal that the USDA administration believes household nutritional needs must be balanced with “other priorities,” namely sustainability.

“I think she will very much bring a ‘big picture’ approach to the job,” he said.

Tagtow is not the first champion for sustainable food at a high level in the USDA. Kathleen Merrigan served as the department’s number two in command, bringing the agency light-years ahead in its focus on local and regional food systems. But after just two years at the post, Merrigan resigned abruptly in 2013. Some speculated at the time that her focus on the small and sustainable put her at odds with many in an agency that has typically favored large-scale, industrial agriculture.

Similarly, Tagtow is now being scrutinized for her views on nutrition, agriculture, and the environment. Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a self-described conservative think tank, is troubled by the emphasis he believes Tagtow will put on sustainability in her nutritional policy.

“Here you’ve got the USDA’s top person on nutrition education who has made a career out of making sustainability central to how we eat, rather than healthy diets,” he told The Washington Free Beacon. “It’s not just that Angela Tagtow is sympathetic with this point of view—which would be problematic—she’s a cheerleader for these points of view.”

Stier added that Tagtow’s appointment “sends the clearest message” of the direction in which the USDA is headed: toward acknowledging that food choices have implications on our environmental future. For instance, a report published last year on options for mitigating behavioral climate change found that global non-CO2 emissions could drop by more than 50 percent by 2055 if global meat demand dropped by just 25 percent per decade. Conversely, if meat consumption continues to rise at the current rate (corresponding with a global increase in income), greenhouse gas emissions would go up 76 percent. Experts have said for years that the Earth cannot sustain the current American diet ad infinitum.

“It is not physically possible for the world’s consumers to eat more than the planet can provide,” food policy expert Parke Wilde wrote last year. “If we continue to seek to exceed the planet’s productive resources, there will be a reconciliation one way or another.”

He added: “We can no more evade the environmental reconciliation than we can stop the sun from rising.”