A Lot of People Think Sustainability Belongs in the Federal Nutrition Guidelines

Analysis of public comments shows support for factoring environmental concerns into the definition of a healthy diet.
(Photo: Flickr)
Oct 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Were you aware of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee before this year? The group, composed of scientists and other public health experts, submits a report every five years that informs the government’s update of the federal nutrition standards. This tends to be big news for people who have a professional concern about what goes on nutrition labels, but this year, big changes in the report have made the rather wonky study a national news item, with lots of everyday people paying attention to it.

In recent weeks, the focus has been the controversy caused by a piece published in the British Medical Journal that took issue—many say erroneously—with how the DGAC addressed fats and meat in its report. What’s arguably more groundbreaking, however, isn’t how fats are cast in the report but that—for the first time—the report takes on the issue of sustainability and the environmental impact of food production.

A pair of analyses released Monday, conducted by a coalition of environmental groups including Friends of the Earth and the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, suggest that the public’s focus is set squarely on the sustainability question: According to the coalition’s research, the DGAC received 29,000 public comments, 14 times as many as were submitted in 2010, and 75 percent support the recommendations made in the report, including those regarding sustainability.

The reports were released two days ahead of the Wednesday meeting between USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, which will set the final guidelines.

According to text analysis conducted by the coalition, nearly 80 percent of the comments included either “plant” or “environment,” with the words appearing together in 73 percent of the comments. The groups that published the reports said decreased consumption of red meat, as recommended by the DGAC, would be “better for both human health and the environment in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use.”

The DGAC report said the overall scientific evidence lends support to a healthy diet being “lower in red and processed meat.” From an environmental standpoint, the DGAC report recommends “a focus on decreasing meat consumption, choosing seafood from non-threatened stocks, eating more plants and plant-based products, reducing energy intake, and reducing waste.”

But while the new reports suggest widespread support for factoring sustainability into the upcoming revision of the federal nutrition guidelines, powerful interests, including the meat lobby and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, think otherwise.

Vilsack said in an interview with The Washington Post that USDA’s job “ultimately is to formulate dietary and nutrition guidelines. And I emphasize dietary and nutrition, because that’s what the law says. I think it’s my responsibility to follow the law.”

Previous versions of the DGAC report, and the nutrition guidelines that have been adopted from them, show that what encompasses dietary and nutrition guidelines changes with time. Before 2000, food safety and physical activity weren’t considered in the report—both have become central to our conversation about what we eat and how it affects public health. Elsewhere in the world, including in a number of European countries, sustainability has become entrenched in national dietary guidelines.

The second analysis the environmental group released today looked at the legal question of including sustainability in the guidelines—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it differs with Vilsack’s reading of the law.

“Our analysis of the law, including the Congressional intent, clearly shows that USDA and HHS would be well within its mandate to incorporate sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who led the legal research, said in a statement.