Some Governments Are Endorsing Sustainable Diets—but Not the U.S.

Even China is trying to convince people to eat less red meat.
People at a fruit stand in Hong Kong. (Photo: Bernhard Limberger/Getty Images)
May 27, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Forty-five years after the publication of the best-seller Diet for a Small Planet, researchers from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the Food Climate Research Network at the University of Oxford echoed what author Frances Moore Lappé and conscientious eaters have been saying since 1971: In short, what we eat has an effect on the environment as a whole.

The report on government diet guidance and sustainability concludes, “There is increasingly robust evidence to suggest that dietary patterns that have low environmental impacts can also be consistent with good health—that win-wins are possible, if not inevitable.” Lead author Carlos Gonzales-Fischer of FCRN called it a win-win in a statement: “By eating well for our own personal health, we’re also doing right by the planet.”

Yet at the time the research was conducted, only four out of 83 countries with food-based dietary guidelines promoted sustainability: Brazil, Germany, Sweden, and Qatar. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom have since followed suit with their guidelines, while France and Estonia have “quasi-official” guidelines that incorporate sustainability. Even for the countries that include sustainability in dietary guidelines, the authors say additional considerations need to be made—including environmental impacts from the production and packaging of processed food and research focusing on the broader social and economic dimensions of sustainable diets.

Related: Feds Decide That Sustainability and Nutrition Don't Mix

“The food system generates a huge number of jobs, and there may well be trade-offs in some areas between environmental goals and health goals and job creation goals, so that’s an aspect I think we need to look at,” coauthor Tara Garnett of FCRN said in an interview with TakePart.

What do sustainable dietary guidelines say right now? All countries highlight that a largely plant-based diet has advantages for health and the environment and suggest limiting or restricting red meat consumption; all but Qatar underscore meat's high environmental impact. Only Sweden and Germany advise moderating meat consumption on grounds of its high environmental impact—its greenhouse gas emissions alone are roughly equivalent to those caused by every vehicle on the planet.

Red meat is getting an increasingly bad rap around the globe—even in China, where the changing diets of the newly minted middle class have raised concerns that increased demand will push meat production and emissions even higher. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Health issued new dietary guidelines that urge citizens to limit meat and egg consumption to 200 grams daily and advise people to eat more fish and chicken and less red meat. If every man, woman, and child followed the guidelines, meat and egg consumption in China would be reduced by about a third. The reduction in livestock-related carbon emissions would be roughly equivalent to taking 93 million cars off the road, according to Think Progress.

Yet the suggestion to reduce meat consumption has had trouble getting airborne here at home. In February of last year, after looking at thousands of studies, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded that a diet rich in plant-based foods promotes good health and is more environmentally sustainable. The guidelines, which are updated every five years, determine school meals and food assistance and inform nutrition education—as well as labeling and advertising of food products by companies and advice given by health professionals. In other words, big bucks are at stake. Beef alone is a $95-billion-a-year business. The meat industry did not take kindly to these findings; interest groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying in the first three-quarters of 2015, Politico reported.

In October, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell issued a joint statement saying their mandate is to provide nutritional and dietary information, and the pair “do not believe that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for American are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability."

The guidelines do, however, include information about food security, physical activity, and food safety.

“The administration has clearly put the financial interests of the meat industry over the weight of the science and the health of the American people,” Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group, said in a statement.

Now, here’s Memorial Day to cause a quandary. Maybe Americans love our burgers too much—we ate 9 billion of them in 2014—to make the connection between what’s on our plate and what’s in the atmosphere. Maybe a goal of eating fewer is too lofty for the general public. For her part, Garnett said it’s important to challenge the assumption that people are solely motivated by self-interest.

“There’s quite a lot of research that suggests that how you frame things actually influences what people feel about issues like the environment,” she said. “The automatic assumption that people don’t care, or that they’re going to prioritize their own health, is something that’s open to challenge.”

Just ask the majority of the 29,000 people—14 times the number of participants in 2010—who submitted comments in response to the 2015 advisory report. Seventy-five percent were in favor of the committee’s recommendations on sustainability and health.

“It’s not a sort of simple, clear-cut ‘People don’t care about the environment’ or ‘Sustainability messaging isn’t going to work for the American public’ because I think there are different approaches you can take to that,” Garnett said.