Should sustainability play a part in US dietary guidelines?

Dozens of advocacy groups are urging the USDA to adopt sustainability recommendations into US dietary guidelines, but they face obstacles from lobbying groups for the meat and poultry industries. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Fruits and vegetables are displayed for sale at a market in Washington. Despite broad support from health and environmental groups, USDA and HHS are under pressure from registered lobbies (including The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the National Chicken Council) to exclude the sustainability recommendations in the final rendition of the revised dietary guidelines.

49 academic centers, health advocacy groups, and environmental advocacy groups sent a recent letter urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to adopt the sustainability recommendations developed by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). The committee, formed by the two departments, submitted their recommendations on Thursday, February 19, 2015, forming their conclusions in the environmental contexts of obesity and chronic disease.

The letter places a strong emphasis on plant-based diets, indicating benefits for both human health and the health of the environment. “The food we eat, and how it’s raised, has a profound effect on public health and the environment,” said Bob Martin, director of Food System Policy at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “This is especially true in meat production, where the industrial model is unsustainable and a potential threat to public health, due in part to the routine use of antibiotics. Dietary guidelines must include how meat is raised, as well as lowering consumption.” The letter also emphasizes sustainable seafood production and eating lower on the aquatic food chain.

Public comments on the scientific report can be submitted for a 45 day period ending April 8, 2015, and oral comments can be delivered at a public meeting in Bethesda, MD on March 24, 2015 on a first-come, first-served basis.

Despite broad support from health and environmental groups, USDA and HHS are under pressure from registered lobbies (including The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the National Chicken Council) to exclude the sustainability recommendations in the final rendition of the revised dietary guidelines; industry backlash frames lean meat consumption as a key component of a healthy diet, and argues that DGAC has overstepped its assignment in discussing environmental sustainability as a part of individual diet. The letter therefore urges the USDA to resist this pressure, stating that to do so would “be irresponsible, especially since current industrial food production methods can work to undercut the nation’s long-term food security by contributing to biodiversity loss, soil degradation, water contamination, climate change, and antibiotic resistance.” If the USDA and HHS adopt DGAC’s recommendations, a controversial new precedent for inclusion of environmental considerations in dietary guidelines will be set.

Academic centers and other institutions are holding events during the public comment period to educate the public on the DGAC’s recommendations. The Harvard/T.H. Chan School of Public Health will be hosting a symposium on the evidence basis and key recommendations of DGAC’s scientific report on Wednesday, February 25, 2015, from 3:30-6:00 pm. Dr. Howard Koh, former Assistant Secretary for Health at HHS, will moderate the event, and Dr. J. Michael McGinnis, founder of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Group, will be the keynote speaker. Registration and a live webcast are available here.

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