For the first time ever, a committee that advises the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended eating greater amounts of vegetables, legumes, and grains because a plant-based diet has less of an environmental impact than one heavy in meat consumption.
Every five years the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) convenes to make recommendations on food policy to the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. Defying Congress and intense industry pressure, the committee made strong connections between American dietary choices and the environmental sustainability of food production.
Doctor Barbara Millen, the committee chair, called it a "wonderful new development."
"Food security is a major, major concern. You have to think about the issue of sustainability," Millen told VICE News.
"How do we ensure a safe, high quality, accessible food supply, not only for current generations but also for future generations," she asked. "You have to start thinking about land and water use and also things like the sustainability of our aquaculture and our fish reserves."
The report serves as the scientific backbone of the federal government's Dietary Guidelines, due from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and USDA later this year. The guidelines help shape what is provided to students at school lunch programs, among other federal nutrition policies.
Kari Hamerschlag, a senior program manager for Friends of the Earth (FOE), called the committee's focus on sustainability "historic" and "unprecedented."
"I really think it has the power to really shift the consciousness and awareness surrounding impacts of food on our planet and the connection between planetary and personal health," Hamerschlag told VICE News on Friday. "It's a really important moment in our food policy and it's been a long time coming."
There's undoubtedly room in the American diet to cut back on meat eating. The 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the average US adult male chows through nearly 102 grams of protein a day, double the Food and Nutrition Board's advised intake. Women consumed 70.1 grams, far greater than the recommend 46 grams.
Our diet's environmental consequences have become better measured and understood in recent years. Consider this: It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pound of grain-fed beef. And this: Adhering to a vegetarian diet slashes your food-related carbon footprint in half.
The committee touted the health benefits of finding your meal from something other than an animal: "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 and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current US diet."
'The louder the meat industry is, the louder we'll be.'
On Thursday, Friends of the Earth was part of a 49-group-strong coalition that wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell, applauding the committee's green-hued guidelines and challenging the secretaries to stand strong in the face of certain political pressure to reject the committee's recommendations.
"Abundant science now illustrates the synergies between healthy dietary choices and a sustainable food system both of which, in turn, impact public health. Despite this fact, Congress is pressuring the scientific experts to exclude considerations for sustainability from their final report," the group wrote. "To do so would be irresponsible…Now more than ever, it is important for our government to encourage Americans to consider the methods by which food is produced."
The recommendations, currently open for public comment, face significant hurdles on the way to final approval.
Tucked into a year-end congressional spending bill, which passed in December, was language noting "concern" at the committee's "interest in incorporating environmental facts" and chastising them to "focus on recommendations based upon sound nutrition science."
A fierce industry response has already begun. In a Thursday press release, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) criticized the committee's recommendations, saying that they "appear to be based on personal opinions or social agendas."
"The Dietary Guidelines Committee's charter tasked them with reviewing nutrition science, which is the field from which Committee members were selected," NAMI said in a press release. "The Committee's foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise. It's akin to having a dermatologist provide recommendations about cardiac care."
But according to Millen, the committee saw an undeniable convergence in research on the environment and nutritional health, and ensured the report included prominent sustainability concerns.
"The health dietary pattern that we're advocating is also a pattern that tends to be gentler on the land and water, and is more environmentally friendly," Millen said. "We take very seriously the charge to update the evidence in the most important and relevant areas. When we looked at the large proportion of our population that is currently food insecure and the potential for that extending to other parts of our population if our food supply became short, we felt it important to broaden the topic to sustainability."
The fate of these recommendations will be decided on whether science can trump politics, Hammerschlag said.
"The louder the meat industry is, the louder we'll be. A lot of important organizations with millions of members will be submitting comments and really educating and pushing back against the meat industry," Hamerschlag told VICE News. "We have the science and the economics on our side. Hopefully, USDA and HHS will not be bullied by the meat industry and Congress."
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