An advisory committee to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reversed course and will not recommend that the agency consider the environmental impact of food production when updating its national dietary guidelines, a USDA official told VICE News on Monday.
In December, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) of the USDA would make recommendations based on nutritional considerations, as it has done historically, as well as environmental impacts.
According to the AP report, the committee's draft read that a plant-based diet is "more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average US diet."
While the DGAC did review literature on sustainable diets, the USDA says the effects of food production on the planet will not factor in to its final dietary guidelines.
"The DGAC discussed the topic of sustainable diets, and this discussion will be included in its final report," Eve Essery Stoody, a nutritionist with the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, told VICE News. "However, the DGAC's food-based recommendations are based on literature examining the relationship between diet and health, as well as a consideration of what foods are needed to meet nutrient need."
Kari Hamerschlag, a senior program manager for Friends of the Earth (FOE), said the USDA is under "intense" political pressure.
"So I'm not surprised USDA would say that," she told VICE News. "However, I hope the committee follows through with its mandate to issue its findings and recommendations based on nutritional and sustainability findings."
The USDA, along with the Department of Health and Human Services, establishes new dietary guidelines every five years that constitute the federal government's MyPlate nutritional program, which in 2010 replaced the well-know food pyramid.
In the United States, agricultural production accounts for about 10 percent of the nation's annual greenhouse gas emissions. A 2014 study found that beef, along with sheep, emitted greenhouse gases at much higher rates than other forms of protein, including poultry, pork, eggs, and beans.
Global recommendations from the United Nations have pointed to animal health and feed efficiency as two primary areas for improving the sustainability of eating meat. Healthy livestock are less likely to die before butchering, meaning less waste of the resources used to raise them. More efficient feeding systems mean more pounds of food can be produced on fewer resources.
"Those are the two areas where we have focused our efforts for a number of years," Daren Williams, executive director of communications for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told VICE News. "We're widely considered to be the best in the world in both."
In December, Congress' year-end spending bill included a directive to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "to only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors" when forming the final guidelines. But some environmental organizations, including FOE and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), pushed for the agency to consider environmental impacts when updating the dietary guidelines, which shape national school lunch programs and other federal dietary policies.
"The interpretation that the DGAC recommendations will be based on environmental impact is incorrect," Stoody told VICE News. "The committee did look at sustainable diets, but this review and the topic of environmental impact has not informed their recommendations for the Dietary Guidelines."
"Sustainability has been an important part of the committee's deliberations for many months and they have the scientific basis for a strong statement on it," Doug Boucher, a biologist and director of climate research and analysis for UCS, told VICE News. "If their consensus on this issue has been overruled, I'd really like to know why."
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