“Overall, it is clear that environmental sustainability adds further dimensions to dietary guidance; not just what we eat but where and how food production, processing, and transportation are managed, and waste is decreased,” the 15-member 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee noted in Chapter 5 of its latest Scientific Report.
“Linking health, dietary guidance, and the environment will promote human health and the sustainability of natural resources and ensure current and long-term food security,” the report stated, adding that it will “require a paradigm shift to an environment in which population health is a national priority.”
By law, the secretaries of the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) are required to issue nutritional and dietary guidelines for the general public every five years “based on the preponderance of scientific and medical knowledge current at the time of publication.”
However, in a December 2014 report accompanying the FY2015 agriculture appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Committee expressed concern that “the advisory committee is showing an interest in incorporating agriculture production practices and environmental factors into their criteria for establishing the next dietary recommendations” which were “outside the nutritional focus of the panel.”
The congressional committee directed USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack to “only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors, in the final 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
Despite the congressional directive, the proposed guidelines, which were submitted to HHS and USDA on February 19, are designed not only to “shift consumer eating habits toward healthier alternatives,” but toward “less resource-intensive diets” that “have a lower environmental impact.”
The Advisory Committee defines a “sustainable diet” as “a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations.”
That means “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,” the report stated while acknowledging that “lean meats can be a part of a healthy dietary pattern.”
“Climate change, shifts in population dietary patterns and demand for food products, energy costs, and population growth will continue to put additional pressures on available natural resources,” the report added. “The environmental impact of food production is considerable and if natural resources such as land, water and energy are not conserved and managed optimally, they will be strained and potentially lost.”
“Central to creating and supporting sustainable diets” is “a core set of values” and policies that support them across the food supply chain, the Advisory Committee report said.
In a letter sent to Vilsack and HHS Sec. Sylvia Burwell the day the proposed guidelines were released, a coalition of academics and environmental groups urged the department heads to “show a strong commitment to keeping Americans, and our shared environment, healthier by developing clear dietary recommendations on the need for reduced consumption of animal products and more plant-based foods.”
However, a statement by the American Farm Bureau Federation criticized the report’s “lengthy foray into sustainability issues,” which it said “goes well beyond both the group’s expertise and its clearly defined mission.”
“The report makes many good observations about the need for a balanced diet, but we are troubled that it also repeats alarmist and unsubstantiated assertions about land use first promulgated by a UN agency with scant agricultural understanding,” the statement continued.
“These assertions contradict the views of the UN’s own agricultural experts and fly in the face of decades of scientific consensus.”
Barry Carpenter, president of the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), also responded by saying that “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.”
"If our government believes Americans should factor sustainability into their choices, guidance should come from a panel of sustainability experts that understands the complexity of the issue," he said.
Carpenter pointed to a study published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found that foods like meat and dairy products had a lower “energy density” when measured per 100 kcal of nutrients than their less nutrient-dense counterparts.
“Ten pounds of beef or pork provide more complete nutrition when consumed than 10 pounds of rice or broccoli,” he explained.
“Lean meat’s relegation to a footnote ignores the countless studies and data that the committee reviewed for the last two years that showed unequivocally that meat and poultry are among the most nutrient-dense foods available,” Carpenter said. “Nutrient dense meat is a headline, not a footnote,” he added.
Members of the public have been invited to testify on the proposed new dietary guidelines at the Advisory’s Committee’s March 24 meeting, which will be held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md. However, registration is limited to 70 individuals. Written comments will be accepted at www.DietaryGuidelines.gov until April 8th.