JTo keep the climate habitable, most scientists agree that switching to renewable energy alone is not enough. Americans also need to change the way they eat. Environmental and public health advocates are advocating a new strategy to get there: include the climate breakdown in official US dietary guidelines, which shape what goes into the billions of meals eaten across the country each year.
Every five years, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services jointly release a new version of the guidelines. They form the basis of the MyPlate food guide, formerly MyPyramid, as well as many government-supported meal programs, such as National School Lunch. Historically, these guidelines have narrowly focused on human nutrition, but some now say they should be broadened to incorporate climate considerations as well.
The current 150-page edition for 2020-2025 does not mention the role of food in the climate crisis at all. Climate groups say it is an abdication of responsibility, with Americans feeling the effects of global warming more than ever. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate legislation in US history, does very little to address the food system.
“Climate change poses a multitude of threats to human health and nutritional security. We can’t extract these things from each other,” said Jessi Silverman, senior policy associate for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. His group and 39 others, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote a letter in May urging the government to include sustainability in the 2025-2030 dietary guidelines, which are currently being developed. .
A sustainability component would encourage Americans to eat less meat and dairy, which have a significantly higher climate impact than nutritionally comparable plant-based foods. “It would be practically impossible to even achieve the two degrees [Celsius] limit global temperature change without incorporating substantial reductions in beef consumption,” said Mark Rifkin, senior food and agricultural policy specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity, another letter signatory.
Current guidelines advise Americans to eat far more animal products than is sustainable, said Walter Willett, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health. The main food chart recommends 26 ounces of protein from meat, poultry, and eggs per week, compared to just 5 ounces from plant-based foods, although there are alternate charts that show how vegetarians can get it. the same nutrients without meat. They’re still “essentially saying three servings of dairy a day, which is actually really radical because our current consumption is 1.6 servings a day,” he said. “To simply recommend three servings of dairy products and say nothing about the environmental consequences if people really did it is just totally irresponsible.”
Because most Americans are lacking in fiber and fruits and vegetables, not animal products, Rifkin, a registered dietitian, said the climate-focused advice would match the nutritional needs of the public. It would also help address other issues with America’s meat-rich food system, he said, including the risk of future pandemics, food safety and pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations, which affect many disproportionately communities of color.
A proposed list of questions published in April for the scientific panel advising the guidelines did not include sustainability. That worries defenders, but they say it’s still early days. Janet de Jesus, HHS staff lead on the guidelines, said sustainability could still be included. “We’re not saying it won’t be in the dietary guidelines — we’re not saying that at all,” de Jesus said. “Addressing climate change is a high priority for HHS leadership.”
According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, countries like Germany, Brazil, Sweden and Qatar have incorporated sustainability into their dietary guidelines. Canada’s Food Guide advises choosing plant-based foods more often for the environment. Germany has cut its per capita meat consumption by 12% since 2011, Vox reported last month, and its food and agriculture minister recently prioritized a shift towards more plant-based diets.
Proponents say a change in US dietary guidelines could have a similar influence. “The guidelines have a lot more impact than I think a lot of people realize,” Silverman said. Federal food assistance programs must adhere to guidelines, shaping the way millions of people eat. The National School Lunch and the National School Breakfast, for example, served more than 7 billion meals a year to tens of millions of children before the Covid-19 pandemic. The guidelines also influence the food served in cafeterias in government buildings, hospitals and other institutions, and are used in nutrition education programs.
National School Lunch’s reach puts it “in a unique position to affect the eating habits of American children and teens and could help address the environmental impacts of food systems,” according to a recent article in Communications Earth & Environment.. Meat contributes disproportionately to the impact of school meals on the climate, as well as land and water use.
Since government programs and other large institutions serve so many meals, sustainability advocates have focused in recent years on trying to influence their food-buying decisions. Earlier this year, California allocated $100 million to help schools serve more plant-based meals.
It is not the first time that the environment has been at issue in the country’s dietary guidelines. In 2015, the government-appointed group of nutrition experts who advised the 2015-2020 guidelines addressed sustainability in their scientific report. “In general, a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more conducive to health and is associated with less environmental impact,” the panel wrote.
But after outcry from the meat industry and Republican lawmakers, the recommendation to eat more plants was dropped from the final guidelines. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal at the time, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said sustainability was outside the dietary guidelines and compared the science committee to his granddaughter who “colors off lines “.
“It’s really condescending,” Bob Martin of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future said of Vilsack’s comments. “The people involved in this project were highly qualified.”
Agribusiness has a long history of influencing dietary guidelines, and that will no doubt be a factor this time around as well. The meat and dairy industries spent $49.5 million on political contributions in 2020, and another $15.9 million on lobbying the federal government.
Food industry groups also regularly report lobbying on federal nutrition policy. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association between 2014 and 2016 spent more than $303,000 lobbying to keep beef within dietary guidelines, according to federal lobbying records. Several industry groups, including the North American Meat Institute, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Turkey Federation, have already weighed in on the 2025-2030 guidance process. “[W]While an important topic, sustainability falls outside the scope of the Dietary Guidelines,” the National Pork Producers Council wrote in a public comment in May.
Although conservationists face an uphill battle, much has changed since the failed 2015 effort to mainstream sustainability, said Jessi Silverman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I think the public pressure to have concrete policies to tackle climate change has increased a lot in the years that have followed.”