How dangerous must consequences be before US dietary guidelines include sustainability?
As a registered dietitian, I’ve seen firsthand how the dietary guidelines shape the public’s perception of food and nutrition. As a food and agriculture policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, I’ve also seen how the guidelines affect climate change, biodiversity loss, water pollution and scarcity, as well as global food security. That’s why, now that the process of updating the guidelines is underway, the Biden administration must address the urgent public health and climate crises with sustainable dietary recommendations.
As of this writing, wildfires are burning nearly 2.8 million acres, and it’s not even summer yet. We’ve already had 885 tornadoes this year, and tornado season is not finished yet. Insect populations have declined so drastically some scientists have declared an insect apocalypse.
And food prices are almost 11 percent higher than this time a year ago, at least partially due to climate-induced impacts on supply chains, not to mention the ongoing pandemic and the very real risk that our food system is laying the groundwork for yet more pandemics.
What’s all this have to do with the dietary guidelines? Without specific, formal recommendations to encourage widespread adoption of sustainable diets, there is virtually no hope of meeting the goal to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s a virtual guarantee for even more wildfires, tornadoes, biodiversity losses and price inflation, especially for food. One of the best ways to limit such damage is by mitigating diet-related causes of climate change.
But while Rome burns, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services — the two agencies responsible for updating the guidelines — are twiddling their thumbs.
Despite sustainability’s direct connection to food and nutrition, the agencies have only committed to “address this topic separate” from the usual process. That usual process starts with a review of the evidence by a qualified panel of experts called the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
Tasking the advisory committee to evaluate the links between sustainability and nutrition would be the best way to ensure a thorough and transparent science-based assessment. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health Secretary Xavier Becerra apparently see no reason to break the mold of catering to the industry interests that prefer to keep the public confused about the very real benefits of small, practical dietary changes.
Accordingly, neither the structure, personnel nor timeline for this “separate” process have been defined. The secretaries are asking us to just trust them to get it right, which doesn’t bode well, since the agencies have granted the meat industry excess privilege for decades, allowing it to dominate national nutrition policy. Plus, Vilsack appears to have consciously and deliberately sidelined sustainability content during the dietary guidelines process in 2015. It’s time that the guidelines step up to the sustainability plate.
Fortunately, the sustainability plate is also a healthy plate. No substantial conflict exists between health-related and sustainability-related dietary recommendations for the U.S. population. Extensive reviews integrating nutrition and sustainability recommendations advocate for increased intake of fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes as well as reduced intake of meat, especially red meat.
These issues extend far beyond individual health to environmental justice, food security and health equity, because meat production disproportionately harms Americans who are Black, Indigenous, people of color or members of underserved communities.
Imagine having putrid, pathogenic hog waste sprayed regularly on your house, as documented in one lawsuit.. Or picture a slaughterhouse near your back door, spewing feces, blood, urine and fats into the nearest creek with minimal government oversight — as occurs in underserved communities.
Climate change is already impacting crop production, food supplies and even nutritional quality. The U.S. population already faces a high risk of food insecurity and chronic diet-related disease, especially among communities of color, so excluding sustainability from the guidelines is indefensible.
More than 40 nutrition, health, environment, animal and food security organizations — including the group where I work — have formally requested that the agencies implement a clear, rigorous and transparent process to incorporate sustainability into the dietary guidelines. Ideally, that’d be done by including sustainability in the upcoming review and scientific report.
But the agencies cannot allow the industry or anyone else to bully or intimidate their way to a politically convenient outcome. The advisory committee must be composed of qualified, objective experts, and the agencies must allow the experts to implement a scientifically rigorous review and report based solely on the facts.
The Biden administration has devoted substantial energy to verbal commitments on environmental justice, food security and health equity. Now it’s time for the administration to transform its words into meaningful, specific and time-bound action. Anything less will reduce such commitments to generalities and platitudes. The time for such niceties has run out.
Mark Rifkin is a registered dietitian and the senior food and agriculture policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity.