Trump's dietary guidelines committee shouldn't ignore sustainability

Trump's dietary guidelines committee shouldn't ignore sustainability
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The future of food is under discussion in D.C. this week, and that conversation could have profound consequences for our planet and the health of every American.

But as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee holds its second meeting at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we’re learning that the Trump administration has stuffed the committee with food industry representatives and recklessly narrowed the topics being discussed.

Federal food guidance is profoundly important. It determines what food is served in millions of meals every day in schools, prisons, hospitals and government cafeterias. It also influences food and nutrition programs and policies. 

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We’re at a tipping point, and the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will have serious consequences for the climate, food security and public health that will extend beyond the next five years.

That’s why it’s alarming that this committee has been stacked with individuals in the pockets of agribusiness and the agenda was set using a list of topics and questions provided by the Trump administration.

The 20-member committee includes at least two members with known affiliations to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, two affiliated with the American Beverage Association, and a consultant to food industry giants like Burger King and General Mills. A full quarter of the committee is tainted by strong industry ties.

We uncovered even more industry influence through a Freedom of Information Act request. As government documents show, when the USDA was first developing the guidelines process, the department held stakeholder listening sessions divided into commodity groups, food industry representatives, academics and public health groups.

In other words, even before the committee was formed, industry lobbyists were given just as much air time as actual experts. 

And unlike previous committees, members aren’t allowed to dig into questions that could have far-reaching effects on health and nutrition — including sustainability.

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This contrasts starkly with other countries’ processes. Health Canada, for example, made a commitment not to meet with, be influenced by or even use reports funded by industry in the development of its dietary guidelines.

As a result, Canada’s food guide recommends eating more plants and less meat. And countries from Sweden to China have integrated sustainability into their guidelines.

Reducing meat consumption is also consistent with the recommendations of the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. But after intense lobbying from the meat industry, those recommendations didn’t make it into the final guidelines. 

The harsh reality is that we can’t afford not to talk about sustainability and our food systems. Agriculture is responsible for as much as 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, giving it a significant role in the climate crisis. It is also a large contributor to habitat loss, pollution and pesticide use.

A United Nations scientific panel recently warned that we have just over a decade to cut emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change, which means we need to take immediate actions across all sectors to curb pollution.

The UN also warned that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis, with at least 1 million species at risk of vanishing in the coming decades.

Agriculture’s impact on the climate, land and water isn’t just a threat to the future of wild animals and plants. It also threatens the future of farming itself. Climate disruption, desertification, drought and pollinator declines are already making agricultural yields unpredictable and unstable.

Sustainability directly affects food security and our ability to continue growing enough food for the country.

Dietary guidelines can’t solve these problems on their own. But they play a critical role in laying the foundation for solutions. 

Given the stakes, the industry influence in the committee and the Trump administration’s track record of defying scientific evidence is concerning. But the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee also has a lot of dedicated, respected experts working to ensure that the latest update to the guidelines is rooted in science.

It’s critical that we don’t allow industry influence and partisan politics to undermine healthy, sustainable guidelines rooted in science and in the reality of how the climate crisis will affect our food system and lives.

Although the advisory committee is barred from conducting a full review of the evidence, the committee can still use the scientific report to emphasize the importance of sustainable diets in ensuring food security and health. 

Stephanie Feldstein is the population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity.