The following is an op-ed that I wrote that was published in Environmental Health News today--which seems appropriate since it is Earth Day.
If you read this and feel compelled, please follow the link at the end of the piece to submit a public comment to the USDA to consider as they finalize the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
By Michelle Hauser
Environmental Health News
Controversies generated by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) recommendations raced through the media like wildfire.
For the first time in history, the DGAC recommended that Americans consider the environmental impact of their food choices. Following this to its logical and scientifically-supported conclusion, the DGAC also recommended that Americans eat less meat. Not surprisingly, the meat industry finds this recommendation unpalatable and is sending a loud and clear message to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). They advocate that the dietary guidelines should focus on nutrition—focusing on the environmental impact of meat is a serious overreach and a recommendation that should be ignored.
It’s ultimately the decision of the USDA, along with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), whether or not the DGAC recommendations become the official 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This process is important because the Dietary Guidelines influence foods available for school lunch programs, WIC and SNAP benefits. They also have a major impact on Americans’ food choices and agricultural production.
The “eat less meat” message has been shot down or watered down since it appeared on the scene in 1977 as part of recommendations proposed by George McGovern’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs (a committee that predated the DGAC). After much outcry, the message was changed to, “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.” Given the links of red and processed meats with heart disease and some cancers, “eat less meat” has continued to be part of the discussion when considering new dietary guidelines, but it has never gotten foothold.
The 2015 approach to the message of “eat less meat” is one of environmental sustainability. The DGAC report states, “access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the US population. A sustainable diet ensures this access for both the current population and future generations.” It goes on to describe sustainable diets as higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods. The added benefit of such diets is that they are also healthier for us than current US dietary practices. These recommendations leave plenty of room for people to keep eating meat. They simply highlight the importance of considering the environmental impact of our food choices. This means focusing on sustainable meat production and cutting down, not cutting out meat.
We cannot continue disregarding the energy, land, and water use required to keep up our system of agriculture. This message was driven home recently when the snowpack in the Sierras was measured at a mere 5% of normal, causing Governor Jerry Brown to issue a mandatory 25% water reduction for the state of California. Nearly one-third of California depends on the snowpack for water—including some of the country’s most productive farmland in the Central Valley.
It is scary to contemplate the consequences of the unrelenting drought both on life in California, but also on the availability of food in the US.
California produces nearly half the vegetables, fruit and nuts grown in the US. It also produces more dairy than any other state and ranks number four in cattle production. The cattle production is particularly environmentally intensive since an estimated 5-20 pounds of feed grain are required for every pound of edible beef.
It is irrational to think that our dietary guidelines can be created in a silo that ignores ripple effects on the environment. The drought is causing dire consequences for California right now, and these effects will soon spill over to the rest of the country if things don’t change soon. The resources needed to feed everyone are not unlimited.
We do ourselves a great disservice by not planning our food choices according to these limitations. We will likely find ourselves limited by environmental factors—namely water—in the near future. However, if we haven’t put planning and forethought into how to deal with this, we will be forced to limit intake of environmentally-intense foods, like meat, but won’t have the benefit of advanced planning on how to do so.
Creating dietary guidelines that take the environmental impact of our food choices into account is required to make sure that we have plentiful and diverse food choices for generations to come.
There is a period open for the public comment about the DGAC recommendations and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. If you would like to submit a comment, the deadline is May 8.
Michelle Hauser, MD, MPA is a Chef, Post-doctoral Research Fellow in Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Stanford, and an Internal Medicine-Primary Care Physician in Redwood City, California.