Is Our Diet Healthy if it Threatens the Planet? Environmental Sustainability and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Posted on October 8, 2015 by Lisa Heinzerling

This week, the Obama administration passed up an opportunity to promote environmental sustainability by incorporating sustainability into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, Tom Vilsack and Sylvia Burwell, announced in a blog post that they would not follow the recommendation of their scientific advisory committee by incorporating environmental sustainability into the dietary guidelines. Their decision is unfortunate, and reflects a crabbed understanding of their authority under the law.

Experts on food systems have long drawn a connection between a healthy environment and food security. The representatives of the 185 countries present at the first-ever World Food Summit in 1996, for example, observed the links between food insecurity and environmental problems such as the loss of biodiversity, desertification, overfishing, degradation of land, forests, water, and watersheds, and ecological changes brought on by global warming. A substantial impetus behind the contemporary food movement is the conviction that our food system, and the security of the food supply it creates, is only as stable as the environment from which it comes. Even the Pope is onto the intimate connection between food security and the environment: the 2015 papal encyclical on the environment and poverty, Laudato Si', emphasizes the importance of a healthy environment to a secure food system. As Wendell Berry, the great agrarian and essayist, has put it, "What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for animals, what is good for animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. And vice versa."

Federal agencies in the United States have increasingly been urged to recognize the relationship between a healthy environment and secure food. A recent entry in this field is the 2015 recommendation from a scientific advisory committee to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), urging that these agencies revise the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to take into account the environmental consequences of industrial agriculture and their implications for future food security. 

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are, as USDA and HHS have described them, "intended to be used in developing educational materials and aiding policymakers in designing and carrying out nutrition-related programs, including Federal nutrition assistance and education programs," and they "also serve as the basis for nutrition messages and consumer materials developed by nutrition educators and health professionals for the general public and specific audiences, such as children." Previous iterations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have contained recommendations on intake of fat, sodium, alcoholic beverages, physical activity, and more. The influence of the Guidelines on food assistance programs and educational initiatives has long made them a focal point for political and scientific controversy.

The statutory basis for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990. The Nutrition Monitoring Act requires the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to "publish a report entitled 'Dietary Guidelines for Americans'" every five years. This report is to contain "nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public." The information and guidelines must be "be based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared." 

Information and guidelines concerning the environmental sustainability of our present diet are assuredly "dietary information and guidelines for the general public." The exhaustive report prepared by the scientific advisory committee, reflecting current evidence on the link between dietary choices and environmental sustainability, certainly reflects "the preponderance of the scientific … knowledge which is current" at this time. The secretaries of USDA and HHS would have been well within their range of legal discretion in deciding that environmental sustainability – no less than advice on alcohol consumption or physical activity – should be considered in developing food assistance packages and educational programming for Americans. Indeed, given the huge contribution of agriculture to climate change, incorporating environmental sustainability into the dietary guidelines could well have become an important feature of the Obama administration's legacy on climate change – if the secretaries of USDA and HHS had had the vision and will to make it so.



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