Photograph by PRAM Consulting via Flickr Creative Commons
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food pyramid on plate with knife and fork
Photograph by PRAM Consulting via Flickr Creative Commons

The U.S. Gov Is About to Release New Dietary Guidelines

At your annual check-up next year, the doctor might suggest cutting your carbon footprint along with your carbs. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recommendations for a healthful diet are expected any day now and the latest draft circulated in December included sustainability and environmental impact of food as factors to promote good health.

Last week I led a PBS NewsHour Twitter Chat on the controversy over whether the DGAC’s draft inclusion of sustainability considerations and the environmental impact of foods was good public policy. The Chat confirmed one thing: Food is as personal and political as any issue out there.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) were first released in 1980 and are updated every five years, The DGA 2010’s bombshell advice was to eat less sugar, salt, and transfats. To be fair, health messaging is sort of a secondary purpose of the DGA—its primary purpose is to provide much-needed direction for administrative agencies (which grew bigger and more complicated in the 1970s) to speak with one voice about food and physical activity. Otherwise, our government would hand out nutrition information with all the consistency of Cosmopolitan magazine: all carbs one day, all protein the next.

Every 5 years, the DGAC provides new recommendations consistent with the most current scientific and medical knowledge. A period of public comment follows, then several months later the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) release a final policy document which may or may not include all of the DGAC’s recommendations. Members of the DGAC are appointed by the President’s administration.

Not just another government document, the DGA’s impact on the food system can be enormous because the government is a huge—and therefore influential—food purchaser. From prison meals to the already scorched battlefield of school lunch, every morsel bought with government money would be covered by a blanket statement that food should be chosen with consideration for its impact on the planet’s health, which is entwined with human health. This would certainly mean less meat. The draft language flatly recommended “fewer red and processed meats” and stated that plants have less environmental impact.

On an individual level, the pamphlets at the doctor’s office would advocate sustainable and environmentally friendly food choices, because they are based on government information. So would MyPlate (the modern food pyramid), certainly leading to more products being mass marketed as environmentally friendly or sustainable (and perhaps muddying the waters of which products truly deserve those distinctions).

As expected, Congress and industry lobbying groups have lots to say about the issue. Back in December, Congress flat-out said “no way” when it included language in the Omnibus Appropriations Legislation that directs agencies to ignore agriculture production practices and environmental factors in the DGA, in anticipation of the DGAC’s draft recommendations becoming its final report.

The beef industry refutes reports by the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that beef has greater environmental impact than other meats (due to greenhouse gases, greater land and water use, and pollution), and says that even if the reports were true, a committee of nutritionists has no expertise to analyze environmental concerns. What is “sustainable” or “environmental” anyway, and how could administrative agencies implement controversial guidelines with ambiguous definitions? (Note to future Secretaries of HHS and USDA: Keep your lawyers on speed dial.) Smart money says the next DGAC will have a nutritionist with an environmental science background.

Although complex, Australia managed to include environmental and sustainable concerns in an appendix of its 2013 Dietary Guidelines. Specific recommendations ranged from mild edicts against food and energy waste to more difficult proposals for seasonal eating and reducing environmental impact.

Regardless of the outcome, the controversy is an example of food law’s ever-widening influence and why our recent increased fascination with food isn’t just a fad. I spoke with a food activist last week who views food law as a tool to create a true food culture in America, a culture our country lacks because of its youth and cultural separatism. If that is true, can law and regulation make up for what we lack in maturity and homogeneity?

The Obama administration’s views of food law will play out if the DGAC recommends environmental and sustainability considerations in its final draft. At that point, USDA and HHS will need to debate whether to include them in the final DGA. Would the administration be willing to use laws to fight for the better food world it often raises as part of Obama’s—and his wife’s—legacy? With the global population creeping to 9 billion by 2050, insufficient food production and the planet’s limited ability to support us are real threats. Sustainability could quickly turn from an elite lifestyle issue into a 2016 campaign issue.

Read more about U.S. dietary guidelines here: “Will the U.S. Government Cease Recommending Meat?”