Once every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issues a set of Dietary Guidelines aimed to help Americans make food choices that promote good health. These guidelines influence the organization of “My Plate” (the tool that replaced the Food Pyramid, created with the help of Michelle Obama) and determine what foods are served as part of school lunches and other federal eating programs. The guidelines are currently up for revision and it has begun to stir up quite a bit of controversy. And no, the debate over whether ketchup and pizza sauce should be considered “vegetables” is not what has gotten people up in arms.
This year, the Dietary Guidelines committee intends to include considerations not only for the health of Americans, but for the health of the planet in their creation of the guidelines … in part, this involves recommending people consume less meat. Many people do not realize that the foods they eat carry a very real environmental impact, especially so in the case of meat, eggs and dairy products. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while other organizations like the Worldwatch Institute have estimated it could be as much as 51 percent. Not to mention, growing feed for these animals causes a substantial amount of deforestation, both in the U.S. and South America. Most Americans consider meat and dairy products to be staples of a healthy, balanced meal, but in reality we consume WAY more of these products than we need to live healthy lives. And as the result, the planet is suffering.
In a press release, Kari Hamerschlag of Friends of the Earth, explained the reasoning behind this decision, “We need to make sure our diets are in alignment with our natural resources and the need to reduce climate change.”
A draft of the guidelines that was released in early December advised that a diet higher in plant-based foods would be not only beneficial to Americans, but is also the most sustainable option for the planet. According to the draft, “a sustainable diet helps ensure food access for both the current population and future generations.”
Unsurprisingly, the meat industry has advocated for years to ensure that the guidelines do not recommend consuming less meat and they are notably upset that the draft guidelines included a section advising Americans to eat less red and processed meats. The National Cattleman’s Beef Associated issued a statement from Dr. Richard Thorpe “calling the committee biased and the draft meat recommendations absurd. He said lean beef has a role in healthy diets.”
A plant-based diet has many health benefits, but it is also far less resource intensive than a diet centered around a high consumption of meat. While some critics of the new guidelines (the meat industry at the top) worry that considering environmental impact might sway the committee away from making sound nutritional judgements, we can’t help but to wonder how influencing the committee to promote the consumption of red meat (despite blaring evidence that it harmful to your health) is justified?
Either way, we are thrilled to see the USDA taking the impact of our diets on the planet seriously. After all, as Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest states, “You don’t want to recommend a diet that is going to poison the planet.”
Image source: Wikimedia Commons