Should Sustainability be Referenced in Dietary Guidelines?

Should Sustainability be Referenced in Dietary Guidelines?

Sustainable dietary guidelines are government policy statements or nutrition education materials that address nutrition issues and environmental sustainability issues at the same time. National governments in other countries, such as Brazil and the Netherlands, publish dietary guidelines that address such issues together.

In the United States, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) -- an independent committee that advises the federal government on dietary guidelines -- in early 2015 for the first time included sustainability issues in its report, giving them far higher profile than they ever previously have had in the nation's most august dietary guidance process. The federal government uses this DGAC report as one input into the official guidelines, which will be released in late 2015.

This is the passage in the DGAC report that generated a good deal of controversy:

The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet. This pattern of eating can be achieved through a variety of dietary patterns, including the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. All of these dietary patterns are aligned with lower environmental impacts and provide options that can be adopted by the U.S. population. Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns. This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower, than proposed in these three dietary patterns. Of note is that no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.

The DGAC report generated thousands of comments from supporters and opponents alike. Critics accused the DGAC of exceeding the scope of its authority to report on dietary guidance. Others responded that sustainability issues are just as much relevant to dietary guidance as physical activity or food security, both of which are widely accepted as in scope.


In October, 2015, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell issued a joint statement, which appeared to say that sustainability issues will not be considered in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).


In terms of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), we will remain within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA), which is to provide “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines”… “based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.” The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.

The decision makes sense primarily as a response to intense political pressure. As a result of today's decision, USDA and DHHS will enjoy some shelter from criticism in Congress this month.

The scientific community and the public will continue to discuss food choices and the environment together in the same breath. It is unavoidable to do so. The main impact of today's announcement is to make the 2015 DGA less relevant, uselessly silent on some of the most important food guidance questions of our time. The public will turn elsewhere for authoritative information on sustainability and diet.

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