The Danger of Leaving Sustainability out of the Dietary Guidelines

The ripple effect from continuing to pretend that the health of our diets and the health of the planet are separate issues puts our climate, our land and water, and our ability to continuing producing nutritious food for everyone at risk.
10/08/2015 10:08 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2016

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans have never had a more exciting run.

Thanks to the inclusion of sustainability concerns in the scientific report that informs the guidelines, this year's update of the federal food recommendations rose from obscure agency process to policy stardom in the media and on Capitol Hill. Indeed thousands of Americans have spoken out for guidelines that shift the emphasis away from meat and toward diets that are better for people, wildlife and the environment.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack - the co-authors of this year's forthcoming dietary guidelines - acknowledge that some foods require more resources than others and that sustainability issues are "critically important." Yet this week they announced in a blog post that they don't believe the guidelines are "the appropriate vehicle" to discuss these things.

They're wrong.

They're not only wrong because the scientific evidence provided by the expert panel clearly shows a link between sustainable and healthy diets. Nor are they wrong just because the majority of the 29,000 people who submitted public comments on the guidelines this year - more than 14 times the number of comments in previous years - were in favor of including sustainability in the guidelines.

They're wrong because the law and the precedent set by previous secretaries - including by Secretary Vilsack himself - say so.

The secretaries' blog post comes a day after the release of a legal review revealing that sustainability is well within the mandate of the agencies and the dietary guidelines process.

The legal analysis, conducted by public health attorney, food policy expert and author Michele Simon, found language in the statute itself that clearly points to sustainability. In addition, the guiding principles of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, approved by Secretary Vilsack, called upon the nation to: "Develop and expand safe, effective, and sustainable agriculture and aquaculture practices to ensure availability of recommended amounts of healthy foods to all segments of the population."

It's not surprising that people got excited about the possibility of clear information on how to eat healthier for themselves and the planet. Or that people are concerned that if we don't address America's obsession with meat - which is responsible for significant amounts of water use, land degradation and greenhouse gas emissions - it may compromise our ability to continue to provide nutritious food in the future.

It's equally unsurprising that in the months leading up to this announcement, the meat industry fought hard to erase sustainability from the guidelines process and used its political influence to win.

The danger here isn't just in once again allowing politics and industry profits to trump science and the best interest of the American public. The dietary guidelines are used to inform nutrition education, purchasing decisions, federal food programs and how we think about food in this country. The ripple effect from continuing to pretend that the health of our diets and the health of the planet are separate issues puts our climate, our land and water, and our ability to continue producing nutritious food for everyone at risk.