USDA/HHS Removes Consideration of “Sustainability” from Dietary Guidelines

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services made headlines last winter when they released the draft form of their updated dietary guidelines and revealed that they were considering “sustainability” as a factor in their recommended diet—and by “sustainable” they meant foods that had “lower greenhouse gases” associated with their production. This favors plant-based foods over animal- based ones.

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan now even had its far-reaching fingers in our food. We found this somewhat rude.

Under the wildly-crazy assumption that all Americans, now and forever, were to convert to vegetarianism, we calculated that the net impact on future global warming as a result of reduced greenhouse gas emissions was two ten-thousandths of a degree Celsius (0.0002°C) per year. Not surprisingly, we concluded if one were worried about future climate change, “ridding your table of steak shouldn’t be high on the list.”

We expanded upon our findings during the public review period for the newly proposed dietary guidelines and submitted a pointed Comment, stressing two issues:

Throughout the Scientific Report whenever greenhouse gases are mentioned, a negative connotation is attached and food choices are praised if they lead to reduced emissions.

This is misleading on two fronts.

First, the dominant greenhouse gas emitted by human activities is carbon dioxide which is a plant fertilizer whose increasing atmospheric concentrations have led to more productive plants, increasing total crop yields by some 10-15 percent to date. The USDA/HHS is at odds with itself in casting a positive light on actions that are geared towards lessening a beneficial outcome for plants, while at the same time espousing a more plant-based diet.

And second, the impact that food choices have on greenhouse gas emissions is vanishingly small—especially when cast in terms of climate change. And yet it is in this context that the discussion of GHGs is included in the Scientific Report. The USDA/HHS elevates the import of GHG emissions as a consideration in dietary choice far and above the level of its actual impact.

Ultimately, we advised that “climate change concerns don’t belong in dietary guidelines,” although fretting, “[w]e can only guess on what sort of impact our Comment will have, but we can at least say we tried.”

Turns out that we were wildly successful.

This week, prior to a Congressional hearing on the proposed guidelines, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell posted an article on the USDA blogsite where they addressed the issue of sustainability [emphasis added]:

There has been some discussion this year about whether we would include the goal of sustainability as a factor in developing dietary guidelines. (Sustainability in this context means evaluating the environmental impact of a food source. Some of the things we eat, for example, require more resources to raise than others.) Issues of the environment and sustainability are critically important and they are addressed in a number of initiatives within the Administration. USDA, for instance, invests billions of dollars each year across all 50 states in sustainable food production, sustainable and renewable energy, sustainable water systems, preserving and protecting our natural resources and lands, and research into sustainable practices. And we are committed to continuing this investment.

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.

Of course, we don’t know what comments changed their minds, but the notion that the entire nation going vegetarian would have no effect on climate seems powerful enough, as is the well-known direct fertilization effect of increasing carbon dioxide.

Sometimes when it comes to battling the federal government, it’s a major victory when you can just get them to behave within the rules. By getting the USDA and HHS to “remain within the scope of [their] mandate” and not consider climate change when establishing the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, it’s looking like this’ll be a win for the good guys fighting against the far-reaching and invasive climate actions being pursued by this Administration.