A Lost Opportunity for Americans’ Health and the Environment

Friday, January 9, 2015


Around the world, food production occupies more land than any other human activity (about 40 times the area of all cities and suburbs combined), uses more freshwater than anything else people do and is a major source of carbon pollution in the air and nitrogen pollution in the water. 

So it should be obvious that the food choices we make in supermarkets, restaurants and in our homes have a big influence on the world around us. Making small changes in what we eat can have big environmental benefits.

Recognizing that food production has a big environmental impact, a committee of experts tasked with advising the government on updating the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans formed a sub-group to explore how the issues of sustainable production and food safety might influence the Guidelines’ advice. The subcommittee’s draft recommendations presented in December declared that “a diet higher in plant-based foods … and lower in animal-based foods is more health-promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.” The committee also said that even a small shift away from red meat would be healthier and have environmental benefits, too.

Many environmental advocates were heartened to hear this, since the Dietary Guidelines, which are issued jointly by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, are highly influential and guide both policy and personal decisions about food choices. The Guidelines are updated every five years, and the latest revision is due out near the end of 2015.

As EWG’s 2011 Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health showed, eating less meat and changing what kinds you eat can lower the carbon emissions that contribute to Earth’s warming climate. If Americans substituted chicken for beef every time they ate meat, they would both lower their risks of a variety of health problems and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 137 million metric tons of carbon a year. That would be equivalent to taking 26 million cars off the road. 

It seems like a no-brainer to take this win-win for the environment and health into account in revising the dietary recommendations. But apparently that’s not going to happen after all.

In an interview published this week (Jan. 5) by VICE News, USDA nutritionist Eve Essery Stoody said environmental considerations would play no part in shaping the new Dietary Guidelines. Stoody said that the subcommittee members looked into the sustainability of food production, but “the topic of environmental impact has not informed their recommendations for the Dietary Guidelines.”

Environmental organizations including EWG, Friends of the Earth and the Union of Concerned Scientists believe this is a huge lost opportunity. Including environmental consequences in the Dietary Guidelines is crucial to ensuring a healthy and sustainable future for the American people.


CC photo courtesy of: Flickr, user USDAgov


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