Experts call for a sustainable diet and face political backlash

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Clever marketing and unhealthy diets coupled with a booming population is contributing to the rapid degradation of our biological systems.

It does not have to be that way. We have experts we rely on who study the science and share their insights to help us all improve individually and globally. However, there are some organizations who work very hard to ensure certain insights are not formally publicized.

For the first time ever the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) updated their new 2015 scientific report with the addition of sustainability topics. This is a huge step in the right direction. The guidelines are reviewed, updated, and published every 5 years in a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The DGAC consists of nationally recognized experts in the field of nutrition and health.

In the report, the DGAC defines a “sustainable diet” as “a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations.” The primary goal is to devise sustainable dietary models that minimize environmental degradation and biodiversity loss but at the same time develop programs for sustainable food production and consumption.

This is a bold new addition for the United States but has been widely discussed for the past decade in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, and Brazil. Their guidelines include key elements consistent with the DGAC’s recommendations. This includes, “a focus on decreasing meat consumption, choosing seafood from non-threatened stocks, eating more plants and plant-based products, reducing energy intake, and reducing waste.”

How are our biological systems degrading? The report states, “the global production of food is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of fresh water use, and up to 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It also is the largest cause of species biodiversity loss. “

People of of the US rely and listen to insights provided by the USDA and HHS which makes this even more important today as our ecosystems face dramatic decline. If they do not share food related insights that impact the common good, who will?

It’s refreshing to see the DGAC speak up about the clear link between the health of people and the environment. However, despite their efforts to act in the best interest of all people by researching data on sustainable diets and including recommendations based on science, the USDA says the effect of food production on the planet will not factor into its final dietary guidelines. “Sustainability has been an important part of the committee’s deliberations for many months and they have the scientific basis for a strong statement on it,” Doug Boucher, a Biologist and Director of Climate Research and Analysis for UCS, told VICE News. “If their consensus on this issue has been overruled, I’d like to know why.”

A clue as to why, intense political pressure. There have a been a few challenges.

For starters, back in December, 2014, in a report accompanying the 2015 agriculture appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Committee expressed concern that “the advisory committee is showing an interest in incorporating agriculture production practices and environmental factors into their criteria for establishing the next dietary recommendations” which were “outside the nutritional focus of the panel.” The congressional committee directed USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to “only include nutrition and dietary information, not extraneous factors, in the final 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” It’s illogical to think that factors related to our dietary habits and critical to our well-being are, extraneous, which means “nonessential”.

The DCAG’s report also examines vegetarian and meat-based diets. They found that reduced intake of meat in a population’s diet improves some health outcomes, reduces greenhouse gases (CO2) and land use. In addition, a study from Baroni et al., found that the organically grown vegan diet had the most potential health benefits, the lowest estimated impact on resources and ecosystem quality. Beef was identified as the single food with the greatest impact on the environment. Other high impact foods included cheese, milk and seafood.

Predictably, the meat industry was not happy the DGAC wanted to alert people to reality of meat products being unhealthy for the human body and ecosystems. The North American Meat Institute, did not hesitate to combat the sustainability recommendations, stating, “The Committee’s foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise.” This is to be expected. The reality is that they are not concerned about sustainability, they are concerned about convincing people to eat more meat so they can continue to commoditize sentient beings for profit. This may sound harsh but it’s exactly what is happening.

It cannot and should not go unrecognized based on technicality but unfortunately that’s what is happening.

Many people do not realize it but animal agriculture is one of the world’s leading causes of deforestation. The World Bank Report, “Causes of Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon,” found that more than 90 percent of deforestation in the Amazon is due to animal agriculture. And, where there is deforestation, climate change follows. Rainforest land is commonly illegally seized, clear cut and sold to farmers for cattle grazing. We’re losing about 6,000 hectares per hour (that’s 4,000 football fields), according to the National Park Service. Said another way, that’s about 96,000 football fields per day.

91 PERCENT

As passengers of this planet we have to take some accountability and recognize that animal agriculture’s booming growth is driven by our demand which makes it profitable. Meat is an age old addiction born in a different time with different circumstances. Clever marketing has pushed the American diet far beyond moderation into extreme unnecessary excess. In combination with our skyrocketing population it’s an unsustainable recipe.

The good news is we have the ability to change the world with a simple adjustment to our lifestyle. The simple act of cutting back on beef or removing it from the diet is very helpful. Despite what the USDA and HHS politically allow for the final guidelines to include, we can all take a hint from the DGAC’s honest recommendation.

In the conclusion of chapter 3, Meat and Health, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, states that “meat is not an essential part of the diet” as long as as person has some nutritional education. If you decide to take the path of removing all meat, it’s important to educate yourself on some nutrition basics.

Over the years we all change and evolve based on life experiences that shape the very nature of our being. That’s the one constant in this Universe, change. Human beings as a species are quite special in their ability to adapt quickly. At the same time, the mind is very malleable and can be misled or deceived. This is why its important to ask questions and do research.

When we combine small actions taken in cooperation by the masses we can create profound results.

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it” ~ Neil Degrasse Tyson

Members of the public have been invited to testify on the proposed new dietary guidelines at the Advisory’s Committee’s March 24 meeting, which will be held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md. However, registration is limited to 70 individuals. Written comments will be accepted at www.dietaryguidelines.gov until April 8th.

Be a participant and let your voice be heard.

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