Will the U.S. Miss the Boat of Sustainable Dietary Guidelines?

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Every five years the United States issues dietary guidelines that provide practical advice on healthy eating for the public and form the bedrock of Federal food and nutrition programs. The latest version will come out at the end of this year. For the very first time, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is considering issues of sustainability and environmental protection. Unfortunately, they are facing opposition on several fronts. In December Congress directed the DGAC "not to pursue an environmental agenda" and to reject any considerations of production or environmental factors, arguing that those issues are outside the scope of the panel. Two weeks ago, a letter from 71 members of Congress was sent to the Departments of Health and Agriculture expressing concerns about the latest Scientific Report of the 2015 DGAC against the inclusion of sustainability considerations because they will cause "consumer confusion" and are not scientifically substantiated.

However, there is increasing evidence about the threats of how and what we eat on our health and the environment. Modern food production is not only responsible for up to 29 percent of human-generated greenhouse emissions and 70 percent of global fresh water use, but is rapidly reducing the genetic diversity of plant and animal species and creating social injustice.

The world population will keep rising through the century, as will the demand for foods that are environmentally costly, especially meat, dairy products and highly processed foods. This will place an enormous burden on our already finite resources and fragile ecosystems. Therefore, I believe that incorporating health and environment into food advice to consumers is now more pertinent and urgent than ever.

There couldn't be a better time for countries to rethink their food systems and produce environmentally sensitive dietary guidelines to drive their populations' food choices. Nutrition and sustainability will be at the heart of the United Nation's Post-2015 development goals to be decided in New York in September 2015. A few months later, heads of state will gather in Paris to reach a binding and universal agreement to combat climate change.

For the past two years I have reviewed over 90 international dietary guidelines and catalogued them for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations' new Dietary Guidelines website. This has given me the opportunity to become acquainted with many examples of official sustainable dietary guidelines, food guides, and other forms of dietary advice developed by independent research institutes that take into account the complexity of food systems and the impact of food choices at multiple levels in the long term. Here are a few examples that could inspire the US:

  • The new Brazilian dietary guidelines (2014) denounce the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics and genetically-modified seeds; and call for a sustainable use of natural resources and an organic production of food. They recommend that people eat mostly whole foods and avoid highly-processed products, such as sodas, packaged snacks and fast foods.

  • The German Sustainable Shopping Basket (2013) points out three important criteria for better sustainable food choices: organic, regional, and seasonal. It recommends that people eat less meat (about one-sixth of current consumption of 196 pounds a year per person), but of higher quality, that they buy fair trade products when possible, and that tap water be preferred over bottled water.
  • The French guide Consommer Mieux ("Consume Better"; 2013) promotes the use of seasonal and local products, and encourages consumers to buy certified organic foods and to limit food waste.
  • The Dutch Guidelines for a healthy diet: the ecological perspective (2011) emphasize the need to move towards a less animal-based and more plant-based diet, to eat fish species that are not being overfished, and to reduce food waste.
  • The Double Pyramid developed by the Barilla Institute (in Italy; 2010) visually represents how the foods that are best for our health are coincidently the friendliest to the environment (whole, fresh, and minimally processed). The WWF's LiveWell for LIFE (2011) principles for a healthy and sustainable diet recommend that people eat more plants, and less meat and highly-processed foods; buy foods that meet credible certified standards (e.g. fish from sustainable stocks or free range meat and eggs); and waste less food in general.
  • It is still early to look at the impact of the implementation of these recommendations considering that most of these guidelines are very young. Nevertheless, the U.N. and many research institutions are providing substantial evidence as to our current food system's impact on the planet, which tells us that these countries and individual organizations are on the right track.

    Dietary guidelines can be powerful tools to steer a country's agricultural, health and nutrition policies, and to educate a population on healthy eating. As Tim Lang (Professor of Food Policy, City University, U.K.) said, "we need to redraw cultural rules and educate citizens to become more conscious of their food choices. This responsibility lies within governments and one of the tools to achieve it is through sustainable dietary advice alas sustainable dietary guidelines."

    Governments must be courageous to protect and to lead the way and not allow themselves to be influenced by special interests such as those of the food industry. In this sense, the U.S. government should be an inspiration for the rest of the world. Let's hope it will publish the best possible dietary guidance, not only for human health, but also for the planet.

    We and our future generations don't deserve anything less.