An advisory panel to the United States Department of Agriculture is recommending for the first time that Americans consider the environment when making healthy food choices.
Every five years, USDA issues Dietary Guidelines for Americans, based on updated nutritional science. The aim is to curb obesity and chronic disease with a diet higher in fruits and vegetables and lower in animal-based foods.
The recommendations affect school lunches and federal programs for the elderly, women and children says Janet Riley, senior vice president at the North American Meat Institute - a trade association for the meat and poultry industry.
“And these are some of our most vulnerable populations who need the protein and the vitamins and minerals that are in meat and poultry," she said.
The 571-page advisory report is open for public review. Among its most controversial points is a single mention that links healthy food choices to environmental sustainability.
Riley says this is beyond the scope of the committee’s charter. “They were told specifically to focus on nutrition. When they formed a subcommittee on sustainability, the House [of Representatives] appropriators included language in the budget bill that said, ‘Stick to nutrition. Do not stray into the environment.’”
But that detour is good for the public and the planet according to Janet Larsen, research director for the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental policy group.
“Meat production is very carbon intensive," Larson said. "It releases greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. And so, if you are concerned about climate change, you realize that you need to start eating lower on the food chain to reduce your overall carbon footprint.”
Livestock also requires a lot of land, feed and water, which puts additional stress on the environment.
But placing environmental recommendations in diet guidelines sends a poor and oversimplified message about food, according to Riley.
“To suggest that somehow eating less meat is going to have this huge impact on the environment, we need more data. We need a panel of experts in that field to take a look at it and come up with real definitive recommendations if we want to go there," she said.
"We can’t have nutritionists trying to delve into a field where they really don’t have the expertise to make these kinds of recommendations," Riley added.
At a time when meat consumption is down or flat in the United States, the opposite is true in developing countries.
“Our health has suffered and our environment has suffered when we had really high meat consumption,” Larson said. “So many people around the world are trying to emulate the American diet and it’s important for people to know that our diet is shifting.”
Larsen said high meat consumption is unsustainable. “If everyone on the planet ate meat three meals a day, like many Americans, the Earth could only support two billion people.”
China’s growing appetite
She points to China, whose appetite for meat is growing. “That is likely to mean that they will be importing more grain and more soy, especially from world markets. That will have an effect on food prices everywhere and more people will end up hungry,” Larsen said.
Larsen hopes the final version of the USDA dietary guidelines provides an incentive for healthier eating habits overall.
“I think that it is really important not to export the meat-heavy American diet, but export messages of health and wellness and environmental sustainability, and show people that we realize that we have overshot and now we have to move down the food chain and eat less meat,” she said.
After a period of public comment the USDA will issue its final dietary guidelines aimed at Americans age two years and older.