Let’s consider the entire food system in future dietary guidelines
A new report on federal dietary guidelines is slated to be released soon, and when it is, much critical discussion will ensue about the recommendations for nutrition, physical activity, and other topics. The Scientific Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will strongly influence what ultimately become the 2015 guidelines.
This discourse surrounding the immediate report on the guidelines is important and necessary. However, it’s also wise to keep in mind some emerging future directions for the guidelines, the next version of which will be released in 2020. Specifically, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee seems poised to more deeply consider environmental impacts from diet in its recommendations—and is facing resistance from Congress and the meat industry.
At the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s public meeting in mid-December, a subcommittee presented findings related to food sustainability, and expressed the need for dietary guidance to include the impact of foods and beverages on environmental outcomes. Topics like farm-raised versus wild-caught seafood and plant-based diets were discussed.
Congress had already warned about this sort of talk; earlier in December, it attached a House directive to a spending bill saying the committee should refrain from considering environmental factors. It said: “The [Committee] is showing an interest in incorporating sustainability, climate change, and other environmental factors and production practices into their criteria for establishing the next dietary recommendations, which is clearly outside the scope of the panel.” Predictably, the meat industry also balked, with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) issuing a statement December 31 decrying the Committee’s removal of lean meat from the dietary guidelines: “[The Committee’s] focus on sustainability is objectionable because it is not within the committee’s expertise."
We couldn’t agree less. The dietary guidelines are a prime and appropriate venue to define not only a healthy diet, but a healthy food system that is mindful of how food is grown, packaged, and transported. Long-term, people will not be able to access healthy food if we don’t focus now on how that food is produced and its impact on the environment. As the Institute of Medicine wrote in a January 15 report brief: “The U.S. food supply chain is deeply interconnected with human and environmental health… decision makers [about food policies and practices] must carefully consider a broad range of effects and interactions across the health, environmental, social, and economic domains.”
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is a nonpartisan panel of experts, committed to a rigorous scientific process that is by its nature conservative, cautious, and strictly evidence-based; its report is science-based. The Congressional directive to the committee reflects lawmakers’ troubling tendency to exert political pressure over processes that are meant to be independent and scientific.
The fact is, research has shown that the food system we have today is in many ways incompatible with the short-term and long-term health of individuals, communities and our planet. Our destructive food system currently contributes to a wide range of health and environmental problems, such as cancer, asthma, toxic exposures, and antibiotic resistance. These problems touch everyone, but some communities are harder hit than others—such as those built along transportation routes that ferry food from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed. Farmworker communities, where people labor to grow crops that feed the rest of the country, are exposed to toxic pollution from agricultural practices. Accepting our food system as-is means accepting the preventable illnesses and injuries that are its byproduct.
A true definition of healthful food digs deeper than simply telling people what to eat. The new guidelines may advise individuals to consume more greens and fewer sugary drinks. Yet if this sensible advice is delivered in the context of a food system that pollutes our air and water and endangers the health and safety of food system workers and at-risk communities, we are missing the forest for the trees. Additionally, telling people to eat healthfully is ineffective without considering if they have access to affordable and healthy food. For example, members of communities most heavily affected by the impacts of the current food productions process also too often cannot afford healthy foods to feed their own families. Just focusing on what and how much people should eat doesn’t go far enough—dietary guidelines provide an opportunity to shape the ways our food is produced, processed and transported, all with major implications for health.
The Advisory Committee’s guidelines are a powerful tool for positive change; they guide food policy decisions in communities and set the course for the American diet. They present a key opportunity to prioritize local, healthfully-produced, and low-carbon foods—if not in this round of guidelines, then perhaps the next. Prioritizing these kinds of foods will pave the way for more inclusion of local, sustainable foods into food and nutrition programs, and can build more demand from consumers over time. Increasing demand will lead to healthier community environments by keeping fresh, healthy foods in the places they were produced. If we believe that broader health issues—such as, air and water quality, how the design of our agriculture and transportation processes affect our communities, and environmental sustainability—matter, then those considerations deserve a place in the dietary guidelines.
Whether and to what extent the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee addressed environmental impacts in its 2015 report remains to be seen. Either way, this line of discourse should continue and be encouraged for future iterations of the guidelines—without Congressional meddling in the process. Let’s embrace a full definition of “healthy food”—food that is nutritional, just, and sustainable over the long haul. Our health—and the health of our planet—depend on it.