The decision by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) not to include recommendations on sustainability – and more sustainable ways of eating (i.e., less meat, more plants) – in the new revision of the U.S. dietary guidelines can be seen as an obvious victory for the U.S. meat industry. Here’s an example of some of the language you won’t see in the diet guidelines: “…a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet…”
But the outcome can also, taking a longer-term view, be seen as a more subtle victory for environmental and public health advocates.
While the decision may surprise many of us, if we look at who fought against the inclusion of the sustainability criteria and how much money, and therefore power, they have when it comes to making decisions such as these, it makes sense.
The Meat Industry
According to the USDA, beef alone contributes about $95 billion to the U.S. economy. In 2014, the industry made approximately $10.8 million in contributions to political campaigns and another $6.9 million directly on lobbying the federal government. Therefore, while the USDA is responsible for regulating the meat industry, it also has a role in promoting it, both in the U.S. and globally, too.
While the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recommendations to consume a diet higher in plant-based foods makes sense to organizations such as the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, Berkeley Food Institute, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and others, including Brighter Green, nothing seems to be stronger than the meat industry’s hold on the American diet.
The discussion about the sustainability language and its more recent rejection have ignited dialogues all around the country, including the My Plate, My Planet campaign, on the importance of considering ecological impacts when deciding what to purchase and consume. It has also cast a shadow over the meaning to which we give the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. After all, what do these guidelines represent if not the opinions of an industry whose interest lies in maintaining levels of meat and other animal foods production that are disastrous to our environment, our bodies, and the billions of animals eaten each year themselves?
Perhaps the dismissal of sustainability in these guidelines is actually a blessing in disguise, for they have catalyzed a discussion that is not just about science but about values as well. Fortunately, regardless of what these “guidelines” say, we are the ones choosing where our money goes and what we put into our bodies. Hopefully, this will give us all the kick that we need to support a way of life that is sustainable, ethical and just.
Photo Credit: Yana Paskova (New York Times)