For the first time in American history, the government is weighing whether sustainability should shape our national dietary guidelines. A draft recommendation circulated by a nutrition advisory committee argues that a diet “higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact.” The committee specifically called out cattle ranches as a contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions and deforestation.
Predictably, the beef industry is apoplectic. Advice to eat less meat would affect meal plans in schools, military bases, federal cafeterias and, perhaps more important, undercut the industry’s claim that beef is what should be for dinner. Over the last few months, its powerful lobby has filed comments in the federal register and persuaded Congress to sneak a directive into an appropriations bill that declares sustainability, climate change and production practices beyond the scope of the advisory committee and warns federal agencies to ignore such suggestions in the final guidelines.
The congressional meddling made headlines. What the media failed to note, however, is that Congress is wrong. There is no limit on what can or should be considered in devising guidelines for healthy eating. The legislation mandates onlythat the guidelines “shall contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public… [and] shall be based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared.” Like the media, politicians don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.
In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, I look at whether sustainable farming practices should help to shape our nation’s dietary guidelines. The answer: Yes. Studies prove that sustainability can shape the health of individuals and society as a whole. If there is no arable land to grow crops; if pesticide runoff poisons our waterways; if greenhouse-gas emissions nudge temperature levels too high, it doesn’t much matter what foods a panel of experts tells us to eat to promote our health and well-being. We won’t have a lot of options.
Being healthy is about more than just eating the right nutrients—and we have an obesity epidemic to prove it.