To Keep the climate livable Most scientists agree that switching to renewable energy alone is not enough—Americans also need to change the way they eat. Environmental and public health advocates are pushing a new strategy to help get there: including climate change in the official U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which shape the billions of meals eaten across the country each year.
Every five years, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services jointly publish a new version of the guidelines. They form the basis for the public meal guide MyPlate, formerly MyPyramid, as well as many government-supported meal programs such as National School Lunch. Historically, these guidelines have focused narrowly on human nutrition, but some are now arguing that they should be expanded to include climate considerations.
The current, 150-page version for 2020-2025 makes no mention at all of the role of food in climate change. Climate groups say this is an abdication of responsibility, with Americans feeling the effects of a warming planet more than ever. The recently passed Deflation Act, the most important climate piece of legislation in US history, does little to address the food system.
“Climate change poses many threats to human health and nutrition security. We can’t separate these things from each other,” said Jesse Silverman, senior policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Her group and 39 others, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote a letter in May urging the government to include sustainability in the 2025-2030 dietary guidelines, which are now being developed.
The sustainability factor would encourage Americans to eat less meat and dairy, which have a significantly higher climate impact than nutritionally comparable plant-based foods. “Completing a two-degree would be virtually impossible [Celsius] Limit global temperature change without drastically reducing beef consumption,” said Mark Rifkin, senior food and agricultural policy specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity, another signatory to the letter.
Walter Willett, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said current guidelines advise Americans to eat more animal products than is sustainable. The Basic Dietary Chart recommends 26 ounces of protein a week from meat, poultry, and eggs, compared to just 5 ounces from plant-based foods, though there are alternative charts showing how vegetarians can get the same nutrients without meat. It also “still basically says three servings of dairy a day, which is really radical because our current consumption is 1.6 servings a day”, he said. “It’s completely irresponsible to just recommend three servings of dairy and not say anything about the environmental consequences if people actually do that.”
Because most Americans are deficient in fiber and fruits and vegetables, not animal products, Rifkin, the dietitian, said climate-focused guidance would meet the public’s nutritional needs. It would also help address other problems caused by the meat-heavy U.S. food system, he said, including the risk of future pandemics, food safety and pollution from concentrated animal feed operations, which disproportionately affect communities of color.
A proposed list of questions released in April for the scientific panel advising on the guidelines does not include sustainability. That worries advocates, but they say it’s still too early. Janet De Jesus, HHS’s staff lead on the guidelines, said sustainability could be included. “We’re not saying it won’t be in the dietary guidelines — we’re not saying that at all,” De Jesus said. “Addressing climate change is a high priority for HHS leadership.”
According to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, countries such as Germany, Brazil, Sweden and Qatar have addressed sustainability in their dietary guidelines. Canada’s Food Guide recommends choosing plant-based foods more often for the environment. Germany has cut meat consumption per capita by 12% since 2011, Vox reported last month, and its food and agriculture ministers have recently prioritized a shift to a more plant-based diet.
Advocates say changing the U.S. Dietary Guidelines could have a similar effect. “The guidelines are a lot more effective than I think,” Silverman said. Federal food assistance programs have to follow guidelines that determine how millions of people eat. National School Lunch and National School Breakfast, for example, provided millions of children with more than 7bn meals a year before the Covid-19 pandemic. The guidelines also influence cafeteria food served in government buildings, hospitals and other institutions and used in nutrition education programs.
The reach of the national school lunch “makes it uniquely positioned to influence the dietary patterns of American children and adolescents and can help address the environmental impacts of food systems,” according to a recent paper in Communications Earth and Environment.. Meat contributes disproportionately to the impact of school meals on climate as well as land and water use.
Because government programs and other large organizations provide a lot of food, sustainability advocates have focused on trying to influence their food purchasing decisions in recent years. Earlier this year California allocated $100m to help schools serve more plant-based meals.
This is not the first time that environmental concerns have been raised in the nation’s dietary guidelines. In 2015, a government-appointed panel of nutrition experts advised the 2015-2020 guidelines, addressing sustainability in their scientific report. “In general, a dietary pattern high in plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds and low in animal-based foods promotes greater health and is associated with lower environmental impact,” it wrote.
But after an outcry from the meat industry and Republican lawmakers, the recommendation to eat more plants was dropped from the final guidelines. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal at the time, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said sustainability was outside the scope of the Dietary Guidelines and compared the scientific committee to his grandson who “colors outside the lines.”
“It’s really trivial stuff,” said Bob Martin of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, of Vilsack’s comments. “The people involved were highly qualified.”
Agribusiness has a long history of influence over dietary guidelines and will undoubtedly be a factor this time as well. The meat and dairy industries spent $49.5 million on political contributions in 2020 and another $15.9 million on lobbying the federal government.
Food industry groups also regularly report lobbying on federal nutrition policy. Between 2014-2016 the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association spent more than $303,000 lobbying to keep beef in the dietary guidelines, according to federal lobbying records. Several industry groups, including the North American Meat Institute, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Turkey Federation, have already considered this process for the 2025-2030 guidance. “[W]This is an important topic, sustainability outside the scope of dietary guidelines,” the National Pork Producers Council wrote in public comment in May.
Although environmental advocates face an uphill battle, much has changed since the failed 2015 effort, said Jesse Silverman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I think since then, the public pressure to have concrete policies to deal with climate change has increased tremendously.”