Testifying about Sustainability and the American Diet

, scientific adviser, Climate and Energy | March 26, 2015, 1:55 pm EDT
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The day before yesterday, together with my UCS colleagues Lindsey Haynes-Maslow and Deborah Bailin, I went to the National Institutes of Health to testify on the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. This report, prepared by a committee of experts every five years, provides the basic information for federal food programs such as school lunches and SNAP (formerly called food stamps), and is used to create the official U.S. Dietary Guidelines that are the basis for the MyPlate graphics.

Lindsey, Deborah and I testified about different aspects of the DGAC report, and they have already put their testimony up on their blogs. Here is mine, which focuses on food sustainability issues such as the climate impacts of the American diet.


 

“Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Doug Boucher, and I’m the Director of Climate Research and Analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I have a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Michigan, have done research on agricultural and forest ecology since the early 1970s, and have published about 100 scientific papers. I’ll be focusing this morning on sustainability.

I particularly want to emphasize the ample precedent for the committee’s having considered sustainability in its report. For many years—indeed, for decades—the DGAC reports have looked at the American diet in broad terms, not just narrowly defined nutritional questions. Contrary to the argument made by others, and apparently taken as factual by some press coverage, past DGACs have considered such issues as food affordability, access to healthy food, exercise, sedentary lifestyles and screen time, food safety, advertising, land use policy and marketing to children—as well as sustainability. I’ll attach to my written testimony a background report documenting this in detail, prepared by Jordan Faires of UCS.

Thus it is quite appropriate for the DGAC to have considered the many new scientific studies showing the important differences between foods and between dietary patterns in terms of sustainability issues such as land use, water pollution and climate change.

One very important conclusion of the committee’s report is that healthy diets tend to be sustainable diets. What’s good for our bodies is generally what’s good for the environment and the future of the planet.

One area where the committee could have been more specific is in its consideration of meat. Eating meat is ecologically less efficient, since it means we’re consuming higher on the food web, but the recent science shows very large differences among kinds of meat. Beef is much more damaging to environmental sustainability than chicken, pork, or fish, whether you measure that by its damage to the climate, the water pollution it causes, or the land that it requires per calorie or per gram of protein. And these negative impacts are not reduced by choosing lean beef. The sustainability differences among meat sources—as well as the differences in their health impacts—should be expressed clearly in the final Guidelines.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify today, and for the DGAC’s excellent scientific work.”


 

Now that the DGAC has submitted its scientific report, it’s up to the Departments of Agriculture and of Health and Human Services to translate that into the official Guidelines. At the hearing on Tuesday food industry trade groups, representing commodities such as beef, dairy and sugar, pressured the government officials to ignore the committee’s abundant scientific evidence and drop all mention of sustainability from the Guidelines.

Yet there was also broad support for sustainability, as expressed in the testimony of many and the ad that the MyPlateMyPlanet coalition (including UCS) put in the New York Times and the Washington Post. There’s a big fight starting about whether Americans should be encouraged to think about both the personal and societal consequences of the food they eat, and UCS has taken a stand on it. From now till May 8, by adding your comment to the DGAC web site, you can too.

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  • Michael Wolf

    I’m glad that sustainability is being brought forth as important, but of course it’s not always the case that foods that are optimally healthful are also sustainable, and we must both issues as well as possible as we move forward.

    I think it’s important to think clearly about meat. The dietary guidelines are in flux. Dietary cholesterol is now okay, although people following the latest research will have been aware of this for quite a while. Given current research, it’s reasonable to expect that red meat will also be determined to be okay, even healthful, in the relatively near future — certainly research is more and more going that way. In particular, antibiotic and pesticide-laden CAFO cows are likely to be problematic, but there’s reason to believe that 100% grass-fed animals raised in humane conditions, which mimic foods we’ve been eating for several million years, are quite nutrient-dense and may well be found to be healthful, though studies are lacking. This red meat is still problematic for the environment (grass-fed cows still fart), but with sensible farming practices there can be some major benefits such as top-soil improvement and desertification-reveral (see the work of the Savory Institute), whereas grain farming seems to be injurious in those domains, if better from a greenhouse gas point of view.

    It may well be that modest grass-fed meat consumption from responsible practices plus organic agriculture may be best — for human health and for the planet both. I hope UCS remains open-minded about these issues, studying and advocating accordingly.

    • Michael,

      Thanks very much for your comment. Although new studies are always coming out that may change our current understanding, I think that, contrary to your assessment, the trend in recent science about the health effects of red meat — beef in particular — is very much in the direction of showing that it’s worse for our health, not better. For example, the 2012 study by Pan et al.(Archives of Internal Medicine 172(7): 555-563, doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287) showed that red meat consumption significantly increases cancer mortality, cardio-vascular disease mortality, and mortality overall. This study had an enormous sample size — 37.698 men and 83.644 women. In a 2013 study with an even larger sample (149,143 people), red meat consumption also led to a significant increase in type 2 diabetes (JAMA Internal Medicine 173(14) 1328-1335, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.6633). These and earlier studies were the basis for the DGAC’s recommendation that red meat consumption should be reduced in the American diet.

      As you recommend, we are definitely keeping an open mind on these issues and following the latest science as it comes out. But when, as with the DGAC report, top scientists systematically review the evidence systematically and reach a strong conclusion, we need to make sure that public policy reflects that science. In the case of beef, this is now the case with respect to both diet (the DGAC report) and climate (the IPCC — see my blog post a year ago at http://blog.ucsusa.org/cows-are-the-real-hogs-the-ipcc-and-the-demand-side-of-agriculture-486).

      Thanks,

      Doug

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