Testifying about Sustainability and the American Diet

March 26, 2015
Doug Boucher
Former contributor

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.