The U.S. Government Doesn’t Care If Your Food Is Sustainable

In the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, talk of sustainably sourced foods is nil.

by Dani Yokhna

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans doesn't talk about sustainability.
Peterson Real Food/Flickr

“One of our government’s most important responsibilities is protecting the health of the American public, and that includes empowering them with the tools they need to make educated decisions,” starts an entry on the USDA blog earlier this month. What’s unfortunate is that in the newest version of the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans—due to be released later this year—don’t really offer those tools.

The DGA are developed to provide a road map to healthy eating.

“Fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and lean meats and other proteins, and limited amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium remain the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle,” the blog entry continues.

There was some talk this year about having the guidelines include further information about the sources of these nutritional elements from an environmental or sustainability standpoint. Of little surprise to anyone, these sustainability-related statements didn’t make it into the final guidelines. Because these guidelines don’t offer information about food production, they’re not giving Americans the “tools they need”—rather they’re continuing to keep Americans in the dark about their food choices and their choices’ effects on others and the environment. There’s no more food-choice empowerment going on here than there is when you walk into a fast-food restaurant and get to order off the menu. (How many people must think: “All these choices! And surely they wouldn’t be available to me if they are bad for me!”)

Back to the USDA blog entry:

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“Issues of the environment and sustainability are critically important and they are addressed in a number of initiatives within the Administration. … We will remain within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA), which is to provide ‘nutritional and dietary information and guidelines’… ‘based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.’ … Because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.”

 I can’t agree more with the blog commenter named Shelly, who writes:

“Our diet affects our health and the environment. In turn, the environment affects our diet and health through the types and amount of foods available or the agricultural practices one has to adopt to adapt to the environmental changes. Sustainability is part of making healthy dietary choices for the short and long run. DGA should present the whole picture of how our food choices affect our health, rather than just presenting a part of it.”

It’s important to note that industrial-food-industry representatives and organizations were against the inclusion of sustainability discussion in the new DGAs.

Someone’s Gotta Talk About It

The U.S. government doesn't specify if it's healthier to eat meat raised in a feedlot or on pasture.
Peterson Real Food/Flickr

If the USDA maintains that the DGAs are supposed to look at nutritional elements of our diets only and that the sustainability discussion doesn’t belong there, where does it belong? There are only so many Jamie Olivers in this world to educate people about where their food comes from and what their food choices are doing to them and to the environment. With more than one-third of Americans age 20 and older registering as obese, the DGAs are clearly not cutting it from a health standpoint. (Maybe it’s because of what the British Medical Journal calls “weak scientific standards” that the DGA developers used.)

At some point, someone really important needs to start the conversation about sources of food—from seed or baby-farm-animal to plate—and really drive home the point that the fast-food fryer isn’t where food should come from and that the feedlot-produced burger is taking up more than its share of environmental resources. The DGAs are simply continuing to perpetuate the standard American diet, and you don’t have to be a vegan extremist to see that this way of eating—full of red meat and energy-intensive food production—isn’t doing anyone any favors. (Disclosure: I’m nowhere near vegan, but I am mindful of choosing animal products that have been produced in a way that’s humane to the animals, responsible to the environment and fair to the people producing it.)

Your Own Guidelines

What guidelines do you set for yourself to ensure you’re following a diet that you can live with, both for your own health and for sustainability’s sake? I’d like to hear about rules you follow in sourcing your ingredients, cooking your meals and enjoying a night out. Please comment below about how your own personal dietary guidelines trump what the U.S. government is telling you!

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