youo keep the climate habitable, most scientists agree that switching to renewable energy alone isn’t 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 breakdown in the official US dietary guidelines, which shape what goes into billions of meals eaten across the country every 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-facing eating guide MyPlate, formerly MyPyramid, as well as many government-backed meal programs, such as National School Lunch. Historically, these guidelines have narrowly focused on human nutrition, but some are now saying they should be expanded to incorporate climate considerations as well.
The current, 150-page edition for 2020-2025 doesn’t mention food’s role in the climate crisis at all. Climate groups say this is an abdication of responsibility, with Americans feeling the effects of a warming planet more than ever. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate legislation in US history, does very little to address the food system.
“Climate change poses a multitude of threats to human health and nutrition security. We cannot extricate these things from each other,” said Jessi Silverman, a senior policy associate for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Her group de ella and 39 others, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Academy of Pediatrics, in May wrote a letter urging the government to include sustainability in the 2025-2030 dietary guidelines, which are now in development.
A sustainability component would encourage Americans to eat less meat and dairy, which have a significantly higher climate impact than nutritionally comparable plant-based foods. “It would be virtually impossible to even meet the two-degree [Celsius] limit in global temperature change without incorporating substantial reductions in beef intake,” said Mark Rifkin, senior food and agriculture policy specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity, another signatory to the letter.
The current guidelines advise Americans to eat far more animal products than is sustainable, said Walter Willett, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health. The primary dietary chart recommends 26 ounces of protein from meat, poultry and eggs a week, compared with just 5 ounces from plant-based foods, although there are alternative charts that show how vegetarians can get the same nutrients without meat. They also “still basically say three servings of dairy a day, which is actually really radical because our current consumption is 1.6 servings a day”, he said. “To just recommend three servings of dairy and say nothing about the environmental consequences if people really did that is just completely irresponsible.”
Because most Americans are deficient in fiber and fruits and vegetables, not animal products, Rifkin, a dietitian, said climate-focused guidance would line up with what the public needs nutritionally. It would also help address other problems that stem from the meat-heavy US food system, he said, including risk of future pandemics, food security and pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations, which disproportionately affects communities of color.
A proposed list of questions released in April for the scientific panel that advises the guidelines didn’t include sustainability. That worries advocates, but they say it’s still early. Janet de Jesus, HHS’s staff lead on the guidelines, said sustainability could still be included. “We’re not saying that it’s not going to be in the dietary guidelines – we’re not saying that at all,” de Jesus said. “It’s a high priority for HHS leadership to address climate change.”
Countries including Germany, Brazil, Sweden and Qatar have addressed sustainability in their dietary guidelines, according to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report. Canada’s Food Guide advises choosing plant-based foods more often for the environment. Germany has cut its per-capita meat consumption by 12% since 2011, Vox reported last month, and its minister of food and agriculture has recently prioritized a shift toward more plant-based eating.
Advocates say a change in the US dietary guidelines could have a similar influence. “The guidelines are much more impactful than I think a lot of people realize,” Silverman said. Federal food aid programs have to comply with the guidelines, shaping how millions of people eat. The National School Lunch and National School Breakfast, for instance, served more than 7bn meals a year to tens of millions of children before the Covid-19 pandemic. The guidelines also influence cafeteria food served in government buildings, hospitals and other institutions, and are used in nutrition education programs.
National School Lunch’s reach makes it “uniquely positioned to affect the dietary patterns of American children and adolescents and could aid in addressing the environmental impacts of food systems”, according to a recent paper in Communications Earth & Environment. Meat contributes disproportionately to school meals’ impact on the climate, as well as land and water use.
Because government programs and other large institutions serve so many meals, sustainability advocates in recent years have focused on trying to influence their food buying decisions. California earlier this year allocated $100m to help schools serve more plant-based meals.
This isn’t the first time the environment has been at issue in the nation’s dietary guidelines. In 2015, the government-appointed panel of nutrition experts that advised the 2015-2020 guidelines addressed sustainability in its scientific report. “In general, a dietary pattern that is 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 panel wrote.
But after outcry from the meat industry and Republican lawyers, the recommendation to eat more plants was dropped from the final guidelines. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal at the time, the USDA secretary, Tom Vilsack, said sustainability was outside the purview of the dietary guidelines and compared the scientific committee to his granddaughter who “colors outside of the lines”.
“It’s really condescending stuff,” said Bob Martin, of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, about Vilsack’s comments. “The people involved in this were highly qualified.”
Agribusiness has a long history of influence over the dietary guidelines, and it will undoubtedly be a factor this time around, too. The meat and dairy industries spent $49.5m on political contributions in 2020, and another $15.9m lobbying the federal government.
Food industry groups also routinely report lobbying on federal nutrition policy. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association between 2014 and 2016 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 weighed in on the process for the 2025-2030 guidance. “[W]Here an important topic, sustainability is outside the scope of the Dietary Guidelines,” the National Pork Producers Council wrote in a public comment in May.
Even though environmental advocates face an uphill battle, a lot has changed since the failed 2015 effort to incorporate sustainability, said Jessi Silverman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I think the public pressure to have concrete policies to address climate change has grown a lot in the years since then.”