Tuesday, October 06, 2015

USDA and DHHS decide not to include sustainability in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell issued a joint statement this afternoon, which appears to say that sustainability issues will not be considered in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
In terms of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), 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.” The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but 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.
The announcement follows months of public debate after the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee this year included some discussion of environmental sustainability in its report, which provides the scientific basis for the guidelines that will be released later this year by USDA and DHHS.

As noted on Thursday, several colleagues and I recently had published a commentary in the journal Science, arguing that sustainability issues are just as much relevant to dietary guidance as physical activity or food security, both of which are widely accepted as in scope.

Even in today's announcement, the citation from the 1990 legislative authority broadly defines the scope as "nutritional and dietary information" (not merely nutritional information alone) based on "the proponderance of scientific and medical knowledge" (not merely medical knowledge alone). The decision makes sense primarily as a response to intense political pressure. As a result of today's decision, USDA and DHHS will enjoy some shelter from criticism in Congress this month.

The scientific community and the public will continue to discuss food choices and the environment together in the same breath. It is unavoidable to do so. The main impact of today's announcement is to make the 2015 DGA less relevant, uselessly silent on some of the most important food guidance questions of our time. The public will turn elsewhere for authoritative information on sustainability and diet.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree. Activity levels and food security are clearly linked to the dietary guidelines but the vagueness of concept of sustainability and it's link to dietary guidelines made this decision a wise one. Sure the pundits will whine about Big Ag or Big Beef or Big Food influencing this decision, the fact remains the connections are just not clear and until this happens, HHS and USDA are wise to keep the proverbial "camels nose from under the tent."

Parke Wilde said...

Yes, outside in the real world, the desert sun is hot, water is scarce, hypoxic zones are growing in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake, Iowa's largest city is suing over fertilizer runoff, and no major industry -- not agriculture or any other major industry -- is making changes on a scale commensurate with avoiding or even postponing global climate change.

But, here in our tent, all is calm, peaceful, and dark. We have succeeded in preventing the camel's nose from getting under the tent.

Anonymous said...

Refreshing to see the correct decision being made in this instance. Science must be respected and protected. It must not be diluted, dumbed down or obfuscated with politically motivated pseudo-intellectual group think.

If feel-good notions of how to legislate a sustainable food system are eventually validated by science, pure and applied, then will be the time to discuss incorporating reasonable measures in the dietary guidelines.

Anonymous said...

@ Parke Wilde

Amid all of your passionate hand wringing do you have, ready at hand, proven effective solutions for all or any those issues? Seriously?

For example, do you honestly think you know how to control climate and reverse change? And you believe you can do it, no you must do it by adulterating the dietary guidelines? If only your chosen issues were that simple and effective responses that easy.

You claim a desire to "have the discussion", but what you really want is to get in there and start flailing around with hammer and monkey wrench without the first good clue to what it is you are tampering with. I suppose you would justify it as "at least being a start", am I wrong? Listen, step back, take a breath, wise up.

Bring some constructive suggestions to the appropriate venues for real discussion, and commit to working together with experienced players in the field to arrive at a sound diagnosis of each problem and perhaps a promising prescriptive action. Don't try to panic us into licensing you to dose us with snake oil. We cannot afford blind trial and error proposals. And we will not entertain them.

Parke Wilde said...

Nobody expects the 2015 DGA to control climate.

The only question on the table was whether the 2015 DGA could make the same statement that the independent advisory committee made -- a common-sense scientifically supported observation about which food patterns are associated simultaneously with lower risk of chronic disease and lower pressure on environmental constraints.

And that matter has been decided. It appears that the cabinet level officials have decided that the 2015 DGA will not include any such statement.

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Barbara J. Moore, PhD said...

I am dismayed. The federal agency that is responsible for agriculture in America is unprepared to address the issue of sustainability? What is wrong with this picture?

Jason Aziz' MS, CSCS said...

Well-said Barbara. The absence of a message from the USDA is tantamount to ignoring the issue. Another caveat to not addressing this: given the amount of time it takes for the (federal) government to change policy, it very well may be another 8-10 years before any formal acknowledgement and/or action is made towards altering the environmental impact of existing food (supply) patterns. How much additional environmental pressure will occur in this period of time, given the fact that the world population (and therefore demand for food), grows correspondantly?