Monday, September 23, 2013

Should federal dietary guidelines address environmental sustainability issues?

The federal government revises the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years and currently is working on the next revision, scheduled for completion in 2015.

Traditionally, the guidelines have focused quite narrowly on nutrition issues, although Kate Clancy, Joan Dye Gussow, and a few others have been encouraging greater attention to sustainability issues in connection with dietary guidelines for many years.  During recent times of population growth, changing consumption patterns, and increasingly severe environmental constraints on global food production, it is interesting to ask whether the 2015 guidelines should also address environmental sustainability issues.

In May, 2013, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) at the National Academy of Sciences convened The Food Forum Workshop on Sustainable Diets: Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet.  Former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was the keynote speaker.

In one session of the workshop, I compared and contrasted the economics of market signals for healthy eating and environmental sustainability.  Here is a slightly shortened video of the talk.  (As always, neither the IOM nor the Food Forum nor anybody else but me is responsible for any errors I make or opinions I offer).  Extensive background material is available in my book, published this year, Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan).

In some ways, it is easy to imagine the government offering guidance on environmental aspects of food production just as it offers suggestions on nutrition.  In another sense, the two issue areas are very different.

Here is one difference.  Given the trends of recent decades, it is entirely conceivable that Americans will continue to eat badly for ever more.  There is no automatic nutritional feedback loop that ensures our eating patterns will some day converge in the direction of greater healthfulness.  In the future, we will have healthier nutrition only if we choose to make some change in our current trajectory.

By contrast, it is not physically possible for the world's consumers to eat more than the planet can provide.  If we continue to seek to exceed the planet's productive resources, there will be a reconciliation one way or another.  If we are unfortunate, the reconciliation will involve some manner of crisis, widespread death, and reduced population, until food needs are back in line with productive capacity.  If we are fortunate, the reconciliation will involve moderately higher food prices, especially for animal foods and other foods with comparatively high environmental impact.  These price increases will lead consumers to temper their excesses while simultaneously sending signals to producers to innovate and invest even more fruitfully in new productive capacity.  Whether unfortunate or fortunate, we can no more evade the environmental reconciliation than we can stop the sun from rising.

No comments: