Thursday, October 01, 2015

Science commentary: It makes sense to include sustainability in dietary guidelines

In a commentary today for the journal Science, several colleagues and I explain why we think it is fine to include considerations of environmental sustainability within the scope of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
The challenge is how to produce the most healthful foods in a way that sustains employment in the agricultural sector and minimizes adverse impacts on the environment. All major constituencies concerned with food security and health must wrestle with sustainability and dietary choices together. It is right and proper for the DGA process to lead the way.
The commentary, which may be gated (sigh), grew out of a fall 2014 workshop initiated by the first author, Kathleen Merrigan, who was until 2013 the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, and who now leads the sustainability program at George Washington University. Other authors include Tim Griffin, myself, Kim Robien, Jeanne Goldberg, and William Dietz. This issue also had been the focus of an earlier workshop, to which I contributed, for the Food Forum of the Institute of Medicine in 2013.

In an era of global climate change, the issue of sustainability is so important to the food system as a whole that policy-makers and the general public will inevitably find themselves considering environmental issues as part of almost any discussion of food choices. See for example the recent article in Nature by David Tilman and Michael Clark.

There is no way for the U.S. government to avoid having people talk about sustainability and dietary guidance jointly. That matter is already settled. The only question on the table is whether we will all need to struggle to compile multiple authoritative sources on these issues or instead whether -- as seems more sensible -- both issues will be addressed together in the same coherent federal guidance document.

Other countries include sustainability issues in their dietary guidance. For example, dietary guidelines in Brazil and the Netherlands take a comprehensive approach.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), whose report provides the scientific basis for the upcoming release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, already discusses sustainability in a sober and moderate way. It seems wise for the actual Dietary Guidelines to do likewise.

Unfortunately, some in Congress have taken steps to instruct federal agencies to limit the scope of the guidelines to "diet and nutrient intake" only. It would be absurd to limit guidelines to just those two topics. Along with preventing discussion of sustainability, the proposed language from Congress would prevent the guidelines from discussing physical activity. Yet, we all recognize that food and physical activity should be discussed together.

It is already within the mandate of the Dietary Guidelines to consider food security -- access by all people at all times to enough food. Far from being a loose cannon, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recognized environmental sustainability as sufficiently important to food security to deserve at least a brief and restrained mention. It would be silly to reverse that persuasive and sensible approach.


Anonymous said...

How did Merrigan, yourself and fellow authors conclude politically charged opinions about something so ill-defined as "sustainability" can alter, in any way, the distinct scientific reality of nutrient reguirements? What justifies any insistence published guidelines be biased to suit an evolving whim? We get it; you aim to force your opinion. Your purpose is suspect and your actions are reprehensible. It is only "right and proper" that you cease and desist from bastardizing the previously esteemed sciences of nutrition and adult education. Or will you not be content until everything is reduced to nebulous pop science politics? Humph, sustainablity according to you, as you choose to tentatively define it now or in future, no thanks. It conveniently pre-stages the logical fallacy referred to as "moving the goalposts".

usfoodpolicy said...

Thanks for your comment.

First, your comment is asking about the scientific justification for the comments on sustainability in the dietary guidelines process. Here, for your interest, is the full discussion and citations in the DGAC report.

Second, your comment is a pained cry for sanctuary from reprehensible opinions that are forced upon you. But I have a milder view of opinions. A certain curiosity brought you to my blog page to read my opinion. And a certain kindness compelled you to take the time to share your opinion. I read it with interest and appreciation and will reflect on it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for linking the pertinent chapter. Vague definitions (mere insinuations, really) of what, exactly, constitutes "sustainabiliy" only confirms suspicion the camel is thrusting its nose under the tent -- the greater mass will inevitably be forced upon us when it is far from certain what sort of camel will be needed or if we even need a camel in the tent at all. Special note is also taken of unspeakably arrogant suggestions the committee knows precisely how to modify our food systems to respond successfully to dire forecasts of climate change. Once again, no detail, not even so much as a clue as to how this will be accomplished, only hints that behaviors must be and will be modified -- the camel's nose appears yet again.

However sincere and impassioned the committee's smug alarmist opinions regarding our current food system as it continues to evolve, by failing to define precise dietary guidelines certain to secure food security into perpetuity and reverse any possible impact of climate change we are merely being asked to sign the first of what promises to be a long chaotic series of blank checks.

Stick to the science. Work that science to bring credible adaptations and alternatives to light. Stop with the scare mongering, the idle hand wringing and build a solid platform of applied science on which to construct a studied argument. Bear in mind the outcome of the last great attempt to force an agrarian utopia -- the premature dream of a forward thinking ideologue named Pol Pot in Cambodia not half a century ago. A regrettable episode of political overreach spiraled out of control that will not be forgotten during the lifetime of the boomer generation. It will be no small task to demonstrate at scale a workable system, but demonstrate you must. Skepticism will rightly prevail in the meantime.