Friday, February 28, 2020

For the food industry, it is essential to have coherent federal leadership on dietary and environmental issues together

For the food industry -- and also for meeting important public interest goals -- it would be beneficial for the U.S. federal government to consider environmental sustainability along with nutrition science in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

In 2013, the Food Forum of the National Academies organized a workshop on sustainable dietary guidelines (covered previously). At the time, we had little hope the topic would be included in the actual guidelines. Then, in 2015, hopes were raised when the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) included scientific literature on sustainability in its report, which serves as an important input to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which then jointly produce the official dietary guidelines once every five years. That year, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, several other colleagues, and I argued in an opinion column for Science that the federal agencies should use this material on sustainability in the official report. However, the agencies excluded all mention of sustainability in the end. Since then, the National Academies has continued to organize fascinating workshops on this topic (see video presentations and proceedings), but we have little indication of progress in the federal guidelines.

The Menus of Change initiative, a collaboration between the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America encourages the restaurant industry in particular to explore new ways of providing healthy and sustainable food in a profitable way. I have served on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee for several years. The experience clearly shows that major food industry sectors see the need to address complex consumer expectations for environmental and nutrition issues together. From a practical standpoint, it would be impossible for business executives to separate the issues.

For the new 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, an advisory committee report is expected later this spring, and then the official report will come out a few months later. This week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a policy brief (.pdf) encouraging the federal government once again to favorably consider including sustainability in the official report.
A growing body of research shows that shifting what we eat could improve the health of the population and the planet. However, the US government has declined to incorporate this evidence into federal food policies. As government agencies develop the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a review of recent studies on dietary patterns and sustainability by the Union of Concerned Scientists and colleagues shows that current US dietary advice may not support the long-term environmental sustainability of the food system. This policy brief outlines key actions and recommendations for federal agencies and policymakers to help protect public health and food security for generations to come.
The policy brief draws on a literature review published this week [updated March 16] in Advances in Nutrition, by UCS researchers and several Friedman School community members, including Rebecca Boehm (alum), Nicole Tichenor Blackstone (faculty), and Naglaa El-Abbadi and Salima Taylor (students).

I hope the government does include sustainability. Just as the dietary guidelines help consumers and government agencies understand the connections between diet and health, by providing a steady and sober summary of the balance of evidence in a complex literature, it would be valuable to do likewise for environmental sustainability. This is not a mere digression into a side topic. In the 2020-2030 decade, the climate emergency will be central to almost all policy debate on major social and economic decisions, including decisions about the food system. If political pressure from selected agricultural industries causes these issues to be excluded from the dietary guidelines, federal food and nutrition policy will be hampered for years to come.

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