Is the U.S. Ready for Sustainable Dietary Guidelines? New Research Makes a Compelling Case
By Sarah Reinhardt
Back in February 2015, a committee of leading health and nutrition experts published a scientific report intended to inform the development of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Dietary Guidelines), the national nutrition recommendations that guide the food choices of millions of kids, adults, seniors, and veterans every day. For the first time, the report contained a significant and rigorous review of research on sustainable eating, including the ways that our food choices can impact our climate, natural resources, and ability to produce food in the future.
But within months, sustainable diets were a nonstarter — at least as far as federal nutrition policy was concerned.
By October that year, the Obama administration's secretaries of agriculture and health and human services announced their decision to reject sustainable diets on principle. In doing so, they sided with meat industry groups who claimed it was outside the scope of the Dietary Guidelines, and who had lobbied Congress to help make sure it didn't happen.
Fast forward to today, as a new committee prepares the scientific report underpinning the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines—under an administration that has been decidedly less interested in science-based policymaking and protecting public health and the environment. It might seem all but impossible that sustainability should make a triumphant return now. Indeed, the 2020 committee wasn't asked to review current literature on the topic in the first place.
But a lot can change in five years.
From Congress to Corporate America, Climate Change is Catching Up
These last five years, in particular, were the hottest ever recorded, producing some of the worst wildfires in history in places like California and Australia. Family farm bankruptcies hit an eight-year high as farmers across the U.S. faced extreme weather events, rising debt, and the fallout from a trade war. And new Congressional resolutions, corporate alliances, and youth-led movements helped catapult issues like conservation and climate change to the center of national conversation.
Meanwhile, the evidence connecting dietary patterns, sustainability, and food insecurity has become a lot harder to ignore. Between July 2015 and September 2019, nearly 100 new scholarly articles were published on this topic, including 22 focused specifically on U.S. diets. That's more than four times the number of articles published on the same topic between 2000 and 2015 — in about a quarter of the time.
How do I know?
Rethinking Dietary Guidance: A New Review of Sustainable Diets Research
These are the findings of a new peer-reviewed paper I authored with colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy which updated the systematic review of evidence on sustainable diets, replicating the methodology used by the scientific committee and USDA. In other words, it's the systematic review that could (and should) have been the charge of the 2020 committee.
In addition to revealing a rapidly expanding body of research, our results pointed to several key conclusions: New US research continues to support prior findings that diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods can provide greater benefits for human health and the environment, and that such diets can be achieved without excluding any food groups. However, recent U.S. research challenges prior findings that diets aligning with national dietary guidelines are consistently more sustainable than what we're already eating. Our results show that the healthy diet recommended by the Dietary Guidelines may actually result in similar or increased heat-trapping emissions, energy use, and water use compared with the current average U.S. diet.
What that means is this: if the Dietary Guidelines continue to sideline sustainability research, the diet the U.S. government recommends today could put a healthy diet further out of reach tomorrow.
What's more, by sidelining conversations about sustainability, this committee of experts will miss out on a critical opportunity to identify research gaps that can help inform directions for future studies. Though we now know much more about the environmental impacts of our eating patterns, we still have a lot to learn about the social and economic dimensions of sustainable diets. For example, what are the costs associated with more environmentally sustainable diets? What would dietary shifts mean for farmers, food producers, and families — particularly those who face food insecurity and the consequences of climate change firsthand?
The better we understand the practical implications of our diets, the better we can leverage that knowledge to protect our food systems and the health of our children, and their children, and so on, for generations to come.
What Do We Have to Lose?
Although the 2020 committee wasn't charged with reviewing current research on dietary patterns and sustainability, it has an obligation to review current scientific and medical knowledge, as well as public comments, to ensure its findings address the most pressing diet-related threats to public health. What's more, the committee has an opportunity to include additional recommendations in a discussion section within its scientific report, due to federal agencies in May 2020.
A lot can change in five years. We're not waiting until 2025 to find out what's at risk if we don't start supporting sustainable food policies.
If you're an advocate, scientist, or other member of the general public, you can submit a public comment to the scientific committee through the UCS website until May 2020. (Check out our comment guide for tips and talking points.)
If your organization or institution can lend its support to sustainable dietary guidance, join more than 50 organizations and leading public health experts nationwide in signing our letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services asking them to include sustainability research in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines.
For more information, take a look at our policy brief, In Support of Sustainable Eating, and see the public comment I delivered to the Committee at a recent public meeting in Houston, below.
Dietary Guidelines Public Meeting 4: Oral Comment
January 24, 2020
My name is Sarah Reinhardt. I am a public health dietitian and the Lead Analyst of Food Systems and Health at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC.
I want to thank the members of the Committee for lending your time and expertise to this process. Thank you to the staff at the USDA and HHS for the hard work that you do to make this process transparent and accessible to the public.
The stated goal of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is "to make recommendations about the components of a healthy and nutritionally adequate diet to help promote health and prevent chronic disease for current and future generations." I'm here today to ask the Committee to fulfill its obligation to protect the health of future generations by evaluating the scientific basis for sustainable diets and incorporating its findings into the scientific report.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, in its rigorous review of the evidence on the relationship between dietary patterns, sustainability, and food security, found that "a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet." Though dismissed amid political controversy, these findings remain relevant and provide a foundation from which the current committee may draw conclusions.
However, the last five years have also seen rapid growth in research on healthy and sustainable diets. Because the present Committee was precluded from updating the systematic review on this topic, my colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy undertook this task. Closely replicating the methodology described in the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, we evaluated the body of scientific literature on dietary patterns, food sustainability, and food security to identify relevant studies published between July 2015 and September 2019. Our results, now under scientific peer review, include twenty-two relevant studies on U.S. dietary patterns alone.
Our results broadly support the key findings of the 2015 Committee, but also point to another important conclusion: Of eight studies explicitly comparing the current average U.S. diet to the Healthy U.S.-style diet recommended by the Dietary Guidelines, a majority found that the Healthy U.S.-style diet is not inherently more sustainable. What that means is this: If the federal government publishes and promotes Dietary Guidelines that disregard sustainability research, the diet it recommends today will put a healthy diet further out of reach tomorrow.
In its forthcoming report, I urge the Committee to review and report findings based on the current body of scientific research on sustainable diets, including the systematic review by the 2015 Committee and the recent update we have completed, which will be submitted to the public record for the committee's consideration.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.