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.
By Frank La Sorte and Kyle Horton
Millions of birds travel between their breeding and wintering grounds during spring and autumn migration, creating one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. These journeys often span incredible distances. For example, the Blackpoll warbler, which weighs less than half an ounce, may travel up to 1,500 miles between its nesting grounds in Canada and its wintering grounds in the Caribbean and South America.
Blackpoll warbler. PJTurgeon / Wikipedia<p>We used this information to determine how the number of migratory bird species varies based on each city's level of <a href="https://www.britannica.com/science/light-pollution" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">light pollution</a> – brightening of the night sky caused by artificial light sources, such as buildings and streetlights. We also explored how species numbers vary based on the quantity of tree canopy cover and impervious surface, such as concrete and asphalt, within each city. Our findings show that cities can help migrating birds by planting more trees and reducing light pollution, especially during spring and autumn migration.</p>
Declining Bird Populations<p>Urban areas contain numerous dangers for migratory birds. The biggest threat is the risk of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1650/CONDOR-13-090.1" target="_blank">colliding with buildings or communication towers</a>. Many migratory bird populations have <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw1313" target="_blank">declined over the past 50 years</a>, and it is possible that light pollution from cities is contributing to these losses.</p><p>Scientists widely agree that light pollution can <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708574114" target="_blank">severely disorient migratory birds</a> and make it hard for them to navigate. Studies have shown that birds will cluster around brightly lit structures, much like insects flying around a porch light at night. Cities are the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2029" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">primary source of light pollution for migratory birds</a>, and these species tend to be more abundant within cities <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.13792" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during migration</a>, especially in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2020.103892" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">city parks</a>.</p>
Composite image of the continental U.S. at night from satellite photos. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The Power of Citizen Science<p>It's not easy to observe and document bird migration, especially for species that migrate at night. The main challenge is that many of these species are very small, which limits scientists' ability to use electronic tracking devices.</p><p>With the growth of the internet and other information technologies, new data resources are becoming available that are making it possible to overcome some of these challenges. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07106-5" target="_blank">Citizen science initiatives</a> in which volunteers use online portals to enter their observations of the natural world have become an important resource for researchers.</p><p>One such initiative, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird</a>, allows bird-watchers around the globe to share their observations from any location and time. This has produced one of the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.04632" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">largest ecological citizen-science databases in the world</a>. To date, eBird contains over 922 million bird observations compiled by over 617,000 participants.</p>
Light Pollution Both Attracts and Repels Migratory Birds<p>Migratory bird species have evolved to use certain migration routes and types of habitat, such as forests, grasslands or marshes. While humans may enjoy seeing migratory birds appear in urban areas, it's generally not good for bird populations. In addition to the many hazards that exist in urban areas, cities typically lack the food resources and cover that birds need during migration or when raising their young. As scientists, we're concerned when we see evidence that migratory birds are being drawn away from their traditional migration routes and natural habitats.</p><p>Through our analysis of eBird data, we found that cities contained the greatest numbers of migratory bird species during spring and autumn migration. Higher levels of light pollution were associated with more species during migration – evidence that light pollution attracts migratory birds to cities across the U.S. This is cause for concern, as it shows that the influence of light pollution on migratory behavior is strong enough to increase the number of species that would normally be found in urban areas.</p><p>In contrast, we found that higher levels of light pollution were associated with fewer migratory bird species during the summer and winter. This is likely due to the scarcity of suitable habitat in cities, such as large forest patches, in combination with the adverse affects of light pollution on bird behavior and health. In addition, during these seasons, migratory birds are active only during the day and their populations are largely stationary, creating few opportunities for light pollution to attract them to urban areas.</p>
Trees and Pavement<p>We found that tree canopy cover was associated with more migratory bird species during spring migration and the summer. Trees provide important habitat for migratory birds during migration and the breeding season, so the presence of trees can have a strong effect on the number of migratory bird species that occur in cities.</p><p>Finally, we found that higher levels of impervious surface were associated with more migratory bird species during the winter. This result is somewhat surprising. It could be a product of the <a href="https://www.epa.gov/heatislands" target="_blank">urban heat island effect</a> – the fact that structures and paved surfaces in cities absorb and reemit more of the sun's heat than natural surfaces. Replacing vegetation with buildings, roads and parking lots can therefore make cities significantly warmer than surrounding lands. This effect could reduce cold stress on birds and increase food resources, such as insect populations, during the winter.</p><p>Our research adds to our understanding of how conditions in cities can both help and hurt migratory bird populations. We hope that our findings will inform urban planning initiatives and strategies to reduce the harmful effects of cities on migratory birds through such measures as <a href="https://www.arborday.org/programs/treecityusa/index.cfm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">planting more trees</a> and initiating <a href="https://aeroecolab.com/uslights" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">lights-out programs</a>. Efforts to make it easier for migratory birds to complete their incredible journeys will help maintain their populations into the future.</p><p><em><span style="background-color: initial;"><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/frank-la-sorte-1191494" target="_blank">Frank La Sorte</a> is a r</span>esearch associate at the </em><em>Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University. <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/kyle-horton-1191498" target="_blank">Kyle Horton</a> is an assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the Colorado State University.</em></p><p><em></em><em>Disclosure statement: Frank La Sorte receives funding from The Wolf Creek Charitable Foundation and the National Science Foundation (DBI-1939187). K</em><em>yle Horton does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/cities-can-help-migrating-birds-on-their-way-by-planting-more-trees-and-turning-lights-off-at-night-152573" target="_blank">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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