U.S. Diet Guidelines Still Recommend Too Much Meat and Dairy, Climate Groups Say

A school lunch at Garfield Elementary School in Washington, DC
A school lunch at Garfield Elementary School in Washington, DC. U.S. dietary guidelines still emphasize too much meat and dairy, climate advocates say. Dixie D. Vereen /For The Washington Post via Getty Images
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There is growing awareness in the scientific community that the way people eat — especially in wealthy countries — needs to change in order to address the climate crisis and other environmental problems. University of Oxford professor Joseph Poore said that eating a vegan diet is likely the single most important thing an individual can do to reduce their overall impact on the environment, while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for a reduction in meat consumption in its special report on climate change and land, as Nature reported. 

But it seems that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Housing and Human Services (HHS) didn’t get the memo when they put out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) for 2020 to 2025. Climate advocates are concerned that the guidelines, which form the basis of the government’s public nutrition recommendations, rely too much on meat and dairy and don’t mention the climate crisis at all. 

“Climate change poses a multitude of threats to human health and nutrition security. We cannot extricate these things from each other,” Center for Science in the Public Interest senior policy associate Jessi Silverman told The Guardian.

For example, the current guidelines recommend that people get 26 ounces of protein every week from meat, eggs and poultry and only five ounces from plant-based products. Further, it recommends three servings of dairy products every day, even though most people only consume 1.6 servings daily now. 

“To just recommend three servings of dairy and say nothing about the environmental consequences if people really did that is just completely irresponsible,” Harvard School of Public Health professor Walter Willett told The Guardian. 

The dietary guidelines published by the U.S. government matter because they form the basis of its food messaging and also inform programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the School Lunch Program. It’s also a climate justice issue. A 2020 study found that following the dietary guidelines of G20 countries including the U.S. would see temperatures rise above the Paris agreement goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

“The American diet is devouring far more than our fair share of food-related emissions,” Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said in response to the study. “Food policy is climate policy. We have to stop pretending these are separate issues.”

There have been people in the federal government working to bring sustainability into the diet guidelines. Scientists advising the drafting of the 2015-2020 guidelines tried to bring climate concerns into the discussion, as the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health reported. They concluded that plant-based diets were better both for U.S. eaters and the planet than the current U.S. diet, but, after protests from the meat industry, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwel decided that sustainability was beyond the scope of the guidelines. 

“You can’t have food security without a sustainable diet. Therefore, food sustainability is in scope,”  Miriam Nelson, professor emerita at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University who led the sustainability effort, protested, as Harvard reported. 

Climate advocates are still hoping things might be different when it comes to the 2025 to 2030 guidelines. In May, 40 climate, animal welfare and public health groups including CBD and the Center for Science in the Public Interest signed a letter to the USDA and HHS urging them to include sustainability in the next round of guidelines. 

“Incorporating the relationship between nutrition and climate change and the related environmental crises into the development of the next DGA is urgently needed,” the organizations wrote. “This will support long-term food and nutrition security, the administration’s stated priorities around equity and the climate crisis, and the Departments’ priorities for the proposed scientific questions regarding importance to public health, impact to federal programs, and research availability.” 

While sustainability was not one of the topics on an April list of proposed questions for scientists advising the next guidelines to tackle, HHS Nutrition Advisor Janet de Jesus told The Guardian that doesn’t mean the issue is off the table. 

“We’re not saying that it’s not going to be in the dietary guidelines — we’re not saying that at all,” de Jesus said. “It’s a high priority for HHS leadership to address climate change.” 

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