Sustainability Issues and Dietary Guidelines: What Role for Integrative Organizations?

SustainabilityShould governmental dietary guidelines – and thus the policies that may follow – concern themselves with the effect of food sourcing on the environment? The global environmental lobbying group National Resources Defense Council and others advocated this position during the build up to the 2015 re-write of such dietary recommendations in the United States of America.

The argument gained enough backing amidst reportedly 29,000 public comments on the topic to have warranted a January 2014 presentation before the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The presenter, Kate Clancy, begins noting possible “Negative long-term impacts on food security and resilience” that she believes merit consideration. She includes: farmland loss, especially at the regional level; soil quantities (erosion, silting); soil qualities (lower tilth, altered soil microorganisms); water quantities (aquifer depletion); water and air qualities (dead zones); energy resources (fertilizer production, air-freight); climate change (greenhouse gases, water effects, planting zones); and biodiversity – plant, animal, and marine. Clancy then proceeds to answer the question: “What pattern of eating best contributes to food security and sustainability of land, air, and water?”

NRDCAdvocates of including sustainability consideration counter anticipated opposition with a legal opinion of the appropriateness in guidelines that is available here. The direction was successfully incorporated in the draft section of the Guidelines (Part D, Chapter 5). Here are two tastes “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.” In addition: “Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns.”

Despite the evidence, the US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and Sylvia Burwell, US Secretary of Health and Human Services, each argued, according to this account at Yahoo News, that sustainability considerations are outside the scope of the panel’s authority in setting guuidelines. This piece at Climate Progress makes clear that the agency heads were bowing to industry pressures.

Comment: Many will say that dietary guidelines are already so controversial and conflicting that this request only adds another layer of confusing complexity. Superficially, this would seem to be the case. Yet at the same time, sustainability creates a referential values base for other debates. The issues articulated by Clancy and promoted by the NRDC provide terrain that, in and of themselves, move toward optimal guidelines. With the globalization of food, these choices are heard round the world.

This food-sustainability link is a movement that is a good fit for the integrative health and medicine community to embrace, and support. What whole system-oriented person or organization would not affirm these connections? Credit the professionals who brought sustainability issues into this debate. Where are you and your organization on this?

Aid as ObstableSecretaries Burwell and Vilsack proved unwilling, at this time, to take off the reductive blinders that channel answers to present food policy. In the USA, the linkage would have been better vetted through the National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council. This Council was established under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. That new agency was created to inject more systemic thinking into the silos of decision processes in separate education, health, environmental, transportation and other departments. The Council appears to have been asleep at the wheel on this one.

A final note, perhaps too controversial even for the NRDC. Anyone familiar with Francis Moore Lappe’s pioneering food aid research in the 1970s will know that there is another value of interest to this debate not yet on thetable. In such works as Aid as Obstacle (pictured), Lappe captured the disruptive impact of transnational food policy in the USA and abroad. Two interesting questions emerge. Is democracy or at least “political process” an issue of concern when we think of sustainability? Secondly, if so, what food choices favor the development of democracy? In the USA it is said that health care is local. It’s time to take a strong stance that this base of good health – food choices – is best local as well.


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