Dietary Guidelines: Groups Testify In Support of Sustainability Language

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The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC)’s scientific report found that millions of people in the United States are sick and dying because of poor dietary patterns. The report says, “about half of all Americans, 117 million individuals, have one or more preventable chronic diseases that relate to poor dietary patterns and physical inactivity including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type two diabetes, and diet-related cancers.

More than two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and youth are overweight or obese.”

The DGAC believes that new dietary guidelines can help to reverse these negative health outcomes. "In the past, we haven't been able to change the way people are eating very much," says Alice Lichtenstein, a member of DGAC based at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. "One of the major focuses of this report is, rather than nutrients, the whole diet." The focus on whole diets, in concordance with a new focus on environmental sustainability, led the committee to recommend a shift toward plant-based diets, a move prompting both meat industry backlash and support from health and environmental advocacy groups.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are jointly responsible for publishing the final version of the dietary guidelines by the end of the year.

On Tuesday, March 25, 2015, 70 experts representing diverse groups offered oral testimony on the DGAC report at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. “Millions of Americans are interested and concerned,” according to Christiana Wyly, Executive Director of Food Choice Taskforce. “It’s not new information that animal agriculture inflicts enormous damage on our environment.

For the first time, both human health and environmental health organizations are standing up together to support these recommendations. People want informed choice.”

Kari Hamerschlag, speaking on behalf of Friends of the Earth International, testified, “Given the large quantities of water, pesticides, fuel, and fertilizer that go into industrial meat and dairy production, shifting towards plant-based diets must play a key role in our efforts to feed more people with fewer resources, while curbing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing air and water pollution.” 

Jillian Fry, a Project Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future agreed: “35 percent of global crops are grown for animal feed, and several expert panels around the world have called for increasing the proportion of crops grown that directly feed humans to improve food security.”

Meat groups are pushing back against broad statements on the sustainability of animal agriculture and proposing lean meat as essential to a healthy diet.

Betsy Booren, a veterinarian with the North American Meat Institute, argues that DGAC went beyond its scope of expertise, saying sustainability “should be left to people in those fields.” Others focused on the role of meat in a healthy diet without addressing the sustainability recommendations; according to the testimony of Eric Berg, a meat scientist at North Dakota State University, “meat is nutrient-dense, does not affect blood sugar, is a complete source of essential amino acids and fatty acids, and has bioavailable iron.” The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Sugar Association also testified.

While speakers offered oral testimony in Bethesda, advocacy groups pooled their resources to publish full-page ads in Tuesday’s editions of the The New York Times and the Washington Post. The advertisement builds upon the submission of a letter signed by 49 groups petitioning U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell “to show a strong commitment to keeping Americans, and our shared environment, healthier by developing clear dietary recommendations on the need for reduced consumption of animal products and more plant-based foods.”

Vilsack is under pressure from Congress members to reject the environmental recommendations of the report. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Vilsack says, “what I read …was that our job ultimately is to formulate dietary and nutrition guidelines. And I emphasize dietary and nutrition because that’s what the law says. I think it’s my responsibility to follow the law.” However, he also stated that he couldn’t rule out the possibility that sustainability will play a role in the dietary guidelines.

Debate over the new report is expected to continue until the end of the year, when the revised guidelines are due. A six-part series on obesity in the Lancet will focus on regulatory actions and unhealthy food environments, and a student research conference at the Friedman School will host Ms. Angela Tagtow, executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, as the keynote speaker for a lecture on Nutrition Policy at a Crossroads: Dietary Guidelines for Americans Application and Evolution.

The period for written comments on the DGAC report has been extended until May 8, 2015. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is asking citizens to tell USDA and HHS to resist food industry pressure. Jillian Fry has created a similar petition, asking USDA and HHS to recognize the environmental implications of dietary choices. 

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