Dietary guidelines' sustainability suggestion back in focus

Dietary guidelines' sustainability suggestion back in focus

Ahead of dietary guidelines hearing, group suggests less meat is more sustainable but House Ag Committee chairman isn't so sure

A look at the public comments in response to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's recommendations for American diets shows support for linking nutrition and environmental concerns like sustainability, according to an analysis by "My Plate, My Planet," a coalition of environmental groups focused on diet and sustainability.

Related: Senators say lean red meat belongs in dietary guidelines

In addition to public support, the coalition's analysis says the Committee's report, which suggested a diet higher in plant-based and lower in animal-based foods would be more environmentally sustainable, also has legal basis.

A person shops in Whole Foods Market in the Brooklyn borough on May 7, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

"Our analysis of the law, including the Congressional intent, clearly shows that USDA and [Health and Human Services] would be well within its mandate to incorporate sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans," said public health attorney Michele Simon, who spearheaded legal research for CLF.

Some farm and livestock groups criticized the DGAC for adding the sustainability link in its February report, suggesting that the Committee's focus should be solely on making science-based nutrition recommendations to the public, not environmental recommendations.

But the coalition's two-part analysis – one on the legal basis of including sustainability and the second on public response to the recommendations – suggests that the public is supportive of linking nutrition and environment and that the committee is in its purview to do so.

"The sheer number of comments -- fourteen times the number submitted in 2010 -- shows overwhelming public support for the science-based recommendations for linking nutrition and environmental concerns," said Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager with Friends of Earth, a coalition supporter.

Hearing ahead >>

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The analysis comes as the House Agriculture Committee will discuss the guidelines in a hearing Oct. 7.

House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said Monday in a U.S. News & World Report opinion piece that he was "particularly concerned" about the DGAC's foray into sustainability and tax issues.

"At a time when consumers are already subjected to conflicting and often contradictory nutrition and health information, providing the public with science-based, realistic and achievable directives is more likely to contribute to improved public health outcomes," he wrote.

Related: Commentary: Are Radical Nutritionists Hijacking Federal Dietary Guidelines?

Conaway noted that the guidelines are not just for Americans to use, they also shape policies of HHS, the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USDA's Food and Nutrition Service and more.

Though My Plate, My Planet says the statutory authority for the committee doesn't preclude sustainability, Conaway said the committee "greatly exceeded its scope by straying from traditional nutritional recommendations and advising on … areas with which members of the committee had neither expertise, evidence nor charter."

The Coalition also said previous committees have focused on physical activity and food safety, but Conaway said compared to prior advisory committee reports, the 2015 report contained a "seemingly unprecedented expansion" in the scope of issues the committee chose to address.

According to Conaway, the final version of the guidelines – which is scheduled for release later this year – will have a huge impact on production agriculture.

"Before the federal government makes recommendations that could have long-lasting consequences for agricultural industries, we must guarantee the science is clear and irrefutable," he said.

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