Proposed USDA food guidelines help the environment. But more needs to be done.

David Festa\

Some people don’t like the idea of the federal government telling them what they should and shouldn’t eat. Others feel the science of nutrition is still evolving – are eggs good or bad for us this week? – and don’t know whether to trust the recommendations.

But there’s no denying that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines have a profound influence on the public discussion over our food choices.

So it is a good thing that the commission that suggests updates to these guidelines every five years has come forward with a proposal that for the first time recognizes an inarguable fact: Dietary choices have an impact not only on our health, but also on the health of our environment.

Food rules touch off heated debate

The scientific advisory panel recommends a diet with more plant-based foods – such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts – than the typical American diet, which is higher in calories and includes more meat.

Although the panel concludes that a more environmentally sustainable diet can be achieved without eliminating any of the four food groups, their recommendations have sparked a heated debate among agricultural producers, consumers, health experts and environmental organizations.

When the government recommends that we eat less meat, more eggs and more vegetables, it can have a direct bearing on the farm business, obesity rates, efforts to reduce carbon emissions – and a host of other issues. So it’s no surprise the USDA guidelines are under fire.

All stakeholders have until May 8 to register public comments with the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

A step in the right direction

Environmental Defense Fund would never support a proscriptive approach that tells people what they can and cannot eat. Eating more plant-based foods and less meat is a personal choice. It should be respected, but never required.

But we do believe that consumers should be aware of the nexus between diet and the environment to make informed decisions. In this respect, the recommendations are a positive step in the right direction.

We need a healthy discussion

We need an honest discussion, for example, about ways to reduce methane emissions from livestock production, because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas.

We need to be talking about ways to reduce fertilizer runoff from crops to improve climate stability and water quality.

We need to discuss how farmers and ranchers can increase productivity while growing habitat for vulnerable wildlife.

And we need to make sure the world’s fisheries are managed sustainably to provide more fish in the ocean, more food on the plate, and more prosperous fishing communities.

These sticky problems will not be resolved by a single update to the U.S. food pyramid. That’s why EDF is working with agriculture and industry on multiple strategies for meeting increasing demands for food in ways that improve the environment.

Some will say that the best thing the federal government can do to promote sustainable food production is stay out of the way. Others will point to specific interventions or even a top-down approach.

My perspective is that we’ll need both the public and private sectors to meet the challenge before it’s too late. The USDA’s dietary guidelines are one ingredient in a complex recipe that will require constant tinkering and testing. Let’s keep the discussion going until we get it right.