Thursday, January 15, 2015

Dietary Guidelines and Food Politics

Warning. This post is political. While it is very different from previous posts, and may seem like I’m abandoning the mission of hosting a plant-based nutrition website. However, as Mark Bittman makes clear, to write or blog about food, is inherently a political act. Therefore I hope you’ll forgive me for such transgressions and continue reading.

2104 was a big year for food politics if you paid attention. Multiple battles over GMO labeling laws brought new urgency and illumination to the issue – although most of those battles didn’t go quiet as well as one would hope! There was a ban against growing GMOs in Maui, soda taxes gained headlines and were passed overwhelmingly in Berkeley, gestation crates turned critical eyes toward New Jersey, and food writer Michael Pollan made a public statement in support for a national food policy!

However there are still many battles to fight – and many of them in the not-to-far-off future.

As some of you may know, the Federal Dietary Food Guidelines are currently under review. These guidelines are reviewed every five years, and have taken form in the past as the Food Pyramid and more recently MyPlate. 

When the panel of experts on nutrition and health announced that they were considering taking the environmental toll of food production into consideration for the new guidelines, there was outrage by certain food industries.

No, Big Broccoli didn’t throw a fit! But organizations like the American Meat Institute (AMI), National Beef Association, and the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) among others, have issued statements basically arguing that the expert nutritionists selected to participate in the panel do not have the expertise required to take environmental questions into consideration. Borrowing from the NRA’s playbook, these lobbyist groups announced that they plan to grade Congresspeople on their votes regarding food issues.

This matters because, unfortunately, it roughly costs each of those members of Congress $7 million dollars to run a campaign and win office. While the $100 or so I donate to progressive candidates every election cycle makes me feel good, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the money spent by businesses and trade groups. According to David Robinson Simon, animal food industry spends more than $100 million paying lobbyists every year! This is a sad but important lesson in American Democracy.

In one study, members of the House of Representatives who received money from the dairy industry were almost twice as likely to vote for dairy price supports as those who received no money from them. While it is illegal to “buy” votes, it is completely legal to vote for a bill your constituents donors want. Furthermore, when a Congressperson votes against their donor’s wishes, those donors often abandon the lawmaker in their next campaign. Money, as they say, talks.

How does all of this relate back to the Dietary Guidelines? Well shortly after the new Republican controlled Congress took session, they did the unthinkable… They passed a bill! Feeling pressure from groups like AMI and IDFA, lawmakers from both parties came together and attached a list of "congressional directives" to a massive spending bill that was passed by both the House and the Senate. One of those directives expresses "concern" that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee "is showing an interest in incorporating agriculture production practices and environmental factors" into their recommendations. The Congressional directives then issued a statement telling the Obama administration to ignore such factors in the next revision of the guidelines.

The question, then, remains, why are these industries so insistent that environmental factors be excluded from the Dietary Guidelines?

It’s because animal foods have a huge carbon footprint. While the numbers vary, it has been estimated that between 14 – 40% of total carbon emissions is attributable to the livestock industry. The 2006 United Nations report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, claimed that animal agriculture makes up 18% of all greenhouse gases. Even this comparably conservative estimate accounts for more than all modes of transportation combined. That’s right. The volume of emissions created by the production of animal foods is greater than those created by operating cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, and ships!

As such, any inclusion of emissions would force the new dietary guidelines to recommend a decrease in the consumption of animal products. As NYU professor Marion Nestle explains, while it is clear that Americans could benefit greatly by reducing animal and highly-processed food products in favor of more fresh fruits and vegetables, in the past, Animal lobbyist have been able to argue over language in the past, rather than saying eat less meat, eat “lean meat.” These types of arguments and compromises have a long history. Going back to the George McGovern report of 1977 – the very first Dietary Guidelines – declared that “most all of the health problems underlying the leading causes of death in the United States could be modified by improvements in diet.” The report blamed the increase in consumption of rich animal foods increasing saturated fat and an increase in added sugars.  It also specifically recommended decreasing meat consumption as the best way to decrease saturated fat intake.

As one of the authors of that original report later accounted, the meat, milk, egg, salt, and sugar producers were all very upset. The National Dairy Industry actually suggested that the food industry should be involved in creating the guidelines.

When the final report finally came out, almost all of this language had been removed. Specifically, the recommendation to decrease meat consumption was altered to read, “choose meats, poultry and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake.” Do you see what happened there? The recommendation went from a negative, “consume less” to a positive “choose meat…”

Even this wasn’t enough. In the end, the nutrition committee was disbanded and folded into the functions of the Agriculture Committee – the committee that is responsible for protecting producers rather than consumers. 

However, much of Big Agricultures power over the Guidelines will diminish if the committee begins considering the environmental footprint of the food. As Miriam Nelson, a Tufts University professor, and member of the panel, told the rest of the committee, "in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods is more health-promoting and is associated with less environmental impact."

Now, perhaps you are thinking, “big deal, I ignored the food pyramid, I’ve ignored My Plate, and I’m going to ignore the next set of regulations too.” Well, you’re probably not alone. Most Americans don’t pay much attention to the Federal Dietary Guidelines; however, these guidelines do play a large role in helping to decide which industries are subsidized, and perhaps more importantly, they serve as the guiding principle for federal feeding programs, including school lunches, foods legible for purchase with food stamps, and federal prisons. Such an update to the guidelines could mean that thousands if not millions of Americans would consume less animal products.

Unfortunately, it seems that this fight has already been lost. After a draft was released earlier this month, which included the recommendation to consume less meat, the USDA bent to the pressure of Congress and their masters, and have declared that the environmental impact of food will not be considered when creating the new guidelines.

These types of issues are vital to improving the health of our nation. Being healthy involves knowing what is in your food, where it comes from, and how it is made. These should be rights – not privileges. We must continue to demand that politicians are being held accountable to us, the people, rather than to Corporations. As Lincoln famously once said, " Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

 Further Reading:

Brendan Brazier, Thrive Foods Da Capo Press, 2011.

Dan Charles, “Congress to Nutritionists: Don’t Talk About the Environment.” NPR December 15, 2014.  

David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics Conari Press, 2013.

Richard Oppenlander, Comfrotably Unaware: Global Depleation and Food Responsibility Langdon St. Press, 2011.

Richard Oppenlander, Food Choice and Sustainablity, Langdon St. Press, 2012.

Roberto A. Ferdman, “The Meat Industry’s Worst Nightmare Might Soon Become a Realtiy.” Washington Post January 7, 2015.

T. Colin Campbell, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition BenBella Books, 2013.

United Nations. Livestock's Long Shadow FAO Rome, 2006.

United States. Congress. Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. “Dietary Goals for the United States” Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office. 1977.

As always the information presented in this blog is for educational purposes only. It should not be considered as specific medical, nutritional, lifestyle, or other health-related advice.


  1. BRAVO! I'm so glad you made these comments. I saw the powerful movie, Cowspiracy, and it is clear that the consumption of animal products is the elephant in the room when it comes to climate change. We don't have to wait for Monsanto; we don't have to wait for auto manufacturers; we can have an immediate impact by cutting down or eliminating our consumption of animal products!

  2. Excellent post, Anthony!