Imagine meatless Monday at the school cafeteria

The dietary guidelines impact how school lunches, WIC support, and military rations are designed
CC BY 2.0 USDA

A politcal battle over the next U.S. Dietary Guidelines looms. TreeHugger reported earlier this year on the release of the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), suggesting that environmental impact should also inform dietary choice.

Even if the "MyPlate" guidelines don't immediately influence your eating habits, they do have a significant impact on school lunch programs and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits, as well as the design of military rations. The habits formed by the 8.6 million people served by WIC and the 31 million children eating school lunches has the potential to influence life-long eating choices.

Kathleen Merrigan, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy secretary and currently Executive Director of Sustainability at GWU, points out:

“If you are concerned about having access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food into the future, you can’t ignore issues of sustainability."

Because Merrigan used to fight for the beef industry, she understands the complex implications of a change in federal policy on diet. Her voice of reason is worth listening to, if you can spare 6 minutes. If not, skip ahead to her point on the beef farmers of the future at minute 6:

In short, if beef is unsustainable (and the science says it is), then beef has no future. The beef industry needs to adapt just as much as our buying habits do.

But it doesn't stop at beef. What if all Americans really started eating two portions of fish per week per the current guidelines? The already overfished seas would collapse. What about heart healthy but water-intensive almonds grown in California? It makes sense that sustainability must be part of the dietary guideline process.

The fact is, our dietary choices impact our environment significantly. The documentary Cowspiracy makes an interesting case that even the most well-known and supported environmental organizations don't have the moxie to fight the big agricultural lobby on the topic of sustainability in the food chain. Although I cannot comment on the reliability of all of cowspiracy's allegations, I will say this: the statements about beef being the primary cause of deforestation of the Amazon struck me as surprising. So I looked a bit further and it seems that clearing land for cattle does rank as number 1. If we are not informed, how can we even begin to make sustainable choices?

Sadly, the GWU press release on a paper published in Science (unfortunately behind the pay-wall) suggests that industry is scared of policy that ranks types of food, citing "chicken vs. beef vs. fish" as an example. Even the scientists on the environmental side of the argument are missing the fact that the real issue is beans and rice vs. animal protein -- or maybe that is another fact that cannot serve as a rallying cry for a public so accustomed to meat on our plates.

And industry has power: a rider on the appropriations bill currently going through the approval process would tie the DGAC's hands -- banning consideration of sustainability in dietary guidelines.

What do you think? Is it time for sustainability to inform our eating choices? Or should our government go on subsidizing feeding people on an expensive animal protein diet when sustainable eating of alternative proteins offers an inexpensive, healthier, and more environmentally beneficial option?

Tags: Beef | Congress | Diet

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