On Sustainability’s Updates

Building a case, over time, for adding sustainability to nutritional guidelines

The Conversation | Article Link | by Kathleen Merrigan and Timothy Griffin

Image courtesy of Unsplash

The question of whether government-issued dietary guidance should address sustainability has been in the headlines. A report issued by the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) earlier this year recommended that sustainability be a factor in determining the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs).

In an effort to influence the final decision of the secretaries of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, both pro- and anti-sustainability petitions emerged. Campaigns on Change.org amassed signatures, including a cleverly titled “Hands Off My Hot Dog” petition initiated by the meat industry; members of Congress weighed in with letters to the Obama administration, including one cosigned by 30 senators and another by 71 representatives, demanding rejection of sustainability considerations and questioning the scientific integrity of the DGAC process; and the “My Plate, My Planet” coalition of sustainability advocates purchased full-page advertisements in newspapers to publicly urge inclusion of sustainability.

The melee all came to a screeching halt October 6 when the secretaries posted a blog declaring that sustainability was outside the scope of the DGAs and would be excluded from the final guidelines, which are expected in December. While we very much wanted a different decision, we see many positives coming from the debate and remain optimistic.

Clear Science

Why? The American public has awoken to the issue of sustainability in dietary guidance, and their interest and demands are not likely to dissipate.

According to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, of the 29,000 public comments received on the DGAs during this year’s comment period, 19,000 focused on sustainability, and of those, 97% were positive on its inclusion. Notably, the US Conference of Mayors passed a resolution supporting sustainability in the DGAs. Clearly, consensus is building.

As the lone member of the House Agriculture Committee to support sustainability during the hearing on changing the guidelines, Representative Jim McGovern lamented “that sustainability seems to be such a dirty word for some of my colleagues.”

As academics who have studied sustainability and food, we are among the people who believe that ordinary citizens are ready to confront the politics of the plate, even though Congress and the administration are unwilling to tackle the food industry pushback against sustainability.

In the October 9 edition of Science, we wrote about the political maneuvering under way to excise sustainability from DGA discussions, but we paid little attention to the science supporting the need to do so.

The reason is simple: the science is there, it is not complicated and the results are neither surprising nor controversial within the scientific community.