Who will win in the battle over sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, science or special interests?

Samuel Lee-Gammage's picture

This blog comes from Samuel Lee-Gammage.  Samuel is the Research Director for the Food Choice Taskforce (FCT), where he is responsible for knowledge management and resource development to communicate the potential of dietary shifts for public and environmental health. Samuel holds an MSc in Environmental Change and Management from the University of Oxford and also holds a BSc in Environmental Geosciences, from the University of Bristol.

Sam offers his personal take on the debate around the US Dietary guidelines, and the recommendation of the guidelines committee that sustainability dimensions be incorporated into the forthcoming version.  He also offers information about what researchers can do to support the scientific recommendations of the committee.


Getting environmental sustainability included in the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines is currently balanced on a knife-edge. Doing so would represent a historic shift in food policy, and a major change in the US food system, with global implications. But food industry pressure is currently in full-swing working to undermine the credibility of the scientific report of the scientific advisory committee, the scientists on the committee, and dispute the relevance of food sustainability for dietary guidelines.

There is now a unique and urgent opportunity for food researchers the world over to tip the balance, by submitting their research and their comments before May 8th, and by lending their support in various ways, in order to demonstrate the strength of the evidence base in favor of linking health and sustainability in dietary advice.

In a previous post on FCRN, Mike Hamm outlined the work and recommendations on sustainability made by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The report’s major recommendations have also been summarized by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in their fact sheet here. The importance and urgency of this moment is further emphasized in these articles (here and here) by researchers in public health and environmental sustainability.

This blog focuses on the opportunity afforded right now to achieve a historic shift in food policy, reviews the political battle and discourses currently raging around the DGAC’s sustainability recommendations, and (at the bottom) describes what food researchers can do to help make use of their expertise and their voice, at this historic moment.

Background: what are the guidelines and why are they important?

To briefly recap on the guidelines and their significance: every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) update and jointly publish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are usually– but not legally required to be - based upon the recommendations of a 18 month, systematic scientific review process covering the latest nutrition and public health literature by the appointed scientific panel known as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC).

The guidelines represent a powerful leverage point for U.S. food policy, and by extension, food policy globally. Specifically, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines feed in to all federal food, nutrition or health programs, including public procurement, food provision programs, public nutrition education and link to many other areas of policy. They also have a normative role in setting public expectations around diets through public communications, such as My Plate (formerly the food pyramid). As an example of the scale of the reach, just one program– the Federal School Lunch Program – affects $16 billion dollars in spending, and some 5.5 billion lunches served annually to children.

What is precedent-setting about the 2015 recommendations made by the DGAC, is that based on a novel socio-ecological model, for the first time ever, they have incorporated the growing evidence base to show that official dietary advice on food choice, cannot be considered independently of environmental sustainability, if it is to enable long-term food security. This is some 30 years after they were first proposed. Based on this systems approach, the report also makes many ground breaking recommendations on public health and the need for action to create a “population-wide culture of health”  – however this is not the topic for this blog. 

To go direct to the source, the DGAC’s report states:

“The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet. This pattern of eating can be achieved through a variety of dietary patterns, including the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. All of these dietary patterns are aligned with lower environmental impacts and provide options that can be adopted by the U.S. population. Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns. This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower, than proposed in these three dietary patterns. Of note is that no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.” (Executive Summary)

It also states that

"Linking health, dietary guidance, and the environment will promote human health and the sustainability of natural resources and ensure current and long-term food security." (Executive Summary)

Were these recommendations on sustainability (and health) to become incorporated into the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it would represent a seismic discontinuity from previous guidelines, and an important step to advancing sustainable dietary guidelines in the U.S. and across the world .

Industry fight back against the DGAC recommendations

Long before the publication of the report by the DGAC, the U.S. food industry was already aware of the threat of sustainability to their business and was pushing back swiftly, setting up fake front groups (here and here) and attaching a congressional directive to a spending bill, instructing the head of the USDA to ensure that the scientific advisory committee:

Focuses only on nutrient and dietary recommendations based upon sound nutrition science and not pursue an environmental agenda.”

This effort at intimidation did not silence the DGAC, but trying to buy and legislate scientific research into and out of existence is still a tactic being used,

Not surprisingly, after the publication of the DGAC’s report, industry officially declared an all-out offensive and there has been a constant political onslaught targeted at the heads of the two lead agencies responsible for drafting and publishing the final guidelines. Industry pushed for and promptly was awarded an extra 45 days to make public comments, with the expressed intention to use this to discredit the science.

The industry wants to use the additional time to investigate the studies relied upon by the 14-member panel to draw its conclusions….. we’ll go through it with a fine-tooth comb”  (source: National Pork Producers Council)

Shortly afterwards, Rep. Robert Anderholt threatened the funding of the USDA and used his position on the agricultural appropriations committee to question Tom Vilsack (head of the USDA), and afterwards made a statement saying that:

I along with our committee expect his final report to only include nutrient and dietary recommendations and will not include environmental opinions or extraneous factors."

On the 12th of March, a powerful block of 30 senators then sent a letter to the heads of the USDA and HHS, repeating industry talking points by stating their concern with the ‘scientific integrity’ of the DGAC’s recommendations and the fact that they had gone ‘beyond their purview’. Over 87% of these 30 senators have received campaign contributions from the agriculture, meat, and/or dairy industry within the last several years (Maplight).

The motivation behind this letter (and others) directly in favor of economic industry needs and against the latest science on public health and the environment, was spelled out clearly by one Senator in a subsequent comment

“Not only does the report leave red meat out of what it considers to be a healthy diet, but the recommendations also go beyond health and nutrition, including environmental and sustainability issues. The long-term consequence of this government report’s unfounded arguments could be less demand for meat, which hurts producers in Iowa and elsewhere around the country”

Most recently on the 31st of March, and following the launch of a public campaign by over 100 civil society organizations, public figures and academia to support sustainability in the dietary guidelines (My Plate My Planet), and a vocal public comments hearing (see video), where

Those calling for the inclusion of sustainability language and maintaining the report's current recommendations on lean meat outnumbered those calling for the opposite” (source)

a new and expanded letter from 70 members of congress attacking the DGAC’s report, addressed to the heads of the USDA and HHS was published, stating that they have:

“Greatly exceeded their scope in developing recommendations for the Secretaries of USDA and HHS to the detriment of the American diet. It is the responsibility of the Secretaries to ensure that this advisory committee stay focused on nutritional recommendations and not on the wider policy realm of sustainability and tax policy, in which members of this committee had neither expertise, evidence nor charter.”

In addition to the directly pressuring lawmakers, the North American Meat Institute has launched its Change.org campaign ‘Hands off My Hotdog’ by.  It appears too that industry has fast-tracked scientific review papers designed to discredit the Dietary Guidelines process, the DGAC and it’s recommendations.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing for the industry though.  In an almost comical backfire a vocal industry advocate against including sustainability in the guidelines, found in an additional question added to a meat demand survey, that 53% of Americans think the guidelines should consider environmental impacts, with just 25% disagreeing. 

Reaction from the Administration

The result of this (ongoing) onslaught has been the public capitulation to industry’s outcries by Tom Vilsack (head of the USDA) saying on the record that dietary guidelines are about health and not the environment, and repeating the meat industry’s position that sustainability is outside the DGAC’s remit.

“I read the actual law,” Mr. Vilsack said. “And what I read …was that our job ultimately is to formulate dietary and nutrition guidelines. And I emphasize dietary and nutrition because that’s what the law says. I think it’s my responsibility to follow the law.” (source)

However upon examining the relevant passage below establishing the DGAC in its present form, it is clear that this is a very selective interpretation of the law.

“Each report shall contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public the information and guidelines contained in each report…. Shall be based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared.”

And that Sec. Vilsack knows this, telling the Wall Street Journal in March, that

He could not rule out the possibility that sustainability will play a role in the dietary guidelines.”

Therefore, contrary to the dominant media narrative, sustainability is not outside the purview of the DGAC or the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. This is significant, because HHS is the lead agency for 2015, and its head – Sylvia Burwell – has been noticeably, completely silent. Ultimately, it will be the Obama Administration that makes the final call. The window of opportunity is open - for now.

What is critically missing is a countervailing force to industry pressure and rhetoric trying to discredit the DGAC and the science.  

Industry rhetoric: disputing and discrediting the science

The reaction to the scientific report of the DGAC has been straight out of the playbook from Merchants of Doubt, which documents the obfuscatory tactics deployed by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to create uncertainty about scientific research, and quash regulatory action in the public interest.  A small selection of these are described below.

The quote below from the letter send by 70 members of congress represents three of the main rhetorical tactics used by industry, and widely repeated by policymakers and the media.

“[the] advisory committee [should] stay focused on nutritional recommendations and not on the wider policy realm of sustainability and tax policy, in which members of this committee had neither expertise, evidence nor charter.” (source)

  1. Claiming that the DGAC have gone beyond their legal mandate (debunked above)
  2. Claiming that the DGAC are not qualified to make sustainability recommendations (see Mike Hamm’s FCRN blog)

“The committee’s foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise” (source: North American Meat Institute)

3. Claiming that the evidence used to argue for sustainability in the guidelines is not “science based”

They are not science-based and could be harmful to the health of our population” (source: National Cattleman’s Beef Association)

Other tactics include, accusing the scientists of being biased or politically motivated

“Advisory committee, whose recommendations appear to be based on personal opinions or social agendas.” (source: North American Meat Institute)

And downplaying the environmental impacts of the meat industry

“Compared with 50 years ago, farmers are now using less land (78 percent) and water (41 percent) per pound of pork produced” (source: National Pork Board)

What Can Researchers Do to Support the DGAC’s Recommendations?

The active voice of researchers and research institutions is absolutely critical to getting the recommendations of the DGAC translated into policy for multiple reasons. With the extended deadline to May 8th, industry is currently rallying industry-sponsored research and actively working to discredit the content of the DGAC’s report by any means possible. Just the DGAC being correct and thorough in reaching their conclusions will not be enough. Politically, being seen to be right will be just as important.

  1. Firstly, it is essential that researchers and or institutions from any country working on food sustainability upload their evidence (reports, papers) and expert comments before the May 8th deadline, by clicking here. We have been informed that relevant evidence and research submitted in relation to the DGAC report by experts, carries extra weight when reviewing the comments and drafting the guidelines. The list of cited research for the relevant chapter (Chapter 5) is by no means exhaustive and could be substantially augmented by contributions from researchers on food and sustainability the world over.
  2. Secondly, there needs to be an authoritative demonstration by the scientific community of the wide level of support for the scientific conclusions arrived at by the DGAC in their systematic review. Principally that both health and environmental issues should be considered jointly when providing official governmental dietary advice.

The dominant discourse on the dietary guidelines in the media, driven by industry PR, has been that the science is biased and unreliable, and that the DGAC members are inexpert and incapable when it comes to sustainability. Whilst completely untrue (see Mike Hamm’s FCRN blog), at the moment industry voices and actions are going largely unchallenged. This is politically undermining the credibility review’s scientific recommendations.  

There are a number of ways in which the academic community can respond to this:

  • For anyone with expertise, anywhere, making a comment and submitting your evidence as described above is the most important way to do this if you work actively on sustainable diets. However there are many other quick actions below that would also be impactful.
  • Another way to contribute, if you are a U.S. based organization or researcher, is to lend your personal and or institutional support to the My Plate, My Planet open letter which directly supports the DGAC’s recommendations on sustainability, and is already signed by over 100 organizations, academics, and public figures. To do so, and or to get a promotional package, please e-mail: info@myplatemyplanet.org.
  • Even simpler, just follow, share and repost content from the My Plate My Planet Twitter feed, or Facebook feed to stay up to date and help spread the word.  Please use the hash tag #MyPlateMyPlanet.
  • U.S. citizens may also sign the rapidly growing public petition (already over 150,000!) being gathered by a coalition of civil society organizations including Friends of the Earth, in support of the sustainability recommendations of the DGAC.
  • A further important way of leveraging your expertise, credibility and voice could be writing on the Guidelines to help keep the issue in public discourse and explain to a wider audience the importance of the DGAC’s recommendations. For example:
  • One option might be an Op-ed piece for a U.S. or international newspaper (see for example this Article by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Walter Willett of Harvard’s School of Public Health, and Gunhild Stordalen of the EAT Initiative)
  • An easier option would also be to blog on the guidelines (see for example)
  • Finally and most easily of all, please take this blog post and use your networks to re-distribute it as far and wide across other academic blogs, list-serves, websites and networks as you can.

With one month remaining to make the most of this opportunity, the major scarcity is time, and the major challenge is reaching all those that may be both willing and able to act.  

If you have any questions or would like to get more involved in the work of My Plate My Planet, please get in touch by e-mailing Samuel@myplatemyplanet.org