THE HILL 08/31/15
By Michael Shank
Announced in the quiet of Congressional recess, new data published this week by Consumer Reports indicates that ground beef often contains bacteria that causes sickness in humans and resists drug treatment. Congress should take note. Fortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture already rolled out meat substitutes in school lunches nationwide, replacing meat with equally protein-rich alternatives. It’s part of a shift in national dietary guidelines, and it’s long overdue. Our current approach to diets is not only unhealthy but also unsustainable.
Federally appointed health experts serving on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee agree with this assessment and recommend a rethink on the future of American food and nutrition programs. Congress will want to pay attention, as the committee’s findings will have a major impact on what we eat.
In submitting a scientific report to the Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this year’s committee recommended less meat and more plants as essential for the health of America’s population and the planet. Hundreds of prominent environmental and health leaders agree, submitting a letter to HHS Secretary Silvia Matthews Burwell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, encouraging the adoption of sustainability standards and considerations.
Influencing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a document published every five years by the HHS and USDA that guides U.S. food programs and nutrition policies, is a competitive space as innumerable meat and dairy industries are also interested in altering outcomes and have been fighting the committee’s recommendations. Industry realizes how big of a deal it is for HHS and USDA’s own Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to call for plant-based diets.
It’s unsurprising that industry would be on the defensive. The impact of the guidelines on American health and environment is substantial. It comes with the added benefit of modifying the National School Lunch Program and MyPlate (previously known as the food pyramid) and impacting millions of American diets, and millions of square miles of American farmland as well.
Industry shouldn’t drive our country’s dietary priorities, however, if it flies in the face of what we already know regarding what’s good for the planet and good for the American people.
There is no question that a plant-based diet is key to sustainability and our survival.
On the production front, for example, we know that a unit of beef protein contributes 150 times more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than a unit of soy protein. That’s a whopper of a difference. Pork and chicken also have a heavy carbon footprint but are only 20 to 25 times heavier in GHGs than soy. Additionally, cows, and their methane, are responsible for 65 percent of livestock emissions, more than any other species, and beef production requires nearly 30 times more grazing land than chicken or pork production.
Going further, when you consider organic farming versus conventional methods, the gains are even more pronounced as organic agriculture captures significantly more carbon than non-organic and industrial-scale farming, which is often much more water and resource intensive. Organic farming’s health and environmental benefits, by avoiding pesticides, herbicides, hormones and genetic engineering, are also clear.
But it’s not just the environment that benefits from this and an immediate implementation of the committee’s dietary recommendations. Our health benefits as well. We need to shift away from diets featuring a heavy intake of meats (along with refined sugars and fats and oils), all of which is expected to increase agricultural emissions by 80 percent by 2050. By doing what’s sustainable for the planet, we also help prevent diabetes, heart disease, colorectal, ovarian and breast cancer, obesity, high blood pressure, and other diseases that lower life expectancy.
The good news is that we can do all of this without costing consumers more. By reducing animal products, we’re cutting out the middle person, which in this case is the cow, pig or chicken, and we’re going directly to the source: plants. We increase agricultural efficiency and effectiveness and ultimately feed more people. A Dutch study predicts that roughly 10.4 million square miles of grazing land would be immediately available, as well as 386,000 square miles of land that is currently growing crops for livestock.
As our population continues to grow (the U.S. has one of the fastest population growth rates in the developed world), we must think creatively and courageously about more sustainable diets. We simple do not have sufficient energy and water resources for a diet heavy in animal protein. The science committee points another path forward for HHS and USDA, and it’s one we must adopt soon. Do it for the health of this country. Do it for the American people. Do it for the heartland.
Shank is a professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and writes in his personal capacity.