For the first time, a government advisory panel has taken the positive step of incorporating environmental issues into its dietary recommendations for Americans.
The recommendations say a diet with more plant-based foods – such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts – has a smaller environmental impact and more health benefits than the typical American diet, which is high in calories and contains more animal-based foods.
The departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services update the recommendations every five years. The agencies held a public hearing about the advisory panel’s 571-page report last week and will develop a final set of guidelines later this year.
Good for Health – and the Environment
This is a very positive step forward. These new recommendations should encourage people to include more plant-based foods in their everyday diets.
The agencies’ recommendations are not really anti-meat. The recommendations did not call for completely eliminating any particular food group from Americans’ diets but encouraged increasing the number of low-calorie fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods.
Going a step further than in previous reports, the advisory panel cited not only human health and nutrition considerations but also environmental and sustainability factors. I salute the panel for considering both.
I happen to be a vegan, but I don’t believe it’s my place to tell others how they should eat. That said, I was pleased to see the recommendations emphasize environmental considerations for the first time.
Based in Science
The dietary guidelines point to ensuring food security and long-term access to sufficient food as major reasons to adopt a sustainable diet. They define a sustainable diet as “one that assures this access for both the current population and future generations.”
What we eat impacts the environment in many ways. The guidelines cite environmental considerations such as use of land, water and energy. They also mention the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – livestock and crop production generate more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation industry.
Water use also provides a great example of food-related environmental impact. It takes 25 gallons of water to grow one pound of wheat. But it takes 100 times that to produce one pound of beef because of the sheer amount of grain cattle consume. Eating more plants and fewer meats can help reduce agriculture’s demand for water.
It’s important to clarify, however, that a plant-based diet is not an environmental panacea. Crop production itself can be a major source of greenhouse gases, habitat loss and water pollution when farmers use poor management practices. In certain settings – some savannas in Africa or South America, for example – traditional livestock grazing can be better for the environment than intensive crop farming. Farmers’ and ranchers’ management decisions matter as much as consumers’ dietary choices when it comes to protecting the planet.
One Goal, Many Strategies
Of course, people are free to make their own choices. We’re not advocating that everyone become a vegan or vegetarian.
Although we’re in favor of the advisory panel’s recommended shift toward plant-based foods, we know many people will continue eating meat as part of a healthy diet that works for them. Aware of this reality, my organization, the Nature Conservancy, actively pursues scientific research around sustainable meat production and works collaboratively with ranchers to develop sustainable agricultural practices.
We recognize that production of any type of food, whether meat or plant based, impacts the environment in some way. Knowing this, we work across all sectors of the food production industry, from helping fisheries implement sustainable practices to working with crop farmers to reduce nutrient runoff.
Additionally, scientists around the world regularly introduce fascinating ideas that could potentially be tapped to lighten the burden of meat consumption on the planet.
For example, scientists are working on genetically engineered alfalfa that will promote faster cattle weight gain, lead to higher-quality meat and decrease livestock generation of methane, a greenhouse gas. That adds up to more beef production per acre and less heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere.
Like many others, we want healthy people and a healthy planet. Achieving that goal involves pursuing not just one but a wide range of sustainability strategies. Eating plant-based foods is just one tool in our toolkit.
Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.