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Victory for Meat Lobby After USDA Nixes Climate Considerations

Sustainable food advocates cry foul after sustainability considerations dropped from new dietary guidelines

Lauren McCauley

When the Obama administration said last year that, for the first time, it would take the environment into consideration when issuing its 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), the meat lobby came out swinging. But this week, it announced that climate considerations would be nixed, leading advocates to charge that money has once again trumped science—and the planet.

In a blog post on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) website on Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said that while "issues of the environment and sustainability are critically important... we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation."

Increasingly, scientific studies have shown the significant impact that a meat-heavy diet can have on the environment—in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use. A report published last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that livestock-based food production "causes about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is the key land user and source of water pollution by nutrient overabundance."

Sustainable food advocates are crying foul.

"This is a politically-motivated decision and is not based on either law or science," attorney and author Michele Simon wrote at The Hill on Wednesday. Countering Vilsack's assessment that sustainability does not fall within the purview of the USDA, Simon argues: "The preponderance of scientific knowledge currently tells us that food production impacts our diet, and thus should be considered as part of the DGA."

Since it was first announced last year that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee would be charged with weighing ecological considerations, the powerful industrial meat sector—which includes the North American Meat Institute, and the national beef and pork associations, among others—have been pressing the administration, hard.

As Simon notes, "the meat lobby is not happy with the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) conclusion that the government recommended cutting back on hamburgers, hotdogs, and other unhealthy animal foods, both for the sake of our own health, and that of the planet."

An investigative piece by Politico reporters Chase Purdy and Helena Bottemiller Evich published Wednesday exposes the billionaire-backed campaign that has been working to influence the debate. As Purdy and Bottemiller Evich note, the guidelines inform "nearly every aspect of how Americans eat, from what millions of school children are fed each day and the advice doctors give to their patients." 

An analysis (pdf), published earlier this week, of the 29,000 public comments on the Committee's recommendations for the new guidelines found "overwhelming support for including sustainability considerations and clear guidance for diets that include less meat and more plants."

In a statement provided to Common Dreams, Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager for Friends of the Earth's Food and Technology Program, said: "It is disappointing to see that meat industry influence in congress and over the administration is trumping science and public opinion in the development of the dietary guidelines."

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