Diet for a Healthy Planet

posted by Ashley Schaeffer Yildiz

LGEG_Grains.pngWill the U.S. Government finally weigh the climate impacts of our food choices when determining official recommendations on what Americans should be eating?


All eyes are on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee this week. For the first time ever, these U.S. agencies are determining what constitutes a diet that’s not only healthy for our bodies, but good for our planet too. This means figuring out how to integrate ecological health concerns into their recommendations on what we should be consuming.


The Committee will be deliberating these issues at their public meeting on September 16 and 17, the last public meeting before the release of final draft guidelines in early 2015. As Kari Hamerschlag of Friends of the Earth puts it, “if the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee has its way, America’s dinner plates are about to include a healthy portion of much needed environmental awareness.”


It is encouraging that our government is providing direction on food choices that are better for human health and the planet, but it’s essential that it pay closer attention to science when making recommendations or new rulings that affect millions of people. Specifically, it’s essential the government factor in the climate footprint of any given food before determining it is healthy for people or planet.


Let’s be honest: climate change is scary. The National Academy of Sciences published a study in 2013 explaining how 1,700 American cities – including New York, Boston, and Miami – will become locked into some amount of submersion from rising sea levels unless expensive new dykes and levees can hold back the rising waters. In fact, the International Energy Agency has warned that major action by 2017 may be the last real chance to reverse climate change before it’s too late.


To reverse climate change before it’s too late we must take speedy and large-scale action in the food, agriculture, and forestry sectors. We must eliminate foods with the highest climate footprint from our diet and transition to a diet higher in plant proteins, support local agriculture, and halt tropical deforestation for palm oil.


For example, consider the massive climate footprint of two highly consumed commodities: palm oil and beef. Whenever the causes of climate change are discussed, fossil fuels top the list. Oil, natural gas and especially coal are indeed major sources of human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions. But what about rainforest destruction and meat production?


Palm Oil

In November 2013 the Food and Drug Administration signaled the end for heart-harmful, artificial trans fats in our foods. This was a huge step forward and a long time coming, but the unintended consequences have been dire for our climate. Food manufacturers have raced to remove hydrogenated oils from their products and as the primary replacement oil have turned to Conflict Palm Oil. Palm oil production is one of the world’s leading drivers of climate change and of rainforest destruction. As RAN ED Lindsey Allen warned in her New York Times Letter to the Editor, “a healthy diet is one that also contributes to a healthy environment. Companies do listen when we speak. Let’s make sure that they know that we don’t want Conflict Palm Oil in our snacks either.”



The United Nations currently estimates that livestock production alone is responsible for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. (One 2009 analysis by World Watch put the number significantly higher, arguing that “the life cycle and supply chain of domesticated animals raised for food have been vastly underestimated as a source of green house gas emissions (GHGs) and in fact account for at least half of all human caused GHGs.”)


Therefore it’s no surprise that the two of the most credible sources on the science behind climate change, United Nations Environmental Program and Nature Climate Change, suggest that “the fastest way to address climate change would be to reduce significantly the amount of meat that people eat.”* Animal-based foods (meat, dairy products, and eggs) are resource-intensive, inefficient, and polluting. Their production requires massive amounts of water, land, and energy. The byproducts of animal agriculture pollute our air and water and contribute significantly to global climate change.


As Kari Hamerschlag pointed out in her post, at its July public meeting, Miriam Nelson, chair of the Sustainability and Food Safety Subcommittee, made clear that their review of 1600 studies provided overwhelming evidence of significant environmental impacts of “higher consumption of animal foods” and that “a dietary pattern lower in animal based foods and higher in plant foods has lesser environmental impact and at same time is more health promoting than the current American diet.”


Although meat consumption has dropped in the U.S. in recent years, we still consume significantly more meat than what is recommended by current USDA guidelines and we have the highest per capita meat consumption in the world. And unlike some parts of the world, the vast majority of this meat is produced from animals raised in cruel and unsanitary conditions on factory farms.


Given the severity of risk that climate change poses to all of humanity and the role our industrialized food system plays in climate change, it is critical that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee provide Americans with recommendations grounded in science.


*Davies Boren Z. 2014 Apr 10. US government searching for “cow of the future” to save the environment. The Telegraph; Ripple WJ, Smith P, Haberl H, Montzka SA, McAlpine C, Boucher DH. 2014 Jan. Commentary: ruminants, climate change, and climate policy. Nature Climate Change. pp. 1–4.

*Hertwich E, van der Voet E, Suh S, Tukker A, Huijbregts M, Kazmierczyk P, Lenzen M, McNeely J, Moriguchi Y. 2010. Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials, A Report of the Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management. UNEP.