Eating for the Environment: The Potential of Dietary Guidelines to Achieve Better Human and Environmental Health Outcomes

By McCabe, Margaret Sova | Environmental Law, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Eating for the Environment: The Potential of Dietary Guidelines to Achieve Better Human and Environmental Health Outcomes


McCabe, Margaret Sova, Environmental Law


Agriculture and food production contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution. Shifting human dietary patterns has the potential to reduce such environmental harms while also promoting human health. Government policy, in the form of the United States Dietary Guidelines (USDG), recommends what Americans should eat and could play an important role in shifting the food system to one that is more sustainable. However, the USDG are an overlooked aspect of U.S. food policy. While many countries have moved to synthesize environmental goals with dietary guidance, the United States has taken the opposite approach. fn 2015, despite recommendations from the expert panel appointed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee), which recommended including sustainability considerations in the 2015 USDG, the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Agriculture rejected those recommendations reasoning that the sustainabihty perspective was beyond the scope of the USDG-enabling statute. This Article examines why that decision was wrong and how, based on international examples and sound science, the federal government should see the USDG as a powerful food system policy tool that can be used to promote human and environmental health in the 21st century.

I.    OVERVIEW                                          742
      A. The United States Dietary Guidelines           745
      B. The Nutrition Evidence Library                 747
      C. The Federal Advisory Committee Act             748
II.   EATING FOR THE ENVIRONMENT 2015                   751
      A. The United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory
         Committee's 2015 Report                        751
      B. Global Examples: China, Brazil, and Sweden     755
III.  EATING FOR THE ENVIRONMENT: THE FUTURE            759
IV.   CONCLUSION                                        763

I. OVERVIEW

What if U.S. food policy recommended dietary patterns that promoted not only individual and public health but also environmental health and food system sustainability? This idea is not far fetched and indeed is the trend in many countries today. However, in 2015, the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (the Advisory Committee) to include sustainability considerations was not only rejected by the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, the inclusion of the topic prompted Congressional hearings. (1) Despite this turn of events, this Article asserts that the United States Dietary Guidelines (USDG) are the unsung heroes of American food policy, in that they have the potential to improve individual, public, and environmental health outcomes in the 21st century. (2) Realizing their potential requires stakeholders to view the USDG's purpose more holistically so that they influence both individual eating and food production patterns. Such a shift will also require the USDG to incorporate clinical studies, population science, and environmental science so that they suggest eating patterns designed for nutrition, public health, and production and manufacturing of foods that contribute to a sustainable food system.

As an opening and critical premise, this Article presumes that sustainability is a fundamental value that should be encoded in American law and policy, if it is not already. (3) Without valuing sustainability, particularly in food law and policy, the American political system is illequipped to address the near- and long-term needs of its citizens. The U.S. food system is underpinned by an incredibly complex portfolio of law, regulation, and policy that largely overlooks one particular lever--the appropriate role of government in shaping eaters' (consumers') demand for certain products. This crucial issue--the way in which government policy might alter dietary patterns--involves a potent mix of government power and economic interests (not to mention that of individual citizens) that can be marked by hostile political battles that increasingly pit science against special interests. …

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