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Opinion: The new US dietary guidelines miss a huge, crucial issue

It’s time for our government to take a stand and address the dismal environmental record of meat and dairy products.
Young cattle at the feed fence in an exercise pen. (Photo by Helmut Meyer zur Capellen/Corbis)
Young cattle at the feed fence in an exercise pen.

The heated debate over whether or not to include environmental sustainability in the 2015 dietary guidelines for Americans began nearly a year ago. In case you missed it: The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee called attention to sustainability and the effect of food choices on the environment. But when the USDA and DHHS released the final guidelines, these issues were off the plate.

A week later, sustainability made it into the State of the Union address. “No challenge poses a greater threat to our children, our planet, and future generations than climate change,” President Obama declared. But the president's lengthy environmental protection record includes no direct reference to what is arguably the greatest contributor to climate change: the disastrous impact of animal agriculture.

It’s time for our government — from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services to the White House — to take a stand and address the dismal environmental record of meat and dairy products.

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The production of meat and dairy products causes more greenhouse gas emissions — which are linked to climate change — than the production any other foods. Emissions from beef production are almost 10 times that of potatoes, more than 13 times broccoli, tofu, and beans, and 30 times lentils.

Water resources are also impacted. It takes up to 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. And the waste from animal agriculture can pollute waterways.

Wasted meat is also more detrimental to the environment than wasted fruits and vegetables, because significantly more energy is used in the production of meat compared to the production of vegetables, according to a University of Missouri study.

Then there’s the human toll. The production of animal products is linked to antibiotic resistance, influenza viruses, food-borne illness, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbance, according to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

The conditions animals face until they are ultimately killed are also deplorable.

But eating less meat and dairy products and more fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans not only keeps the planet healthier, it keeps humans healthier, too. That’s one reason why doctors like me would like to see greater discussion of sustainable foods.

A study published in BMJ Open found that those who consumed the least amount of red and processed meat products not only had a reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes, and colorectal cancer, they used less of carbon dioxide emission equivalents per year.

While the U.S. government has its head in the sand, the United Nations is making a call for simple, sustainable foods. For 2016, it is calling attention to the power of the humble bean. Beans are so beneficial to both human and environmental health that the United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. Pulses include lentils, beans, peas, and chickpeas.

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“Pulses … should be eaten as part of a healthy diet to address obesity, as well as to prevent and help manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary conditions and cancer,” said the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “In addition, pulses … have a positive impact on the environment.”

Plant-based diets also help fight obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and many other chronic diseases.

“One of our Government’s most important responsibilities is to protect the health of the American public,” wrote USDA secretary Thomas J. Vilsack and DHHS secretary Sylvia M. Burwell in the letter that introduces the 2015 guidelines. Adding sustainably to the 2020 dietary guidelines would help Americans make better sense of how — from production to the plate — the foods they choose can better protect their own health while protecting the health of environment.

Neal Barnard, M.D., is an adjunct associate professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine, and president of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He is one of America's leading advocates for health, nutrition, and higher standards in research.