I’m trying to finish this column quickly—because it’s lunchtime, and I’m hungry. For a cheeseburger, actually.
With that bit of carnivorous full disclosure out of the way, I’d now like to share with you some alarming truths regarding the environmental impact of the factory-farmed meat industry. Pollution and contamination on massive feedlots have been linked, time and time again, to a host of ecological and public-health threats: Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks, poisonous hydrogen sulfide emissions, algal blooms, and the nitrification of groundwater, to name just a few. On top of all that, the carbon footprint of the cattle industry alone is so large that some experts believe we could curb more carbon emissions by cutting beef from our diets than we could by ditching our cars.
As someone who enjoys a sustainably sourced burger now and then, I hope it never comes to that. But as someone who also cares about the environment—and who happens to put empirical evidence before ideology, for whatever that’s worth in this day and age—I think it’s a great idea to alert folks to the sheer untenability of how we currently raise livestock.
One of the best ways to get this message out would seem to be via the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, or DGAs, which are jointly issued by the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health & Human Services. Updated and published every five years as a detailed, reader-friendly report, they, in the words of their sponsoring agencies, represent “the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and nutrition education activities.”
But here’s the thing: While it’s perfectly fine—laudable, even—for the federal government to be discouraging obesity and encouraging healthy eating, the DGAs aren’t really telling us anything we don’t already know. If you’ve ever discussed your diet with a doctor, even for just a minute or two, then you’ve already gleaned whatever health- and nutrition-related wisdom there is to be found in the DGAs. And even if you haven’t, you’ve almost certainly received the DGAs’ commonsensical message through cultural osmosis. Don’t overeat. Go easy on the salt and processed sugars. Order the whole-wheat toast. Maybe opt for a salad instead of a cheeseburger. (Which I usually do! I swear!)
Even with regular updates, the government guidelines present time and again another straightforward and utterly non-news-making expression of dietary conventional wisdom. And every five years, the USDA and H&HS miss another perfect opportunity to make a bold, completely accurate, and much-needed statement regarding the intrinsic connection between dietary and planetary health.
But there were hopes that this might be the year to break that pattern, because in February, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—the panel of health experts whose report to the secretaries constitutes the scientific basis for the guidelines—recommended, for the first time, that sustainability be factored in to the DGAs. Citing already well-publicized connections between greener farming practices and health, the committee stated forthrightly that “[a]ccess to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the U.S. population. A sustainable diet is one that assures this access for both the current population and future generations.”
Despite this, however, last week, secretaries Tom Vilsack and Sylvia Mathews Burwell (of the USDA and H&HS, respectively) coauthored a blog post titled “Giving You the Tools You Need to Make Healthy Choices,” the presumable goal of which was to trumpet the imminent release of the 2015 DGAs. But in a textbook example of burying the lede, the authors waited until paragraph five of their seven-paragraph post to disclose the only bit of bona fide news to be found therein: That even though they believe “issues of the environment and sustainability [to be] critically important,” they “do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation.”
Translation from the original Weasel-ese: Sorry to have gotten your hopes up, everybody. But Big Ag paid us a visit, and it made us…uh…well, let’s say “reconsider” the wisdom of officially linking human health to a sustainable food policy.
At least that's what many assume: At some point between February and last Tuesday, the secretaries must have heard an argument that—to their minds, at least—won out over the concerns of their hand-selected experts, or of the public, for that matter. (According to one analysis, of the nearly 30,000 public comments made during the DGAs’ public-comment period, three-fourths of them support the sustainability route.)
Judging from the tone of satisfaction evident in recent commentary from Big Ag bigwigs and their friends in Congress, pressure from the livestock and meat-processing industries was sufficient to override the pleas of the people, the DGA committee, and the hundreds of environmental groups, public-health organizations, and experts who signed this open letter to Vilsack and Burwell in February. After last week’s announcement, an elected official from Missouri, Representative Vicky Hartzler, even tried pulling off the neat Orwellian trick of framing the decision in terms suggesting the complete opposite of what had actually happened. “I’m very excited,” she said, “that the guidelines are going to be science-based and not include issues of sustainability.”
Previously, Hartzler—who’s quick to point out that she taught nutritional science for more than a decade—said she found the sustainability-related recommendations to be “appalling,” singling out “the suggestion that a quality source of protein like red meat shouldn’t be a part of a healthy diet” as particularly disturbing to her, personally.
That, of course, was not even remotely what the committee was suggesting. But apparently, extraordinary overstatement in the defense of beef producers is no vice. Rather than engage in this important debate on honest terms, Hartzler (and others) would rather caricature advocates for a dietary shift toward more plant-based proteins as scolding prohibitionists: an insurrectionist army of vegetarian Carrie Nations, hell-bent on taking away the right of patriotic Americans to enjoy a hot dog during their Fourth of July barbecues.
In point of fact, the science is indisputably on the side of those who are arguing for such a shift. And it’s the folks on the other side who are distorting the issue—and playing politics with it. But credit where credit is due: These folks are very, very good at playing politics. So good, in fact, that they managed to outmaneuver the general public and the scientific community to get their way on this one.
Oh well. I guess there’s always 2020. Grass-fed, locally sourced, organic-beef cheeseburger, here I come.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.