From the classic food pyramid to the more modern plate diagram, the United States Department of Agriculture has created guidelines for healthy diets since 1980. Though they don’t control what we eat, they’re posted in our school cafeterias, projected in health classes and distributed at doctors’ offices. These guidelines do have an effect on U.S. consumers, which is why the USDA’s announcement on Oct. 6 stating they will not include food sustainability — how our food choices impact the environment — is troubling.
In a joint statement posted on the USDA’s blog, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said while they think sustainability is critically important, they “do not believe the 2015 [Dietary Guidelines for Americans] are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.”
But eating habits do impact Earth’s resources, and this cannot be ignored. Earlier this year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reported that a plant-based diet is not only healthy for our bodies, but also healthy for the planet. Raising livestock to meet the demands of U.S. diets emits high levels of methane, depletes trillions of gallons of water annually, dries out acres of land and produces thousands of pounds of waste per second. Our country eats a whole lot of meat — more than all but two other countries in the world — and the planet can’t keep up.
Though I don’t think the government should force us all into vegetarianism, there is a key role it could be playing in food sustainability efforts. The discourse around human behavior and environmentalism focuses primarily on household consumption — we’re told to take shorter showers, turn off lights and drive hybrid cars. But individual meat consumption poses a much greater environmental threat than any of those little impacts. One burger alone requires enough water to take 55 showers, and animal agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than all transportation combined. Yet we are told to devote our attention to little things like shutting off the tap when brushing our teeth, which, in the end, would have about as much impact as skipping showers for beef.
As a nation, we fail to confront an unpopular truth: to save our planet’s resources, we must limit our consumption of hotdogs and hamburgers. This is made more difficult when the lobbying power of meat and dairy industries prohibits plant-based diets from reaching a nation-wide scale. Following the advisory committee’s report, for instance, the North American Meat Institute created a change.org petition, Hands Off My Hot Dog.
Meat consumption has become a touchy political issue, but by educating ourselves on the environmental impact of our food, the predominant U.S. diet can gradually wean off its current unsustainable state. Environmentally conscious diets are necessary in ensuring a sustainable future, and we must accept that fact before we’re confronted with floods, droughts and a crippling lack of arable land.
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