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US blazes trail on sustainable diets


Intriguing news has emerged from the US where, against all expectations, sustainable diets have landed on the food policy agenda. By recommending that consumers should eat more plants and less meat in its report to the Secretaries of State for Health and Agriculture, the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has for the first time included environmental considerations in dietary advice thus removing a major barrier to the adoption of sustainable diets. Its major findings were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current US diet.

This is music to the ears of proponents of sustainable food whose persistent advocacy of plant-based diets has gone largely unheard or ignored in policy circles until now. It’s also hugely controversial given the central role meat plays in the US diet and the power of the agricultural lobby to influence policy. Unsurprisingly, lobby groups representing the meat sector are already planning an all-out offensive in Congress to prevent the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) from adopting the recommendations. These groups have deep pockets and wield huge influence within Congress and will be confident of heading off the threat of guidance to reduce meat consumption. But regardless of the outcome, the fact that sustainable diets are part of the national conversation is an immensely important first step.

The report should also be praised for recognising that for sustainable diets to become a reality behaviour change at the individual level must go hand-in-hand with environmental approaches at the population level. The committee acknowledges the social, economic and cultural context in which people live may hinder their ability to make appropriate dietary choices and highlights the need for environmental policies to improve the availability and provision of healthy foods and beverages as well as food education and self-monitoring of diet.

Contrast this with Europe where the sustainable food agenda faces being marginalised just as it was starting to gain traction. The quiet burying of the EC’s communication on sustainable food, which would have provided an excellent policy framework for sustainable diets, is a worrying portent for the direction of travel for European food policy during the current parliament. In the UK, meanwhile, Defra’s recently launched long term economic plan for food and farming is depressingly short on sustainability rhetoric and big on deregulation and economic growth.

So for the moment we pin our hopes for a more sustainable diet on our friends across the pond. The committee’s advice marks the first strike in what is likely to be a long and bloody war.


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