Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dietary Guidelines & Sustainability: 25 Years Late To The Party

As both an RD and a farmer, I've been following the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's (DGAC) work with great interest. Since Thursday's release of the committee's recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, there has been much chatter on social media about what's "in" (cholesterol & caffeine) and what's "out"(saturated fats, added salt & sugar). But my real interest is in their inclusion of "sustainable diet" in their recommendations, so I downloaded Chapter 5 hoping for "something new" to the discussion of food production as it interplays with nutrition and health. I was most disappointed. I'm really taking off my RD hat and looking at this chapter from a farmer's perspective.

I think the dietary guidelines advisory committee is 25 years late to the party.....

Congress addressed sustainability in the food and farming system as far back as the 1990 Farm Bill. Under the law of the 1990 Farm Bill, the term sustainable agriculture means

"an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having site specific application that will, over the long term:

  • satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends.
  • make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."

From what I read, the DGAC did not acknowledge the 25 year old Congressional definition anywhere in the chapter on Food Sustainability and Safety. Instead they offered a modified Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) definition:

"Sustainable diets: Sustainable diets are a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations.

Food Security: Food security exists when all people now, and in the future, have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life."

The document continued by offering the following graphic:

Source: Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, Chapter 5, Food Sustainability and Safety
This graphic is interesting when compared to the 1990 Farm Bill definition because it basically mirrors what was implemented 25 years ago. What the DGAC is saying is we now need to move toward sustainability in  these new dietary guidelines.

What the DGAC is missing is that US farmers have already been moving along the sustainability continuum. We got the message 25 years ago and have been doing our due diligence to ensure that our food and farming system is both resilient and sustainable. 

So over the last 25 years, what has happened in our food and farming system to improve sustainability? According to the USDA annual Agriculture Resource Management Survey (ARMS)
  • Use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides has been declining in recent years, due to improvements in technology. 
  • Adoption of "best management practices" (BMPs) in fertilizer use (rate, timing and application method to conserve the resource and maximize plant uptake) has increased. A full 35% of all cropland has met ALL 3 nutrient BMPs, and a significant portion of remaining cropland has some BMP practice implemented.
  • US Farmers have increase resource efficiency, producing more food on less land with fewer inputs.
  • There are 96 million acres of cropland planted in no-till farming systems and that percentage has been increasing over time at a rate of 1% per year (Howard G. Buffet Foundation).
  • According to the Conservation Tillage Information Center, 109 million acres of the 239 million acres of US cropland practice conservation agriculture. 
  • As a result of conservation tillage, soil health has improved. Erosion has declined, microbial life has increased, and we are on track to making continuous quality improvements as a whole. 
Source: The Food & Agriculture Organization

These statistics were confirmed by the metrics analyzed by the Field to Market report which looks at national sustainability trends in US agriculture (also not referenced by the DGAC). Which perhaps behooves the question: were the experts were not aware that the 1990 Farm Bill defined sustainable agriculture, and why did they not use the plethora of data and statistics on sustainability practices from the agency charged with implementing the Dietary Guidelines (USDA),

But you ask, what about livestock? This is the crux of what the DGAC focused on in their call for American's to lower their meat consumption. That a meat-based diet consumes more resources than a plant based diet. 

Source: Animal Agriculture Alliance
There has been great improvement in the resources animal agriculture once used compared to today's production. Farmers and ranchers are producing more food with less resources than in decades past. While the DGAC fingers agriculture, specifically livestock, as contributing "up to 30% of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the data shows otherwise: 

Source: USDA Economic Research Service
According to the EPA "Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2012",  agriculture represents 10% of the GHG contribution. Where did the DGAC get 30%? Obviously not from the EPA. 

So am I saying that agriculture isn't a factor in the loss of resources? No, we're part of the problem, as is all human activity. We are also part of the solution.

Am I saying that agriculture has done its part? No, we have more to do. Science and research will direct the way for us to continue along the sustainability continuum. 

Am I saying that the DGAC should not consider sustainability in the dietary guidelines? I think that if this section of the recommendations remains in the final guidelines, it will need to be validated by experts in the field of agriculture and sustainability.

So I applaud the DGAC for the work they have done. It was no doubt a huge undertaking. As an RD and a mom, I appreciate the emphasis on eating more fruits and vegetables, increasing whole grains, things that we have known and continue to strive for. But I am disappointed in their lack of recognition of how far agriculture has come in the last 25 years moving our food and farming system greatly along the sustainability continuum. Sustainability is part of our daily lives on our family farms. As I blogged about last summer, Stewardship is our middle name. The DGAC came a little late to the party.