Congress To Nutritionists: Don't Talk About The Environment
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There's that catchy phrase you are what you eat. Well, some nutrition experts say it's much more than that. What we eat can affect the world around us. A group of those experts - the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee - is meeting in Washington today. They're working on new guidelines for how to maintain a healthy diet, and for the first time, they are examining how our diet affects the environment. We are about to hear why lawmakers are telling those nutritionists to back off. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: One of the first people in the nutrition community pushing for a marriage of nutrition and environmentalism was Kate Clancy. Thirty years ago, she wrote an article aimed at her fellow nutritionists saying when they give advice about food, they shouldn't just consider what makes people healthy, they should also think about food that makes for healthy soil and water.
KATE CLANCY: Take a broader view of what they were advising people to do with regard to their diet. It wasn't just nutrients. It was foods, and it was many other things, including the environment.
CHARLES: Earlier this year, Clancy finally got an invitation to make her case to that committee working on the dietary guidelines.
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CLANCY: Good morning, everyone. Let me say that after 30 years of waiting the fact that this committee is addressing sustainability issues brings me a lot of pleasure.
CHARLES: The fact that Clancy was there at all is a big shift in the world of dietary guidelines because this group of academic experts has decided for the first time to consider what it calls sustainability - basically whether the planet can actually supply the kind of diet that the guidelines recommend. Members of this committee are not allowed to talk to the press about their work, but Timothy Searchinger, a researcher with Princeton University and the World Resources Institute, an environmental group, says this shift is important because producing food already claims half of all land where vegetation can grow. Farming is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases.
TIMOTHY SEARCHINGER: That doesn't mean farmers are bad. It means that eating has a big impact on the environment.
CHARLES: And the impact will grow along with the world's population. So if you would like to reduce your personal impact...
SEARCHINGER: Probably what you eat is more important than anything else.
CHARLES: You can have endless arguments about exactly which foods are worse than others, but researchers, such as economist Thomas Hertel at Purdue University, say a few big points are pretty clear. One is producing meat, especially beef, is especially costly. Beef cattle release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Also growing the feed for animals takes a lot of land. Hertel says around the world people are demanding more meat, and that's pushing farmers to clear forests and plow up grasslands.
THOMAS HERTEL: That's been a major source of greenhouse gas emissions over the last couple of decades.
CHARLES: So if Americans who eat a lot of meat ate a little less, there would be a little less pressure on the world's remaining forests. This is what the Dietary Guidelines Advisory panel has been talking about. Here's Miriam Nelson from Tufts University at a session a few months ago.
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MIRIAM NELSON: In general a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods is more health-promoting, and it is associated with lesser environmental impact.
CHARLES: The committee has run into criticism. The Meat Institute, which represents meat producers, says nutritionists don't have the expertise to take on environmental questions. But the most powerful opponents it seems are in Congress. They've attached a document called congressional directives to the massive spending bill that'll keep the government running. And one of those directives expresses concern about this shift in the dietary guidelines about considering environmental effects. It orders the Obama administration to include only nutritional information in those guidelines. This directive is not legally binding, but ignoring it would provoke yet another political fight. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.