Food Pyramid Politics

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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For the first time in American history, the government is weighing whether sustainability should shape our national dietary guidelines. A draft recommendation circulated by a nutrition advisory committee argues that a diet “higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact.” The committee specifically called out cattle ranches as a contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions and deforestation.

Predictably, the beef industry is apoplectic. Advice to eat less meat would affect meal plans in schools, military bases, federal cafeterias and, perhaps more important, undercut the industry's claim that beef is what should be for dinner. Over the last few months, its powerful lobby has filed comments in the federal register and persuaded Congress to sneak a directive into an appropriations bill that declares sustainability, climate change and production practices beyond the scope of the advisory committee and warns federal agencies to ignore such suggestions in the final guidelines.

The congressional meddling made headlines. What the media failed to note, however, is that Congress is wrong. There is no limit on what can or should be considered in devising guidelines for healthy eating. The legislation mandates only that the guidelines “shall contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public… [and] shall be based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared.” Like the media, politicians don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

It is inarguable that sustainability is a focus of current scientific studies. And those studies prove that sustainability can shape the health of individuals and society as a whole. If there is no arable land to grow crops; if pesticide runoff poisons our waterways; if greenhouse-gas emissions nudge temperature levels too high, it doesn't much matter what foods a panel of experts tells us to eat to promote our health and well-being. We won't have a lot of options. Being healthy is about more than just eating the right nutrients—and we have an obesity epidemic to prove it.

Let's take a look at the recommendations themselves. Despite the political kerfuffle, they are far from radical—a world away from, say, Brazil’s new (and brilliant) guidelines that encourage families to cook from scratch and limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods. Here, the main advice is pretty much what you’d hear from any sane nutritionist: Americans should eat more plant-based foods and less meat, while decreasing overall calories. There's no mandate for eating only pasture-raised beef; no preaching that Americans should pay more for their food. The “environmental agenda” that critics allege is skewing dietary advice simply offers one more rationale for doing what we already know makes sense. “The addition of environmental considerations to dietary guidance can be accomplished because of the compatibility and overlap between favorable health and environmental outcomes,” the committee wrote.

Instead, the meat industry's fear-mongering is the latest salvo to stop the government from telling Americans to eat less meat. It's a decades-long battle that dates back to the very first dietary guidelines when, in 1977, then-Senator George McGovern was forced to change his committee's recommendations from “reduce consumption of meat” to “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.” As Michael Pollan explained in his 2008 book In Defense of Food, it was the beginning of a 35-year run of politicized, confusing-verging-on useless nutritional advice that brought us the infamous food pyramid and the notorious MyPyramid (remember the one with the little man running up the side?) and, finally, the useful-but-still-political MyPlate. Today Americans are desperate for simple advice on how to eat well and sustainably. Isn't it time for the government to give citizens what they want?