Congress Doesn't Think Health and Environmental Issues Are Linked

Every five years, the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA get together, put their best and brightest nutrition experts in a room, and come up with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These are recommendations for how Americans should eat if they want to prevent chronic disease and stay healthy. Generally, they consist of things like "Cut down on fried foods," "Don't drink a ton of alcoholic beverages," and "Don't smoke, ever."

But this time out, the committee's been considering a few extra recommendations. In addition to their normal suggestions, they've also been looking at issues like sustainability, environmental concerns, and the depletion of natural resources. In doing so, they hope to get a sense of how much those things should be taken into consideration when developing a healthy diet.

And Congress just basically told them to knock it off.

Story continues below

While the guidelines have not yet been released -- the debates are being waged behind closed doors, so we don't have much actual information from the advisory committee to go off of -- there have been numerous clues as to this shift in focus. Back in January, the committee invited a group of experts to make presentations. One was Dr. Kate Clancy, a nutritionist who, in 1986, co-authored "Dietary Guidelines for Sustainability," a paper urging fellow nutritionists to look at sustainability as a way of promoting human health.

As Clancy and co-author Dr. Joan Gussow put in their intro:

We wish to argue here, however, that information on the relationship between human health and food choices is not a sufficient basis for nutrition education. In our time, educated consumers need to make food choices that not only enhance their own health but also contribute to the protection of our natural resources. Therefore, the content of nutritional education needs to be broadened and enriched not solely by medical knowledge, but also by information arising from disciplines such as economics, agriculture, and environmental science.

This, again, was way back in 1986. But now, nearly 30 years later, Clancy was finally given the opportunity to make her point to the panel and possibly change the American concept of a healthy diet.

Except, well, Congress had to stick their dumb noses in the situation. As part of the enormous spending bill they just approved, they tacked on a bunch of "congressional directives" to the end. And here's one of them:

There is concern that the advisory committee for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is considering issues outside of the nutritional focus of the panel. The advisory committee is showing an interest in incorporating agriculture production practices and environmental factors into their criteria for establishing the next dietary recommendations. The agreement expects the Secretary to ensure that the advisory committee focuses on nutrient and dietary recommendations based upon sound nutrition science.

Now, the directives aren't legally binding. They're just Congress putting things out there, but doing so in the same passive-aggressive tone as your boss when they "ask" you to stay a little late on Friday. "If the advisory committee wants to go forward with this focus on environmental issues, well, they're welcome to do so," is the sentiment. "But they also may have some issues when they want to release their official guidelines in 2015." In short: Congress is essentially trying to bully nutritionists into saying there's no link between a person's health and the environment.

The problem is, that's not the reality. The two issues are intertwined.

On a sprawling topic like this, it's easy to go off an tangents, as there's an endless supply of ways in which the two link up. So instead of going down that rabbit hole, I'm going to focus on just one linkage here: The raising of farm animals for meat.

Forget, for a moment, about the ethics of such an activity. Instead, let's simply throw out some statistics: Thirty percent of the world's ice-free land is used to grow animals for meat. Meat-eaters have twice the carbon footprint of vegetarians. The raising of livestock contributes to 14.5% of all human-created greenhouse gas releases. When you're dealing with stats of that magnitude, there's really no need to link the specific numbers. Anything on that huge of a scale is bound to have an effect on human health.

But, if you do need a more direct linkage, there's also this: Eighty percent of antibiotics used in America are given to animals, and in 2013, antibiotics resistance contributed to over two million human illnesses in the U.S.

For the first time in our nation's history, nutritionists are actually getting together and trying to look at how external issues associated with diet can affect human health. But instead of allowing them to do so, Congress is trying to stop them. One can only hope the nutritionists don't cave in to these bullying tactics.

Want recipes and food news emailed directly to you? Sign up for the new Food newsletter here!

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading