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The Trump administration is restricting scientific input into the 2020 dietary guidelines, which are the recommendations for nation-wide school lunches and food assistance programs. By excluding research on the negative health effects of red and processed meat, ultra-processed foods and the role of sodium, the move by the federal government is likely to exacerbate the global health and nutrition epidemic.
In an unprecedented move, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the committee giving recommendations for the 2020 dietary guidelines, have limited the number of topics to be addressed. Since 1980, the federal government has revised dietary guidelines every half-decade, and recommendations have an important impact on American and global health and commercial standards.
Of the 80 questions the committee has been asked to answer, some of the most pressing issues have been ignored, including red meat intake, ultra-processed foods, and high sodium levels. Only using studies that will be vetted by agency officials is likely to leave major scientific research out of the mix when considering the advice in 2020 that school meal plans and food assistance programmes will receive, as well as food manufacturers of products that will end up on shelves globally.
With half of Americans already living with one or more diet-related chronic illnesses, poor diet and nutrition is the number one cause of disease in the US, according to consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In a 2018 Food and Agriculture (FAO) report on the Asian Pacific region, we have seen a rise in the prevalence of obesity in many Asian countries, leading to a growing double burden of malnutrition. Given that many important studies providing the most cutting-edge data on nutrition will be excluded, the Trump administration’s decision to exclude important topics will worsen the global health and nutrition epidemic the world faces. Just last year, the EAT-Lancet Committee recommended a “planetary health diet” that involved a dramatic food system overhaul, a serious reduction in red meat consumption and a doubling of vegetable intake, which would solve many nutrition and diet-related illnesses globally.
It is also likely to severely slow down attempts at building a more sustainable food system in the middle of the planet’s climate crisis. As the World Resources Institute (WRI), the World Bank and the United Nations have reiterated again in a recent report, humans must make fundamental changes to food production methods – including a dramatic reduction in beef demand – if we are to avoid a global warming catastrophe.
This year’s panel is prohibited from studying and discussing the impact of food production and animal agriculture on the environment, which will mean that federal recommendations will not add in any requirements about reducing meat intake, which would dramatically reduce the country’s carbon footprint. As a Harvard study earlier this year found, if all Americans ditched meat, it would be the equivalent of taking 60 million cars off the road and would also provide complete nutrition. It will also prevent more action taken against deforestation in the Amazon, of which Brazilian exports of beef to the demand in the US is a major contribution.
Speaking to the Washington Post about the Trump administration’s restrictions, founding director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center said: “The dietary guidelines are under assault from multiple directions…veiled organisations representing the interests of beef, dairy and Big Food are pretending to use science to argue against the actual science and expunge key recommendations. Of course sustainability should be included…we need to eat less meat.”
Bonnie Lieban, director of nutrition for the CSPI, agrees: “Why ignore all this work already being done? My guess is the USDA wants to control the evidence…By excluding existing reviews, it can essentially ignore all of the previous reviews that made meat, dairy and sugary drinks look bad.”
This seems to be a plausible reason, given that the makeup of the committee itself is composed of many people with strong ties to the food industry. In a Freedom of Information Act document obtained by the CSPI, 13 of the 20 committee members have ties to big food, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the trade association of the snack food industry.
While the United States continues to lag behind on making food security and nutrition a priority, other countries have taken the lead. For instance, New Zealand’s Ministry of Health recently promoted plant-based diets as a way to cut down greenhouse gas emissions and encourage healthier food choices in their latest sustainability report. Health Canada’s revised version of its Food Guide this year also promoted more vegan food and removed dairy from its list of dietary recommendations.
Lead image courtesy of Jim Young/Reuters.