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U.S. government rejects inclusion of sustainability in dietary guidelines despite expert advice

It has been announced that the U.S. will not be incorporating sustainability into the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans (which are updated every five years). According to a blog-post written by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services  (HHS Secretary) and Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture USDA Secretary, the US government does “not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.” The two argue that although the final recommendations are still being drafted, the final guidelines should remain within the mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA);  to provide “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines”… “based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.”

In a news-release from PR Newswire discussing the announcement by the USDA and HHS Secretaries, Columbia Professor Jeffrey Sachs states that the decision to not include sustainability is a "shameful abnegation of political responsibility". Similarly, Harvard Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition Dr. Walter Willett notes in a response to PR newswire: “Sadly, Secretaries Vilsack and Burwell have invoked censorship on a grand scale, again demonstrating the power of the meat industry to distort national policies and priorities. /.../ Neither health nor food security are possible without a sustainable food supply. Because climate change is accelerating and is already having a multitude of adverse effects, and the footprint of our current food system is massive, we urgently need to create a national food supply that is both healthy and sustainable”.

Just days before the U.S. House Agriculture Committee met with Department of Agriculture Secretary and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to discuss the process for developing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA),a paper published in the journal Science by public health and sustainability researchers at George Washington (GW) and Tufts universities argued that there was a critical need for the guidelines to incorporate sustainability considerations.

The paper, Designing a sustainable diet, argues that sustainability considerations would greatly improve the health and wellbeing of Americans and the world at large. The authors write that that adopting a reference to sustainability in the dietary guidelines would "sanction and elevate the discussion of sustainable diets." They also say that "by acknowledging benefits of sustainability, the government would open itself up to greater demand for sustainability investments and would signal to consumers that such foods are preferred."

The paper also reviews the heated political debate after the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee had released their recommendations where they advised that the new guidelines include sustainability considerations (including recommending that Americans eat less meat). They conclude that the reason for why sustainability became so contested is because:


  • Industry leaders feel under attack and believe sustainability evaluations may lead to future regulation.
  • Sustainability has the potential to change the current food-group guidance (e.g., fruit, vegetables, protein) to one that focuses on specific foods in food groups (e.g., chicken vs. beef vs. fish).
  • New political coalitions may form that further tip the balance in favour of sustainability, particularly when drafting future dietary guidelines.
  • Sustainability considerations may sanction and elevate the importance of sustainable diets, opening the government up to greater demands for sustainability investments and telling consumers that such foods are preferred.


Merrigan, K, Griffin, T., Wilde, P., Robien, K., Goldberg, J., Dietz, W. (2015). Designing a sustainable diet. Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aab2031

Read the full paper here (requires journal access) and see further coverage on the paper here.

You can see all the resources we have gathered relating to the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee including two blog-posts on the topic, find them directly here and here.

Further coverage of the announcement made can be found here (NPR) and here (CNN). See also this Politico article for more about the lobbying efforts which criticised the scientific accuracy of the advice and argue that sustainability is outside of the scope of the congressional mandate. You can also read this Friends Of the earth US news release: “Analysis finds strong support for sustainability, less meat in Dietary Guidelines”. For more on the legal basis for including sustainability in the guidelines see this blog-post by Michele Simon. The Conversation provides a useful summary of the intense debate around the medical journal BMJ’s investigation into the dietary guidelines advisory committee, criticising its scientific rigour and alleged conflicts of interest.

For a defence of the decision to not include sustainability considerations by Congressman Mike Conaway is the Republican representative for Texas’ 11th district and chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture,  see his post in US News “The Science in our Diet: The 2015 dietary guidelines report strays from fact-based nutrition advice – and that's a problem

Read more about dietary guidelines, food and agriculture policy, nutrition policy and governance and policy by browsing the categories of the Research Library. 

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