Friedman School’s Tim Griffin on Sustainable Diets

In another installment of the Tufts Environmental Studies Lunch & Learn Lecture Series, Tim Griffin of the Friedman School spoke to students and faculty last week on the topic of sustainable diets. More specifically, the focus was on how to bring sustainable agriculture and sustainable consumption in line with healthy dietary guidelines.

Griffin is the director of Friedman’s Agriculture, Food and Environment program and a former scientist at the USDA.

The talk began with a summary of sustainable agriculture, consumption and diets in the United States. A movement for sustainable agriculture began during the early 1980s farm crisis, as smaller scale farmers began trying to join profitability with socially acceptable practices and products and mitigate the negative effects of agriculture. Over time, most mid-size farms have disappeared resulting in a “bimodal” distribution in which most farms are industrial in scale or very small family farms.

Agriculture is responsible for 80% of world deforestation, 70% of freshwater usage, 30% of greenhouse gases, and is the largest cause of biodiversity loss (mostly a result of the previous statistics). Population growth and the ensuing increase in demand for food will surely increase agriculture’s already enormous footprint. Griffin’s question for the audience was what roles the private and public sector have in advancing sustainable consumption.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services(HHS) and the USDA publish dietary guidelines that reflect the latest nutrition science (remember the food pyramid?), so the Dietary Guidlines Advisory Committee would be an obvious place to start incorporating sustainability into the American diet. The current guidelines are referred to as MyPlate and do not cover sustainable agriculture or consumption. The guidelines do have a focus on food security, defined at the 1996 World Food Summit as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life,” and since food production requires non-renewable resources, the sustainability related decisions we make now will affect our ability to meet food security goals in the future. Other countries, such as Brazil and the Netherlands, maintain sustainability as an important feature of their dietary guidelines. Griffin cited 2014 article in Nature by Tilman and Clark outlining the environmental effects of different diets.

Tilman and Clark 2014

Tilman and Clark 2014

Dietary patterns higher in plant-based foods are generally more sustainable than animal or pescetarian diets. However, despite Griffin’s best arguments, the USDA and HHS blog states that sustainability will be excluded from the latest nutrition guidelines as too far out of scope.

There has been some discussion this year about whether we would include the goal of sustainability as a factor in developing dietary guidelines. (Sustainability in this context means evaluating the environmental impact of a food source. Some of the things we eat, for example, require more resources to raise than others.) Issues of the environment and sustainability are critically important and they are addressed in a number of initiatives within the Administration. USDA, for instance, invests billions of dollars each year across all 50 states in sustainable food production, sustainable and renewable energy, sustainable water systems, preserving and protecting our natural resources and lands, and research into sustainable practices. And we are committed to continuing this investment.

In terms of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), we will remain within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA), which is to provide “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines”… “based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.”  The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.