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Politics of Dietary Guidelines: Sustainability Erased

In a joint statement by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell, it was confirmed that sustainability goals will not be incorporated into the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).  It appears that the exclusion of these goals represents a missed opportunity to embark on a much needed, more holistic approach to developing dietary guidelines that promote both the health of the population and of the planet. In the long run, these cannot be separated. Read more.

The Secretaries stated that they did not believe that "the 2015 DGAs were the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability." So if it is not in the purview of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to inform the discussion, then whose role is it to advance this conversation? What next steps are the Secretaries suggesting to move this “important policy conversation” forward? 

For the many highly-regarded professionals and practitioners who testified in favor of the sustainability goals, and the vast number of consumers who weighed in on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report, this decision is short-sighted and in part, influenced by well-organized food industry lobbyists. But this exclusion also represents an opportunity to demand a more comprehensive, systematic approach to national food policy and practices that embrace the right to food by all Americans. From their inception, the DGA have indeed suffered from a narrow focus. They were not designed to address food inequities, and despite that fact that nearly 15% of Americans experience food insecurity, the DGA have never addressed hunger or food insecurity issues in their MyPlate campaigns.  Although previous editions of the DGA have established the critical link between dietary patterns and population health, none have explicitly explored the documented impact of dietary patterns on environmental health.

In the joint statement closing remarks, Secretaries Vilsak and Burwell propose that “with these guidelines, we can empower Americans to take control of their health – for their families and themselves.” But given the intimate link between planet health and population health, the American consumer is actually dis-empowered by the decision to not include sustainability goals.

So where does that lead us? The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee laid the groundwork, reviewed well-respected research, and set the stage for moving forward.  Given that the Guidelines Advisory Committee has not been deemed as the appropriate group to advance a sustainability platform, it is time for the current Administration and political candidates to address food system reform. The development of a national entity that is charged with taking a bi-partisan approach to promote sustainable food system policy and practices would be one step in ensuring healthy and equitable food access for current and future generations.  As Olivier DeSchutter, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, acknowledged in his final report of June 2014,

29. In sum, we have entered a new century, and the questions we face now are different from those of fifty years ago. A new paradigm focused on well-being, resilience and sustainability must be designed to replace the productivist paradigm and thus better support the full realization of the right to adequate food. (

In light of the USDA announcement last week, DeSchutter joined others in the call for the development of a US national food policy that would address food, health, and well-being. Read more.

The overwhelming public participation in the invited feedback process to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report provides compelling evidence that many Americans want their leaders to be promoting a food system that is capable of producing health food for all, for generations to come. The exclusion of the Sustainability goals from the 2015 guidelines bolsters the need for individuals, communities, and states to press for a National Food Agenda that addresses the long-term equity and sustainability of the American food system.


Joanne Burke is the UNH Thomas Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the Racial Equity and Food Justice Working Group of the Food Solutions New England network.