The Diet We Need For a Sustainable Planet

Federal nutrition advisory committee says eating more plant-based foods is good for you and for Earth

by Anna Lappé 

Forty-four years ago my mother, Frances Moore Lappé, published Diet for a Small Planet, a book that dared to suggest human beings could survive, even thrive, on a plant-centered diet and that doing so would be good for our bodies and the planet. Part meatless cookbook, part treatise on the roots of hunger and the waste, inefficiency and injustice of diverting prime cropland to feed livestock rather than people, her book went on to sell more than 3 million copies.

At the time, the messages in her book were so threatening to the meat industry that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the trade group for US beef producers, hired a team of nutritionists to prove her vegetarian recipes were inedible. It’s hard to imagine now, seeing as you need only tune in to the daytime talk show “The Chew,” flip open Food & Wine or sidle up to a table at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, to realize plant-centered meals are everywhere — and devoured.

Last month, some four decades after my mom published that book, the scientific advisory committee for the federal nutrition guidelines, which inform everything from food stamps to school lunches, recommended for the first time that Americans choose a more plant-centered diet for both health and environmental reasons. The committee’s report states:

A diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods, is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.

And, as the advisory committee notes, the average US diet currently “has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use.” That’s in part because we eat more red meat and poultry per capita than anywhere else in the world, save Luxembourg.

Studies show that reducing red meat and poultry consumption is a key way to cut water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Beef is the main culprit: A 2014 study found that beef production in the United States requires 28 times as much land and produces five times as much greenhouse gas emissions as the average production of other livestock. And a 2012 comparative analysis (PDF) of water use across a wide variety of foods found beef was the most water intensive, with a water footprint per gram of protein six times as large as for legumes.

Thankfully, there are ample meatless ways to get the protein we need — say, from those water-thrifty legumes. One cup of cooked lentils delivers 18 grams of protein; a cup of kidney beans, 15 grams; a cup of quinoa, 8 grams. Protein can even be found in foods where some least expect it, such as spinach and mushrooms.

But before you go grabbing the nearest Big Mac and declaring, Charlton Heston–style, “From my cold, dead hands!” note that the recommendations are not touting extremism. They’re calling for a modest reduction, which should be an easy ask for the typical American, who is consuming 70 percent more protein than his or her body can even use. This is a small step that’s based on common sense and science. As Bob Martin, the director of food system policy at Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future, said, “Even just cutting meat out of your diet one day a week can significantly reduce saturated fat in your diet while providing a big environmental benefit.”

But once again the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other trade groups threatened by these regulations are in PR high gear. Lobbyists in Washington are hitting Capitol Hill to try to prevent these recommendations from ending up as part of official federal nutrition guidelines.

Today stakeholders from around the country will testify about these recommendations at a hearing for the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The speakers will include representatives of the more than 120,000 people who signed a petition calling on these agencies to heed the advisory committee’s recommendations. Among those set to testify is Kari Hamerschlag from the environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth, who said that “implementing these guidelines could mean billions saved in avoided health care costs from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other diet-related diseases that have been associated with high meat consumption.” In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists studied (PDF) how much the nation could save on health care if we the people ate our daily recommended fruits and vegetables (something few of us do at the moment): a whopping $16 billion annually.

Timed with the hearing on the Hill, a full-page open letter is running today in The New York Times and The Washington Post, signed by more than 100 groups and individuals — from leading health experts to celebrity chefs to my mom — calling on our elected leaders to listen to the science and not the spin. These recommendations are good for our health and for the planet: What could be better than that?

Originally published in Al Jazeera America

Photo by Eric Osmundson/Flickr