From Plate to Planet: How America’s Dinner Choices Could Save The World

“Americans can eat garbage”, the writer Henry Miller once declared, “ provided you sprinkle it liberally with ketchup, mustard, chili sauce, Tabasco sauce, cayenne pepper, or any other condiment which destroys the original flavor of the dish.”

Perhaps he was being a little unfair. The nation that invented fast food has given the world a lot of good food too — and later this year the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, jointly published by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), will attempt to improve the American diet even further.

Every five years the guidelines are laid down to guide 300 million Americans in the right direction; to cut through the morass of advice on no-carb, low-carb and low-fat diets and tell people what the latest science suggests is good for them to eat.

But this time around, they are missing a huge — shall we say ‘super-sized’ — opportunity that could cost us all dearly in the long-run.

Last week USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack revealed that the guidelines will have nothing to say on how the food Americans eat is produced: nothing on the impact of food on the environment; nothing on sustainability; nothing on the impact that 300 million diets will have on the future of the planet.

This is incredibly short-sighted. The focus is all about the health of Americans — and not the health of the planet. What the USDA fails to see is that the two are completely intertwined.

The scientific evidence increasingly shows that diets that are unhealthy for humans tend to be unhealthy for the planet too. Diets primarily based on ultra-processed foods, meat and animal products aren’t just bad for the body; the production of them comes with a high environmental cost, leading to higher greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation. In contrast, those diets good for the body — rich in less processed, plant-based foods such as tubers, fruits and vegetables, and fair amounts of sustainably-sourced seafood — also take far less toll on the environment.

All this was recognized last month at the United Nations General Assembly, where the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted. These goals set out a roadmap for global development over the next 15 years — a route to a world that is healthier, happier, cleaner, greener and more equal. One of the most critical is SDG2: the goal to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

Getting it right on food doesn’t just mean helping those 793 million who are still going hungry every day; it means acting fast on the 2.1 billion who are now overweight or obese. Almost half the world is either eating too little or too much of the wrong foods.

We are seeing a rapid “nutrition transition” towards more Western style diets, with increasing urbanization and industrialization changing people’s food habits radically in less than a generation. The more demand grows for super-sized, ultra-processed, long-life foods — and cheap meat and meat products — the worse the public health crisis gets. Conditions like diabetes, stroke and heart-disease have reached epidemic levels.

That public health crisis is more than matched by the environmental crisis caused by unsustainable food production. The global food system is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the single largest driver of deforestation and the depletion of marine ecosystems.

Carry on down this road and, guess what? Down the line food production will become even more insecure; droughts and famine will increase; freshwater resources will decline; the plant and animal species we are dependent on will become extinct; and that will take a real toll on human health too. The global food system is, quite simply, broken.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Here is the key fact: we already produce enough calories to feed the world. We have the resources to feed everyone healthy diets. We even have an increasing appetite among consumers to eat healthily and sustainably, and to buy more locally and ethically produced fresh foods.

We can feed billions of people in a healthy and sustainable way — but to get there we need a fundamental shift in approach. Instead of ‘food’, ‘health’ and ‘sustainability’ being put in separate policy boxes, we must recognize that they are totally interlinked.

And instead of government, industry, science, healthcare and education all working in their own silos, we need a coordinated, international approach, with all those stakeholders asking: “how do we produce the right kind of foods, in the right quantity, at the right quality — all in a sustainable way — and how do we encourage people to eat them?”

Some might argue that the forces against any such changes are too strong: there is Big Food to contend with; the powerful agricultural lobbies; even the human appetite itself, which becomes quickly accustomed to the immediate neural hit of ultra-processed, energy-dense hyperpalatable foods.

All this is true. But remember the fight against Big Tobacco. The science and the facts overcame the noise of lobbyists, powerful economic interests and entrenched behaviors. Although food is undoubtedly more complex (not every ‘treat’ is a mortal threat to health), the same approach is needed. As with tobacco, the fight for healthier diets and a healthier planet must stem from evidence-based knowledge.

That’s why these US dietary guidelines matter so much. They aren’t a silver bullet to changing the diets of 300 million people, but they are a useful guide for everyone from policy-makers to homemakers. These guidelines could and should form a science-based goal from which national policies on food production could be developed.

Many other countries are already leading the way. The Netherlands, Brazil and Sweden have government-issued dietary guidelines that take sustainability into account. Germany is actively considering such a move. In short, the US is going against the grain of the rest of the developed world on this.

So the USDA need to re-think their decision and include sustainability in their dietary guidelines. It makes no sense for the US to sign up to the Sustainable Development Goals in one month, and then the next month — when it comes to telling their citizens what to eat — to ignore all the science that is out there.

If we are to reverse the trend of ultra-cheap calories, ever-bigger waistlines and ever-more damage to the planet, then we need to start now. We can place the earth on a healthier, more sustainable trajectory — and the US could once again prove its role as a global force for positive change. The USDA dietary guidelines would be a great place to start.