Art by Mateo Aguilar

By Krysia Zajonc

In his book on mindful eating Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “a grain of rice contains the universe. When we look at a grain of rice, one second of mindfulness and concentration allows us to see that this grain contains the whole world — the rain, the cloud, the Earth, time, space, farmers, everything.”

It may not be easy to find the time to see the whole universe in every grain of rice, piece of fruit or candy bar, but it is hard to argue with Hanh’s sentiment. So many environmental and logistical forces have to come together in just the right way to produce a single grain of rice, let alone enough grains of rice to feed a country or our entire planet.

Every five years the United States Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services appoint a group of independent scientists to a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (or DGAC) and task them with making recommendations for updating the nation’s nutrition guidelines. Both My Plate and it’s predecessor, The Food Pyramid, were informed by recommendations from a previous DGAC. In March this year’s DGAC published a 571-page scientific report with new recommendations. After wrapping up a 75-day period for written public response we are now waiting for USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell to decide if they want to adopt the new guidelines and officially update our collective Plate.

What’s different this year is that this marks the first time the DGAC has made a recommendation that people reduce their consumption of red and processed meats. Why? Because eating too much red meat is bad for people AND bad for the planet. This is not good news if you happen to find yourself in the business of selling red and processed meat. Unsurprisingly, the meat industry is doing everything it can to call into question the recent recommendations, most notably by claiming that environmental policy should not play a role in nutrition policy. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has so far sided with the meat industry telling The Wall Street Journal that dietary guidelines are about health, not the environment. He then followed up with some weird analogy about how he needs to color inside the lines like his preschool-age grandson.

All this may not seem very important as most of us don’t immediately update our eating habits based on changes to federal dietary guidelines. But the guidelines play a very crucial role when it comes to making decisions about government supported meals. Food service programs at many public schools, SNAP, WIC, the Military and other large government organizations are all required to use the official dietary guidelines to make purchasing and cooking decisions. So whether or not the guidelines inform your personal food choices, they have a huge impact on the diets of many people in the United States, and subsequently, on the land, air, water and lives of the individuals required to produce those diets.

Over 700 doctors, nurses, nutritionists and public health professionals are calling on the Secretaries to adopt the DGAC’s recommendations saying, “there is a strong body of scientific evidence indicating that a diet with less meat and more plant-based foods is better for our health,” and that “reducing consumption of industrially produced animal products is key to conserving water and reducing energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and ecosystem harm.”

Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, said in a statement that sustainability should be taken into account in the dietary guidelines for the sake of future generations.

“If, in an age when we know that food and water shortages are clear and present dangers, we choose to ignore them in our dietary guidelines, then these are not dietary guidelines for Americans,” he said. “They are, instead, dietary guidelines for the current generation of American adults, and at the obvious expense of all subsequent generations of American, and planetary, adults including, of course, our children.”

The Secretaries are tentatively set to release a revised policy document this fall that will make some or all of the DGAC’s recommendations official. The U.S. consumes more calories than any other country, and an admission in the form of concrete policy that our food has a clear (and in some cases devastating) environmental impact would make a strong statement to the rest of the world. Will they see the universe in a grain of rice?

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