Agricultural interests object to healthy eating recommendations

Thomas Vilsack, secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appeared before the House Agriculture Committee on Oct. 7 to respond to criticism of the “Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee” by members of the agriculture committee.

Chief among the complaints was the recommended strategy that public bodies consider using “economic and pricing approaches… to promote the purchase of healthier foods and beverages” and “evaluat(e) the environmental impact of a food source.”

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Every five years beginning in 1980, the USDA and HHS have established a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) to examine the scientific evidence and make a report that their agencies can use to make dietary recommendations. The updated recommendations are slated to be released by the end of the calendar year.

The 2015 committee said its “work was guided by two fundamental realities. First, about half of all American adults — 117 million individuals — have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, and about two-thirds of U.S. adults — nearly 155 million individuals — are overweight or obese… (in part, the result of) poor dietary patterns, overconsumption of calories, and physical inactivity.”

The committee wrote “the U.S. population should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains.”

Various elements of these recommendations drew the ire of supporters of the fast-food industry, cattle producers and food processors. Given the documented evidence that the current U.S. diet is responsible for the increase in the number of people affected by food-influenced illnesses from diabetes to heart disease and obesity, it is clear that it would be impossible to make a set of recommendations that would not offend some political constituency or other, including various agricultural producers.

No doubt many agricultural producers will view the new guideline unfavourably. Yet it would be difficult for producers to effectively argue for the overproduction and overconsumption of products that can be shown to have short- and long-term negative health outcomes. To fight recommendations that are based on the best current evidence would likely erode the credibility of the industry in the long run.

It should be noted that the guidelines did not call for the elimination of products like red and processed meats, sugar, and refined grains from the diet. It urged moderation. At the same time, it opened the way for increased production of fruits, vegetables, whole grains (which includes food grains like barley and millet that have limited production today), dried beans and farm-raised fish.

These changes will affect some parts of the agricultural community, and some areas of the country, more than others. At the same time, because changes in diets occur gradually over time, the affected producers, supported by their Land Grant research institutions, will have the opportunity and time to adapt to changes in consumer demand.

Harwood D. Schaffer is a research assistant professor in the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee. Daryll E. Ray is emeritus professor, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee.

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