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Developing dietary guidelines for Americans is an important and complex task. We can easily see that improvement in our diets is greatly needed. Developing credible and respected dietary guidelines is an important part of the problem, but we know the problem goes far beyond the guidelines. Scientifically sound guidelines and education are needed to change the path we are on.For the long term benefit to society, it is appropriate to consider the sustainability of our food system. This can be in the mix as dietary guidelines are created, but this should not carry much weight compared to human health and wellbeing. At this time, there is not a scientific basis available for assessing and comparing the sustainability of food products. There is a growing amount of pseudo science coming available that is primarily developed to condemn certain products and lifestyles. Most often this pseudo science is focused on the carbon footprint of products and related global warming issues. Although this is one consideration, there are many other environmental, social and economic factors that must be considered. A comprehensive assessment of sustainability is very costly and often requires years to complete. There are very few food commodities or products willing to make this investment. It is much cheaper and easier to make claims and get public acceptance through advertizing and similar endorsement. Following this type of information is very inappropriate when developing USDA dietary guidelines.In contrast to most parts of our food system, the beef and dairy industries are pursuing comprehensive assessments of their environmental, social and economic impacts. Scientific databases are being developed, which I have been involved with for several years. Progress is being made, but this requires years of development to get it right. Livestock production systems are very complex, so a full assessment of their sustainability is difficult. Unfortunately, few parts of our food chain are pursuing this type of comprehensive evaluation, and the assessment of a few important parts of our food system will not provide a basis for the development of dietary guidelines. Scientifically sound guidance can only be attained by assessing all important parts of the food system with the same comprehensive and objective rigor.One thing that has become clear in our work is that consumer waste is among the most important threats to the sustainability of foods. Of all the factors of sustainability considered in our food system, this is likely the easiest to address. I am not saying this will be easy; other components are just relatively small and more difficult to address in comparison. When you consider that up to 40% of our food is wasted, this has a major impact on all measures of sustainability. And this does not even include all the waste through overeating, which leads to further problems for human health. If we want to make a real difference in the sustainability of our food system, this would be a great place to start. Following the pseudo scientific facts spread through the internet and similar non credible sources will only lead to greater confusion among diet or food choices. I highly recommend that you stay focused on human health and wellbeing as you develop dietary guidelines. As better information on the sustainability of foods is developed in the years ahead, that also can be considered in shaping the guidelines. We need to be patient and wait until good, scientifically sound information is available to contribute to the refinement of our diets. Human health must remain the primary driver of dietary guidance, and this too must be founded on the best science available. There is much to be done to improve human health. Please keep that as your focus. By the time that is resolved, we will have better information available on sustainability issues and that can then be considered to further refine dietary guidelines.
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Last updated: 5/30/2016
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