Eating sustainably is hard and, from an environmental perspective, nutritional guidelines don't offer any clues as to how sustainable an eating plan might be. Should I eat to the USDA guidelines? Go Mediterranean? How about low fat or low carb? Maybe I should become a vegetarian; no, a vegan! That's got to be the most sustainable diet, right? (Spoiler: It isn't!)
However you decide to eat, don't look to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for guidance about sustainability.
Why the FAO Report Falls Short
The FAO's recent report "2016 The State of Food and Agriculture: Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security" is a missed opportunity to provide, if not to consumers, at least to governing entities, guidance on what constitutes sustainable eating patterns.
The FAO does a great job of illuminating the various links between agriculture and climate change, and it is replete with recommendations for adapting smallholder farms in developing nations to increase resilience, utilize agriculture to feed the planet's burgeoning population and help mitigate the damages of climate change.
Unfortunately, the report falls short on recommendations to consumers, farmers and governments about what a climate-friendly [read: sustainable] diet actually looks like. This shortfall happened on several topics:
- First, the FAO steered clear of offering any real analysis of the impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on air, water and land, stating only that, "sustainable practices would lead to reductions of between 14 and 41 percent in livestock greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions," without outlining what those sustainable practices consist of;
- Although the report acknowledges that genetic diversity would improve resilience, there is no mention at all of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the controversy surrounding them;
- The report provides vague and ambiguous guidance on sustainable eating patterns. It acknowledges that "rebalancing diets to reach nutritional targets could...bring very large co-benefits, through GHG mitigation and improvements in the overall efficiency of food systems," but then references a study that demonstrates how eating to the USDA guidelines would, in fact, increase energy use by 38 percent and water use by 10 percent as well as increase GHG emissions by 6 percent.
Our Advice for a Sustainable Diet
What is an eater in the US to do in order to find guidance about eating sustainably?
All of the economic, political and social forces that drive agriculture favor efficiency and cost over the environment and, increasingly, health. One need only look at the impact of farming on water quality and water quantity as well as rising obesity and diabetes rates in this country to understand how important it is to find a pattern of eating that is nutritious, healthy and sustainable.
Unfortunately, the FAO chose not to go there. They dipped a toe when they should have taken a deep dive into how our diet can help sustain the planet as we strive to feed everyone nutritiously and curb global emissions of greenhouse gasses. More and more, studies are finding that a mixed diet that relies on sustainably produced meat and dairy products is the way to eat. And, as always, our advice here at GRACE remains: eat more whole foods and less processed food products; and eat less meat* but better meat. Strive to make meat (in all its forms) a supporting player on your plate and not the star of the show. This way you get all the necessary nutrients along with a more sustainable balance of real food that not only tastes delicious but is also good for you. (And definitely don't waste it!)
*Find out how to cut meat out of your diet for one day a week and reduce your environmental impact by 15 percent at Meatless Monday.