US Government scientific panel explores food sustainability

Every five years the US Government establishes a scientific panel to review the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This year, for the first time, the panel included food sustainability as part of its study. Two definitions provided by the Panel are relevant:

Sustainable diets: Sustainable diets are a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations.

Food security: Food security exists when all people now, and in the future, have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.

Among the panel’s findings in the area of food sustainability:

  • the environmental impact of food production is considerable and if natural resources such as land, water and energy are not conserved and managed optimally, they will be strained and potentially lost. The global production of food is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of fresh water use, and up to 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It also is the largest cause of species biodiversity loss.
  • meeting current and future food needs will depend on two concurrent approaches: altering individual and population dietary choices and patterns and developing agricultural and production practices that reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources, while still meeting food and nutrition needs.
  • a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.
  • the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern.
  • no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.
  • to supply enough seafood to support meeting dietary recommendations, both farm-raised and wild caught seafood will be needed. In the species evaluated, farm-raised seafood has as much or more EPA and DHA per serving as wild caught. It should be noted that low-trophic seafood, such as catfish and crawfish, regardless of whether wild caught or farm-raised seafood, have less EPA and DHA (both EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids) per serving than high-trophic seafood, such as salmon and trout.
  • for the majority of wild caught and farmed species, neither the risks of mercury nor organic pollutants outweigh the health benefits of seafood consumption.
  • consistent evidence demonstrates that wild caught fisheries that have been managed sustainably have remained stable over the past several decades; however, wild caught fisheries are fully exploited and their continuing productivity will require careful management nationally and internationally to avoid long-term collapse.
  • the impact of food production, processing, and consumption on environmental sustainability is an area of research that is rapidly evolving. As further research is conducted and best practices are evaluated, additional evidence will inform both supply-side participants and consumers on how best to shift behaviors locally, nationally, and globally to support sustainable diets. Linking health, dietary guidance, and the environment will promote human health and the sustainability of natural resources and ensure current and long-term food security.

Among the Panel’s recommendations:

  • Enhance what is already being done by the private and public sectors to improve environmental policies and practices around production, processing, and distribution within individual food categories.
  • Support robust private and public sector partnerships, practices, and policies across the supply chain and extending from farms to distribution and consumption that can incentivize actions to develop a food system that embraces a core set of values that embody healthy, safe, and sustainable dietary patterns. Monitor, evaluate, and reward sectors that do this.
  • Establish new, well-coordinated policies that include, but are not limited to, agriculture, economics, transportation, energy, water use, and dietary guidance. Encourage all participants in the food system, as they are central to creating and supporting sustainable and safe diets.
  • Shift toward a greater emphasis on healthy dietary patterns and an improved environmental profile across food categories to maximize environmental sustainability, including encouraging consumption of a variety of wild caught or farmed seafood.
  • Improve the nutrient profiles of certain farmed seafood species, particularly EPA and DHA levels, through improved feeding and processing systems and preserve the favorable nutrient profiles of other seafood.
  • Establish strong policy, research, and 390 stewardship to improve the environmental sustainability of farmed seafood systems.
  • Offer consumer-friendly information that facilitates understanding the environmental impact of different foods in food and menu labeling initiatives.

The 571 page report is available at It is a long report with a great deal of information about nutrition as well as food sustainability and safety but it is well worth reading not only for the entire food industry but also for everyone who eats!

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