Michael Shank: USDA far more open now to sustainability practices

This commentary is by Michael Shank of Brandon, communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and an adjunct faculty member at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Since receiving President Joe Biden’s nomination for secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack is indicating that he’s newly committed to a USDA that prioritizes sustainability, regenerative and climate-resilient agriculture.

It’s a welcome shift from previous stints as USDA secretary under President Barack Obama, when he declined to integrate “sustainability standards and considerations” into the national dietary guidelines, despite the recommendation by federally appointed health experts serving on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. 

When Vilsack was last in this role at USDA, the committee of federal health experts submitted a scientific report recommending less meat and more plants, saying it was essential for the health of America’s population and the planet. With the science to back it up, they stated that “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.”

These findings never made it into the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a document published every five years by the USDA that guides U.S. food programs and nutrition policies. In fact, then-Secretary Vilsack decided to stick with a 1990 mandate instead, saying that he did not believe that Dietary Guidelines for Americans were the appropriate vehicle for a conversation about sustainability.

Why did Vilsack say no back then? Because the guidelines are a competitive space, and the impact of the guidelines on American health and environment is substantial. It comes with the added benefit of modifying the National School Lunch Program and MyPlate (previously known as the food pyramid) and impacting millions of American diets and millions of square miles of American farmland as well.

Meat and dairy industries, in response, fought hard against the committee’s recommendations. They realized how big of a deal it was for USDA’s own Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to call for plant-based diets. Yet, industry shouldn’t drive our country’s dietary priorities if they fly in the face of what we already know regarding what’s good for the planet and good for the American people.

So, why is Vilsack saying yes to sustainability now? The Biden administration’s climate-centric appointments and policy-making priorities certainly create the headwinds for an easier integration of sustainability considerations at USDA. There’s also more public and political will now for Vilsack to mobilize in any forthcoming fights with the meat and dairy industry, including lawsuits by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and others demanding a transition to sustainable agriculture as part of fulfilling our, and our kids’, constitutional right to nature.

Additionally, the scientific consensus — that we must halve our greenhouse gas emissions this decade in order to slow devastating climate change — has been mainstreamed and normalized in the news, making it all the more difficult to ignore the emissions-heavy agricultural elephant in the room. That and the Covid pandemic have made Americans all the more mindful of the potential pathogen-promoting risks associated with factory farms and wet markets, and the accompanying cruel and unsanitary conditions that are constantly being challenged in court.

Shifting the USDA, then, in the direction of what the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee encouraged — that is, more plant-based diets — should be a no-brainer for Vilsack half a decade later.

By shifting America away from such a heavy reliance on beef protein, which contributes 150 times more greenhouse gas emissions than soy protein, as well as pork and chicken protein, which are 20-25 times heavier in greenhouse gases than soy, the USDA can play its part in helping America get substantially closer to our climate goals. That shift will also bring with it the benefits of reducing the pathogen-producing risks that come with factory farms as well as avoiding the cancer risks that come with meat — all good things for Americans’ health. 

By promoting regenerative organic farming, furthermore, we significantly capture more carbon than non-organic and industrial-scale farming. Vilsack is keen to promote carbon capture across American farms — and create a credit trading scheme for it — and organic farming is far superior to conventional methods in storing carbon. Additionally, regenerative organic farming uses much less water and resources, avoids pesticides, herbicides and hormones, and establishes a more resilient soil-based foundation for future climate impacts. 

The good news is that we can do all of this without costing consumers more. By reducing animal products, we’re cutting out the middle person, which in this case is the cow, pig or chicken, and we’re going directly to the source: plants. We increase agricultural efficiency and effectiveness and ultimately feed more people. 

This is Vilsack’s moment at USDA to think creatively and courageously about more sustainable agriculture and diets. All the headwinds are in his favor to lead boldly this year. Time and resources are in short supply. Federal health experts, years ago, pointed another path forward for USDA, and it is long past time that we heeded their recommendations.


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