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It’s time to reshape the food pyramid to save the climate

New agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack should change the dietary recommendations to include more plant-based food.

It’s time to reshape the food pyramid to save the climate
[Source Photos: zhaojiankang/iStock, Voren1/iStock, TonyBaggett/iStock]
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Now that Tom Vilsack is back at the helm at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for his second stint as secretary, receiving Senate confirmation last month, he’s been promoting conservation and a new bank to convince farmers to support climate action by paying them to capture carbon. Even before his confirmation, Vilsack indicated he was committed to sustainability, regenerative and climate-resilient agriculture and noted this month that climate change will be “the priority” for the USDA over the next year.

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This is welcome news though it doesn’t address the corporate consolidation of American agriculture, which is one reason why Senator Bernie Sanders opposed Vilsack’s nomination: Vilsack’s last gig was president and CEO of a dairy industry lobby group. (Nor does it address the criticism Vilsack faces for failing to address discrimination against farmers of color.)

If Vilsack is serious about sustainability, there is one action that he could take to help with much of the above. And it doesn’t require elaborate carbon capture and sequestration technology or accounting mechanisms as part of a new carbon bank. But it does require Vilsack to stand up against meat and dairy lobbies, which he recently represented.

Vilsack could integrate “sustainability standards and considerations” into the national Dietary Guidelines, a document published every five years by the USDA that guides U.S. food programs and nutrition policies. The Guidelines impact millions of American diets and millions of square miles of American farmland. The last time Vilsack was USDA secretary, federally appointed health experts serving on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that the department include these sustainability standards. Vilsack refused to do so.

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It was a simple lift. No new technology. No new accounting firms. No payments needed. Their scientific report simply recommended less meat and more plants, saying that it was essential for the health of America’s population and the planet. The report 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.” Meat and dairy industries fought hard against the committee’s recommendations, realizing how big of a deal it was for the USDA’s own Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to call for plant-based diets.

Times have changed, thankfully, and Vilsack’s previous “no” could now become a “yes.” The headwinds created by the Biden Administration’s climate-centric policy-making priorities create an easier integration of sustainability considerations at USDA. There’s more public and political will now for Vilsack to mobilize in any forthcoming fights with the meat and dairy industries, 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.

The scientific consensus has been mainstreamed and normalized in the news now, too, making it all the more difficult to ignore the emissions-heavy agricultural elephant (or rather, cow, pig, and chicken) in the room. Moving in the direction of what the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee encouraged—i.e., more plant-based diets—should be a no-brainer for Vilsack a half decade later. And if he’s serious about prioritizing climate change over the next year, this should be his first foray.

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First step: Shift America away from such a heavy reliance on beef protein, which contributes 150 times more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than soy protein, as well as pork and chicken protein, which are 20-25 times heavier in GHGs than soy. That’ll help America get substantially closer to its climate goals. That shift will also bring with it the benefits of reducing the pathogen-producing risks that come with the factory farming of animals, as well as avoiding the potential cancer risks that come with red meat—all good things for Americans’ health.

Second step: Ensure that these plant-based proteins are grown via regenerative organic farming methods. This will capture significantly more carbon than conventional, industrial-scale farming. Since Vilsack is keen to promote carbon capture in American soils, organic farming practices are far superior to conventional methods in storing the stuff. Regenerative organic farming also uses less water and fewer resources, avoids pesticides and herbicides, and establishes a more resilient soil-based foundation for future climate impacts.

We can do all of this without costing taxpayers or consumers more. No major expensive technological build-outs are needed. 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.

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This is Vilsack’s moment at the 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.


Dr. Michael Shank is the communications director at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.