By Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions

What does agricultural sustainability have to do with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans?  About as much as liver has to do with ice cream or a muffler shop has to do with a sushi restaurant.  Some things just don’t mix and trying to force them together is not serendipitous but ridiculous.

The Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee presented last month to the Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls for diets “higher in plant-based foods” and “lower in animal-based foods” to increase agricultural sustainability.  But this betrays a misunderstanding of sustainability that perhaps does more to promote the underlying bias of committee members than good nutrition.

Sustainability involves continuous improvement, increasing effectiveness and efficiency, avoiding waste and maximizing productive capacity.  It’s not the purview of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and they should not try to force a spurious tie between nutrition and protecting the environment.  These are two different things.  I love liver and onions, and I love ice cream, but I would never try to mix the two together.  It just doesn’t work.

I was glad to see Agriculture Secretary Vilsack imply during a recent Congressional hearing that the updated guidelines ultimately prepared by USDA and HHS would follow “the statutory guidelines and directions that we’ve received,” presumably focusing on nutrition.  Likewise, I am pleased to learn that Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg expressed her intent to recommend to HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell that the dietary guidelines remain focused on "nutrition science and health."

Sustainability, while difficult to define, is hardly a new concern for America’s farmers and ranchers. Nurturing the land is central to the lives of those who produce our food and fiber and depend upon the ground beneath their feet to earn a living and feed their own families.  American consumers also care about sustainability—knowing that what they eat and drink has been produced with concern for the environment.  Younger consumers particularly are willing to pay more for sustainably produced goods.  As the term has become something of a buzzword, more organizations and companies have sought to highlight improvements made in environmental stewardship, economic and social responsibility. 

To me, sustainability focuses on maintaining and expanding the productivity of agriculture while protecting the environment and preserving productive capacity for future generations.  And it does not depend on American consumers switching to diets devoid of meat.  To suggest this is to advance an agenda that entails something other than nutrition.

Dietary guidelines should help American consumers make good choices for good nutrition.  Bringing a limited concept of sustainability to the table adds confusion rather than clarity to the guidelines.  Further, it only serves to polarize an already complicated conversation on sustainability.  We need a food production system that offers a wide variety of nutritious options for consumers that would not be possible without the many new technological advances in production agriculture.

Furthermore, there is an entire community representing all sectors of the supply chain working on science-based definitions of what approaches and practices contribute to agricultural sustainability—from farm to fork.  And they’re making good progress in reducing environmental impacts, saving energy and building up the soil to increase productivity.

What do you think?  Do you agree that the nutrition guidelines and sustainability are separate matters and the advisory committee has overstepped its authority?  Take a look at the report for yourself if you’d like. You can view the committee’s 500-plus-page document at  You can offer your own views by submitting comments at the same website through April 8. 

Let’s make clear that the agricultural community along with others along the supply chain are working hard on sustainability—and making good progress.  When HHS and USDA update the important and widely used dietary guidelines later this year, as they do every five years, let’s encourage them to maintain the focus on nutrition and leave sustainability to those who are directly involved in  addressing this issue.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems




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