When the Dietary Guidelines slam meat’s eco-impact, industry’s response shouldn’t be to attack the committee for being off-base (even though they are). There’s a better way to respond.
As disturbing as it has been to find out that the Dietary Gurus — I call them that because their proclamations are based on ideology, not science — are bashing beef for reasons that are unrelated to nutrition, the industry’s response has been equally problematic.
By now, you’re well aware that the Scientific Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that people reduce the amount of meat they eat because it’s exacerbating global warming.
They determined that sustainable diets higher in plant-based foods — vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds — and lower in animal foods are more health-promoting and are associated with less of an environmental impact.
The committee explained that the “average U.S. diet” has a larger environmental footprint in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and land, water and energy use, compared with three other dietary patterns that have fewer calories from meat and dairy and more from plant-based foods: The so-called “Healthy U.S.-style Pattern,” the Mediterranean diet and a vegetarian diet.
Every word of those two preceding paragraphs is controversial, if not downright inaccurate. As has been argued many timeS before in this space, the “better-than” calculation that assumes people will be healthier by cutting out meat, as if they’ll automatically substitute fruits and veggies for burgers and chops, is wildly flawed.
In fact, we’ve all been part of that exact nutritional experiment. It’s called the previous five Dietary Guidelines, and for an entire generation now, we’ve been told that saturated fat and cholesterol are bad, so we must reduce our consumption of animal foods — which we’ve done. But the result has been a significant increase in consumption of highly processed, high-carb, high-sugar foods responsible for a monumental obesity crisis.
Now, of course, the Dietary Gurus have declared that cholesterol is no longer a villain. “[Cholesterol] is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption,” the committee stated, noting that the evidence “shows no appreciable relationship” between heart disease and how much dietary cholesterol anyone consumes.
But we still have to scale back on the beef and pork, not save our hearts, but to save the planet.
The pathway to victory
Unfortunately, the industry’s response to that dictum has targeted the committee’s motivation, not its recommendation. Instead of working to dispel the notion that livestock are destroying the planet, various authorities and spokespeople have attempted to discredit the committee members themselves.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s not as the Gurus’ newfound zeal to curb global warming by culling the cattle and hog herds has a whole lot of validity. It doesn’t.
It’s just that bashing the messenger when you disagree with the message is — at best — a short-term fix. Even then, it’s not very effective. Most of the time, the smear-the-speaker approach is a last resort, to be used only when the accusation itself can’t be refuted.
It’s similar to how many industry leaders have responded to the charge that saturated fat found in red meat is detrimental to cardiovascular health. Instead of explaining why such a charge isn’t true, many industry people have worked overtime to push the message that “today’s lean meats don’t really have much fat!”
That’s a mistake, for two reasons. First, the argument proceeds as the opponent has framed it: A “he said-she said” debate in which there’s rarely a definitive victory. Second, even if consumers could be convinced that beef or pork contains way less saturated fat than previously believed, they’re still being urged to eat something that’s only “slightly bad” for you.
The only way to win — and it ain’t easy — is to win on the facts. To deploy common sense. To use historical examples with which we’re all familiar. To eventually convince the majority of meat-eaters that the animal foods on which they grew up, on which humanity has thrived for millennia, on which 95 percent of the world depends for quality nutrition are hearty, healthy and wholesome, including the fat.
And the only way to stifle the debate over whether livestock production is the scourge of the solar system is to patiently and persistently present the truth — scientifically, anecdotally, emotionally.
Bovines aren’t going to ruin life on the planet. Millions upon millions of them have roamed Terra Firma for eons, and as science makes production ever more efficient (not just genetics, but energy use, crop yields, water conservation, etc.), the industry’s carbon footprint will decrease even further.
That’s the only way to refute the conventional “wisdom” that labels producers as lousy stewards of the Earth.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator