The Slatest

Meat-Loving Republicans Cowed the White House Into Ignoring Expert Nutrition Advice

Cattle gather for their morning feeding on a farm on August 9, 2014 near Osage, Iowa.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Early this year, the nation’s top nutrition advisory panel offered some common-sense advice to the federal agencies tasked with writing the nation’s next set of dietary guidelines: Americans, the panel said, should be urged to eat less meat for the sake of the environment.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration effectively responded, Thanks, but our hands are tied.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, whose agencies are currently at work writing the final guidelines, buried the news in a joint statement that paid lip service to the idea that “the environment and sustainability are critically important” but that ultimately concluded that the nutritional guidelines are not “the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.” What the appropriate vehicle is, the two secretaries did not say.

The timing of the announcement, though, tells us plenty about why Vilsack and Burwell decided to ignore the advice of an expert panel that their agencies have traditionally listened closely to when drafting their pyramid- and plate-themed guidelines. On Wednesday, both secretaries are scheduled to testify in front of the Republican-led House Agriculture Committee. The panel’s chairman, K. Michael Conaway, was among the GOP leaders who had a livestock industry-endorsed freak-out over the idea that the administration would dare to consider the sustainability of Americans diets, particularly when doing so would mean telling people to cut down on their meat intake. Rep. Robert Aderholt, the Alabama Republican who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls the Agriculture Department’s purse strings, even went as far earlier this year as to threaten that the department could be subject to budget cuts if it decided to follow the nutrition experts’ advice.

Given that, it appears as though the Obama administration is simply, albeit sadly, unwilling to open up another front in Washington’s climate wars at a time when Republicans are unwilling to accept the scientific consensus about global warming. The political rationale for avoiding the fight, though, is much easier to justify than the scientific case for doing so. The eat-less-meat proposal had the backing of both public health officials, who argued that it could save the nation billions of dollars in health care costs, and climate scientists, who saw it as a way to curb U.S. emissions.

As I explained earlier this year, the climate case for eating less meat is particularly powerful: Livestock accounts for 14.5 percent of the world’s human-caused emissions, nearly half of that coming from the resources needed to grow and ship the corn and soy that most of the animals eat, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. A meat-eater’s typical diet is responsible for almost twice as much global warming as your typical vegetarian’s and almost triple that of a vegan, according to a report published in the journal Climatic Change last year. That Oxford University study suggested that cutting your meat intake in half could cut your carbon footprint by more than 35 percent. Beef, meanwhile, is particularly damaging to the planet. According to the National Academy of Sciences, it results in five times more GHG emissions than pork or chicken, while requiring 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water.

In the end, though, science never seemed to have much of a chance against the meat industry, which has a history of flexing its lobbying muscles until policymakers in Washington submit to its will. Sadly, the only question left now is whether the same familiar story will play out once again in five years time when the next administration gets the chance to draft the next set of dietary guidelines.

Elsewhere in Slate: The Beginning of the End for Ag-Gag Laws