Food fight enters climate debate
Nutrition become new arena for global warming debate
Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON – The political clash over climate change has entered new
territory that does not involve a massive oil pipeline or a subsidy for
renewable energy, but a quaint federal chart that tries to nudge Americans
toward a healthy diet.
The food pyramid, that 30-year-old backbone of grade-school nutrition
lessons, has become a test case of how far the Obama administration is
willing to push in pursuit of its global warming agenda.
The unexpected debate began with a suggestion by a prominent panel of
government scientists: The food pyramid – recently refashioned in the shape
of a dinner plate – could be reworked to consider the heavy carbon impact of
raising animals for meat, they said. A growing body of research has found
that meat animals, and cows, in particular, with their belching of greenhouse
gases, trampling of the landscape and need for massive amounts of water, are
a major factor in global warming.
Cattle industry representatives quickly raised the alarm, summoning help
from Republicans in Congress and their allies. ‘There is an anti-meat agenda
out there, and this is a way to go after meat,’ said Daren Bakst, a fellow at the
Heritage Foundation, the conservative research and advocacy organization.
‘We need to just focus on nutrition. Once you bring up these other things, it
undermines the legitimacy of the guidelines.’ Administration officials are
enmeshed in bitter fights with Republicans over coal-fired power plants,
methane emissions from oil and gas production and regulation of
Whether they have the stomach for adding a food fight to the list remains
uncertain. But the possibility that climate change politics could affect
nutrition guidelines serves as a reminder of how many parts of daily life the
struggle to limit global warming can reach.
‘We can’t solve the climate problem with just what we are doing with fossil
fuels and energy,’ said Doug Boucher, director of climate research at the
Union of Concerned Scientists, which is lobbying for changing the pyramid.
‘Food is a big part of it.’ The food pyramid is just the latest function of
government where climate change looms large after years of not being a
consideration. Legions of military officers are focused on shifting the nation’s
fighting force to clean energy, hoping ultimately to not only limit global
warming, but also save money and reduce the need for huge, vulnerable oil
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is pushing a green
Even the Department of Education is required to regularly produce a climate
change action plan.
But the stakes are high when it comes to steak. The dietary guidelines
embodied in the pyramid are the core of the nation’s food policy.
Although the nation’s obesity epidemic raises questions about whether food
guidelines influence public behavior, they do shape billions of dollars of
government programs, including school lunches and food stamps.
Environmental and animal rights groups see the discussion of the role food
plays in climate change as an opportunity to reach a vast new group of
‘People care a lot more about their own personal health than they do about the
environment or animal welfare,’ said Michael Jacobson, executive director at
the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
‘So these groups are hoping to make progress on their issues by linking them
to healthier diets.’ Despite a major push by the United Nations for countries
to rework dietary policies with an eye on climate impact, none has. The
Netherlands is expected to be the first when it releases a new chart illustrating
food guidelines this year, said Kate Clancy, a longtime sustainability
advocate who advised the federal panel. ‘This is a way to get people to think
about how their food is produced,’ Clancy said. ‘We should not be making it
seem like there is no connection between what you eat and its impact on the planet.’
Research has shown that raising animals, cows in particular, for meat is a
major factor in global warming because the animals produce high greenhouse
gas emissions and require massive amounts of water.
Los Angeles Times