Wow of the Week: Could USDA diet lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions?

There’s something slightly awkward about the phrase “diet-related greenhouse gases.” A recent study from researchers at the University of Michigan found that if Americans were to adopt the USDA’s recommendations contained within its “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010,” while maintaining regular caloric intake, the aforementioned diet-related greenhouse gas emissions would increase by 12 percent. The study, […]

There’s something slightly awkward about the phrase “diet-related greenhouse gases.”

A recent study from researchers at the University of Michigan found that if Americans were to adopt the USDA’s recommendations contained within its “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010,” while maintaining regular caloric intake, the aforementioned diet-related greenhouse gas emissions would increase by 12 percent.

The study, reported in Science Daily, attributes any such increase in emissions to those that are linked to agricultural production, which doesn’t sound nearly as intriguing as when you put “diet” and “greenhouse gases” in the same phrase but makes infinitely more sense. The researchers, from Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, examined emissions linked to 100 foods and the effects of Americans shifting to the USDA recommended diet of 2,000 calories per day.

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That number could be reduced if a healthier diet were adopted, even if the 2,000 calorie max were maintained, according to the researchers, Martin Heller and Gregory Keoleian. A full paper on the study came out yesterday in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.

The findings could be particularly timely, Science Daily notes, as the USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is set to consider food sustainability for the first time.

“The take-home message is that health and environmental agendas are not aligned in the current dietary recommendations,” Heller told Science Daily.

The USDA’s guidelines from 2010 encourage consumption of more fruits, vegetables, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, whole grains and seafood. But the guidelines still include an appendix on how much meat one should consume.

From Science Daily:

The recommended amount of meat is significantly less than current consumption levels, which Heller and Keoleian estimated using the USDA’s Loss Adjusted Food Availability dataset as a proxy for per capita food consumption in the United States.

While a drop in meat consumption would help cut diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, increased use of dairy products — and to a lesser extent seafood, fruits and vegetables — would have the opposite effect, increasing diet-related emissions, according to the U-M researchers.

In the United States in 2010, food production was responsible for about 8 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. In general, animal-based foods are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions per pound than plant-based foods.

The effects of red meat on the environment are well known, given the resource-intensive nature of raising and slaughtering cattle. But here’s another interesting tidbit – beef accounts for 4 percent, by weight, of all available food in the U.S., yet it contributes 36 percent of the associated greenhouse gases, according to the study.

Something to chew on next time you’re planning your meals. Unless you’re vegetarian or vegan, seemingly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.