The Department of Agriculture is responsible for issuing guidelines on what America eats: It tells us what foods make up a healthy diet, and, during the last dozen years, what foods are organic.

Now, the USDA is also considering offering recommendations on how Americans can eat to minimize their effect on the environment. That would mean more fruits and vegetables and less meat — especially meat from cows.

From the Associated Press:

[A USDA] advisory panel has been discussing the idea of sustainability in public meetings, indicating that its recommendations, expected early this year, may address the environment. A draft recommendation circulated last month said a sustainable diet helps ensure food access for both the current population and future generations.

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A dietary pattern higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods is “more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average U.S. diet,” the draft said.

That appears to take at least partial aim at the beef industry. A study by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year said raising beef for the American dinner table is more harmful to the environment than other meat industries such as pork and chicken.

The study said that compared with other popular animal proteins, beef produces more heat-trapping gases per calorie, puts out more water-polluting nitrogen, takes more water for irrigation and uses more land.

The committee is finding that it’s old aim, health, and its possible new aim, sustainability, go hand-in-hand: Food that’s better for you is also easier on the environment.

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Of course, the meat lobby has a bone to pick (ahem) with the USDA over this, and its allies in Congress aren’t happy either. Last month’s CRomnibus bill to fund the government warned the USDA to only focus on nutrition and to not worry about “extraneous factors.”

The beef industry has long held sway over the guidelines the USDA puts out, with unfortunate results for the environment — University of Michigan researchers found last year that if all Americans followed the USDA dietary guidelines, we’d see a 12 percent increase in dietary-related greenhouse gas emissions.

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