Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 26, Issue 1–2, pp 57–66 | Cite as

Civic dietetics: opportunities for integrating civic agriculture concepts into dietetic practice



When Thomas Lyson developed the concept of Civic Agriculture, he provided a useful framework for considering a range of distinct but related professional areas. One such profession is dietetics. Registered dietitians work in a broad range of professional settings, including academic, clinical, administrative, hospitality, food service, and consulting. Dietetic practice has traditionally and primarily been informed by advances in understanding of the role nutrients and food play in enhancing health and reducing chronic disease risk. With support from the American Dietetic Association (ADA), the largest credentialing organization for nutrition practitioners, an increasing number of dietetic professionals consider food and agricultural sustainability issues relevant to their training and practice. Longstanding organizational structures, practices, and alliances characterizing the association, however, may limit the extent to which the organization and its members unify around a concept of civic dietetics. Recent developments within the ADA indicating an emergence of civic dietetics. This paper suggests ways the civic agriculture concept may be applied to dietetic practice, and how civic dietetics may help further civic agriculture and sustainable food systems.


Civic dietetics Sustainability Sustainable agriculture Food systems Environment Nutritionist Dietitian 



American Dietetic Association


Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education


Dietetic practice group


Food and Nutrition Conference and Exposition


Hunger and Environmental Nutrition


Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition


The sustainable agriculture movement has engaged a range of fields and professions such as horticulture, policy, community development, planning, economics, geography, sociology, and marketing. The dietetics profession, however, may not come to mind as one associated with, or particularly relevant to sustainable agriculture. For most people, a dietitian is considered an expert in food and nutrition who helps promote good health through adherence to a proper diet. Those more familiar with the profession may be aware that dietitians also supervise the preparation and service of food, develop modified diets, participate in research, and educate individuals and groups about good nutritional practices. The settings most often associated with dietitians are medical centers and clinics, where they advise patients on different diets or medical staff on effective medical nutrition therapy. Dietitians working in sports and fitness clubs advise clients on how to maximize athletic performance through diet.

Suggesting that there is a role for dietitians to play in the development of sustainable agriculture and food system, or that there is a responsibility within the profession to do so constitutes a departure from these traditional views. However, the professional paths dietitians are pursuing are becoming much broader. Many food and nutrition professionals who are registered dietitians are becoming involved in issues extending beyond nutrients, or food service management, or the diet-and-health connection that are well-recognized as their realm of responsibility.

This paper proposes and develops the concept of “civic dietetics” as an extension of Thomas Lyson’s work on “civic agriculture.” Civic dietetics is offered as a way to identify a growing interest within the profession in the connections between food choices and the sustainability of the food and agriculture system. The current existence of civic dietetics is described, as are conditions that will facilitate its development. Potential constraints hampering the development of civic dietetics, as well as ways to minimize them, are also described.

What is civic agriculture?

While at Cornell University, former professor Thomas Lyson coined the term “civic agriculture” to refer to “community-based agriculture and food production activities that not only meet consumer demands for fresh, safe, and locally produced foods but create jobs, encourage entrepreneurship, and strengthen community identity” (Lyson 2004, p. 2). Further, Lyson (2004, p. 2) proposes that, “civic agriculture brings together production and consumption activities within communities and offers consumers real alternatives to the commodities produced, processed, and marketed by large agribusiness firms.”

In his 2004 book, Civic AgricultureReconnecting Farm, Food, and Community, Lyson suggests that the values of justice and democracy in the food system are at the core of civic agriculture. The tangible manifestations of civic agriculture involve various small-scale, locally controlled food enterprises using local resources to produce quality products serving local needs and generating economic development. These include physical and organizational infrastructure such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, community gardens, organic agriculture, farmers markets, farmer and food cooperatives, community kitchens, and specialty “niche” producers (Lyson 2004; Lyson and Green 1999).

Lyson (2004) differentiates farming in civic agriculture by its direct and transparent market orientation, community embeddedness, logistical relationship to consumers, scale, and sources of relevant knowledge, technology, and labor. Where civic agriculture exists, farming is oriented toward local, rather than distant and global market. Agriculture, when civic in orientation, is an integral part of rural communities. Given the closer connection to the ultimate end-user of their products that this orientation implies, farmers in civic agriculture are likely to be more concerned with qualities of greatest concern to consumers (such as taste, nutritional value, safety, diversity, uniqueness) and value-added products than with industrial agriculture’s yield per acre and ability to withstand long-distance transport. Farming in civic agriculture, Lyson contends, is more labor and land intensive (and consequently less capital intensive and land extensive), and smaller in scale and scope. In civic agriculture, direct links to consumers are of primary interest overshadowing the indirect links (such as through wholesalers, brokers, and processors).

Growth of civic agriculture

As Lyson (2004) documents, and more recent data confirms, civic agriculture is increasing. For example, since 1994, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) started publishing its bi-annual National Directory of Farmers Markets, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. has grown from 1,755 to 4,685 in 2008—an increase of nearly 270% (USDA 2006).

Other direct farmer-to-consumer sources of locally produced food have increased as well. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in the U.S. occur where growers and consumers provide mutual support and share the risks and benefits of food production (USDA 2007). The number of CSA farms has increased since the first one was formed in 1986, to 50 in 1990, and over 1,000 today (Local Harvest 2007).

Consumer motivations for purchasing food include interest in personal and family health, taste, and quality. Consumers buying from civic agriculture channels also seek societal benefits, and believe that it is an important way to support farmers, contribute to the local economy, protect the environment, and preserve the rural character of the region (Kirby et al. 2007; DeCarlo et al. 2005; Pirog 2003, 2004).

In addition to these direct farmer-to-consumer venues, supermarkets have begun partnering with local growers to offer customers foods produced within their states and regions (Guptill and Wilkins 2002). Locally produced food is now considered one of few areas of growth in the food retail sector. According to the market research firm, Packaged Facts, sales of locally grown food were expected to jump from approximately $4 billion in 2002 to $5 billion in 2007 (Platkin 2007; Packaged Facts 2007). The firm expects the value of local produce to reach $7 billion within by 2011 as supermarkets, restaurants and even schools and corporate cafeterias begin buying their fruits and vegetables closer to home (Hochberg 2007).

For a growing number of consumers, “local” is more important than “organic” when making food purchase decisions. In one survey, whether or not food is “locally grown” influenced food purchases for 55% of the respondents, whereas if food was or wasn’t “organically grown” influenced food choices for only 38% (Hartman Group 2004). Further, for many consumers local is a key dimension of what they understand to be organic.

Civic agriculture includes a connection between farmers and consumers, and encompasses food marketing, processing, and distribution (Lyson 2004). It also has a clear food system orientation that includes and clearly extending beyond agriculture (Lyson and Green 1999; Tolbert et al. 2002; Lyson 2000).

Civic dietetics

Lyson’s “civic agriculture” concept has entered into sustainable agriculture, agro-food systems, geography, community and economic development, and rural sociology discourses (Constance 2007; Carolan 2006; Fish et al. 2006; Varghese et al. 2006). However, it has not been formally applied to the food and nutrition fields, and more specifically, to dietetics. Given its food system and community orientation, civic agriculture provides a useful framework for understanding recent developments that may signal a reorientation of dietetic practice and the training of dietetic professionals.

At the American Dietetic Association’s 2004 annual conference the term “civic dietetics” was proposed to describe the promotion—through professional dietetic practice in community nutrition, education, research, consulting, or clinical nutrition—of a sustainable, just, economically viable, community-based food system (Wilkins 2004). A traditional dietetic orientation applies science-based knowledge about nutrients to design and prescribe diets for health promotion and disease prevention or to devise nutritional therapy for disease treatment in a clinical setting. This approach engages the public in shaping the food system to assure health and sustainability, simultaneously. Civic dietetics bridges the gap between traditional dietetic practice and non-traditional areas such as local, state, and federal policy, community economic development, and food system assessment, to address food and nutrition problems. Civic dietetics recognizes the limitations, but does not dismiss the essential role, of personal responsibility in achieving health. Civic dietetics assumes that the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of the system from which a food is derived (its “triple bottom line” (Savitz 2006)) are as relevant to food choices and dietary recommendations as nutritional quality.

Lyson (2004) identifies several long-standing trends that have shaped America’s food and agriculture system since the early 1900s and to which civic agriculture offers resistance and alternatives:
  1. 1.

    Steady decline in the number of farms1 from nearly 6.4 million in 1910 to less than 2.1 million by 2005 (Hoppe et al. 2007).

  2. 2.

    Concentration of agricultural production with average farm size increasing from 138 acres in 1910 to nearly 450 today.2

  3. 3.

    Specialization of production such that farms that once produced a diversity of crops and livestock now produce one or two commodities.

  4. 4.

    Dismantling, with few exceptions, of direct links between local production and local consumption for nearly all commodities.


“Civic agriculture” provides a framework for conceptualizing “a locally organized system of agriculture and food production characterized by networks of producers who are bound together by place,” (Lyson 2004, p. 63) and offers an alternative model to the conventional food and agriculture system. Similarly, “civic dietetics” provides a framework for simultaneously developing and strengthening nutritional, economic, environmental, and socially sustainable community-based food and agriculture systems.

Civic dietetics can be applied to practice in several ways. Civic dietitians can provide leadership and expertise in the development of “attribute labeling” on food that indicates production method or environmental and wildlife protection (such as shade grown, dolphin safe, human, free-range, ecological, and the like). Civic actions may include engaging stakeholders in the identification of community food and nutrition needs and in developing food system strategies for addressing those needs. Dietitian’s expertise in nutrients, food and diet can be useful in providing critical analyses of technological developments in agriculture. Food and nutrition knowledge integrated with values underlying civic agriculture can enrich any evaluation of the “goodness” of a food. Such an analysis would be based on health as well as sustainability criteria, and dietary advice stemming from it would promote an awareness of environmental, social, and economic externalities associated with meeting food needs. In sum, civic dietetics assumes that externalities stemming from food choice, and the political and economic forces that shape the food supply are as legitimate to dietetic practice as the nutrient content of food and the relationships between diet and health.

One of the principle aims of dietetic practitioners is to shape individual food choices as well as institutional food service, and considering the impacts those choices have on health, community, and the environment, civic dietetics is important and needed. Further, by functioning as passive “takers”—as opposed to active “shapers”—of the food system, dietitians shirk a critical role they are well-trained to play. Nutrition knowledge and expertise that dietitians possess can enrich a much-needed critical analysis of the food system. Examples of the kinds of issues in which dietitians might become more engaged include: impacts of dominant agricultural production practices on health, communities and the environment; food costs and the price disparity between nutrient- versus calorie-dense choices; sustainability of the food and agriculture system; concentration within every food system sector; and impacts of food and agriculture policy on public health.

The discourse around such food system issues has intensified, in part, because of a recent proliferation of highly accessible books such as Pollan (2006, 2008), Steel (2008), Pawlick (2006), Schlosser (2005), Nestle (2002, 2006, 2003), Kingsolver (2007), Gussow (2001), Halweil (2004), Jacobson (2006), and Singer and Mason (2006). In the face of increasing public awareness, understanding, and concern about the issues generated by these and other authors, it is increasingly difficult for nutrition and dietetic professionals to remain silent or neutral on them or ignore the need for leadership that is increasingly apparent. Furthermore, evidence of the negative direct and indirect public health impacts stemming from conventional industrial production methods and distribution systems adds to the need to rethink the basis of dietary recommendations and broaden expertise in all areas of professional practice (Steinfeld et al. 2007; Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) 2008; American Public Health Association 2003, 2004).

The extent to which theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of civic agriculture will ultimately become integrated into dietetic practice remains an open question. There are clear indications that the profession has begun to embrace the underlying values of civic agriculture and, as might be expected, there are increasingly divergent views among dietetic professionals about the healthfulness and sustainability of the food system.

Understandings about which issues are or are not relevant to dietetic practice is an increasingly contested area of debate creating space for more broad scale adoption of civic dietetics. Any meaningful shift toward civic dietetics, however, will be challenged by the profession’s long-standing orientation toward the individual as the primary locus of responsibility for good health—through food choices or compliance with specific therapeutic diets—rather than the eating environment, corporate practices, or public policy. Perceived (and actual) industry cooptation of professional associations, and simple inertia and lack of understanding will also undoubtedly continue to challenge the development of civic dietetics.

Role of the American dietetic association in the development of civic dietetics

The American Dietetic Association (ADA) is the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals in the United States with more than 67,000 members. The ADA’s stated purpose, to serve the public by promoting optimal nutrition, health and wellbeing, is promoted through its annual conference and food and nutrition expo and conference, dietetic practice groups, and educational program accreditation. ADA members, the organization claims, “are the nation’s food and nutrition experts, translating the science of nutrition into practical solutions for healthy living” (American Dietetic Association 2008). Dietetic practice has been defined as “the application of principles derived from the integration of knowledge of food, nutrition, biochemistry, physiology, management, and behavioral and social science to achieve and maintain the health of people” (Payne-Palacio and Canter 1996). While this definition indicates a breadth of disciplinary inclusion, integration of food and agriculture system-related subject matter is not explicit.

The American Dietetic Association is the only credentialing organization in the United States for dietetic professionals. Dietitians (and dietetic technicians) acquire registration status by successfully completing academic training from an accredited educational institution and subsequently passing an examination. The American Dietetic Association’s Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE) is the agency within the organization responsible for accrediting education programs that prepare students for careers in dietetics. As such CADE establishes and enforces eligibility requirements and standards that ensure quality and continued improvement of nutrition and dietetics education programs. Programs that successfully meet those standards are accredited (American Dietetic Association/CADE 2008a).

CADE has established and periodically revises a core set of knowledge, skills, and competencies considered essential to the provision of quality dietetic service. To be accredited by CADE, educational programs in higher education institutions must provide foundational knowledge and skills in:
  1. 1.

    Scientific and Evidence Base of Practice: integration of scientific information and research into practice;

  2. 2.

    Professional Practice Expectations: beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviors for the professional dietitian level of practice;

  3. 3.

    Clinical and Customer Services: development and delivery of information, products and services to individuals, groups and populations; and

  4. 4.

    Practice Management and Use of Resources: strategic application of principles of management and systems in the provision of services to individuals and organizations (American Dietetic Association/CADE 2008b, p. 17).


While a clinical setting is emphasized for application of these knowledge and skills, there are opportunities to engage dietetic students in establishing a broader food and agriculture context for their future work. For example, “Scientific and Evidence Base of Practice,” includes identification and selection of “appropriate indicators” and the ability to “measure achievement of clinical, programmatic, quality, productivity, economic or other outcomes” (American Dietetic Association/CADE 2008b). The sustainability and healthfulness of the food system and the existence of civic agriculture is determined through the use of indicators. Likewise the required ability to “apply evidence-based guidelines, systematic reviews and scientific literature in the nutrition care process…” (American Dietetic Association/CADE 2008b, p. 17) is useful and transferable to food system and sustainability issues.

Some of the competencies described in Professional Practice Expectations prepare dietetics program graduates to engage community stakeholders in food system change and the development of civic agriculture. These include:

Demonstrate initiative by proactively developing solutions to problems; Apply leadership principles effectively to achieve desired outcomes; Serve in professional and community organizations; Establish collaborative relationships with internal and external stakeholders, including patients, clients, care givers, physicians, nurses and other health professionals, administrative and support personnel to facilitate individual and organizational goals; Demonstrate professional attributes such as advocacy, customer focus, risk taking, critical thinking, flexibility, time management, work prioritization and work ethic within various organizational cultures (American Dietetic Association/CADE 2008b, p. 18).

Competencies demonstrating foundational knowledge in Management and Use of Resources that are essential for the development of civic agriculture include the application of “systems theory and a process approach to make decisions and maximize outcomes” and participation in “public policy activities, including both legislative and regulatory initiatives” (American Dietetic Association/CADE 2008b, p. 20).

It is important to note, however, that achievement of a set of competencies does not imply a particular set of values about the food and agriculture system within dietetic training. They nonetheless provide opportunities to explore civic dietetics issues such as food system structure and the impacts of various trends in agricultural production technologies and methods on health, the environment, and communities.

The clearest indication of an emergence of civic dietetics may be the formation in 2000 of the American Dietetic Association Dietetic Practice Group (DPG), Hunger and Environmental Nutrition (HEN) via a merger of the Hunger & Malnutrition DPG and the Environmental Nutrition DPG. HEN is described as:

… a group of dietitians, dietetic technicians, and students who are current members of The American Dietetic Association or Friends of the DPG. Hunger & Environmental Nutrition (HEN) members share the vision that HEN members are the most valued source of nutrition services to promote access to nutritious food and clean water from a secure and sustainable environment (Hunger and Environmental Nutrition DPG 2008a).

In contrast to the entire ADA membership, which has been shrinking in recent years, the HEN DPG membership has increased dramatically. According to former HEN chairperson, Angie Tagtow, the membership of this DPG has more than doubled from a beginning membership of 409 to 954 in 2007 (Tagtow, personal communication 2008). As of early June 2008, total HEN DPG membership reached and exceeded one thousand (Hunger and Environmental Nutrition DPG 2008a).

The HEN mission is to lead the future in sustainable and accessible food and water systems through food and nutrition education, research, and action, and its goals are to:
  • Build and retain an aligned, engaged and diverse membership.

  • Educate food and nutrition professionals and the public regarding the convergence of nutrition and community food security as related to the food and water supply.

  • Support food and nutrition professionals and others in conducting and applying the research.

  • Expand emerging career opportunities for food and nutrition professionals locally, nationally and internationally.

  • Empower food and nutrition professionals to form partnerships with organizations that complement the HEN DPG’s mission (Hunger and Environmental Nutrition DPG 2008b).

In response, in part, to signals of increasing interest in HEN goals, The Haworth Press, Inc., in cooperation with the HEN DPG established the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition (JHEN) in 2000. This quarterly journal,

examines hunger and the interconnectedness among individual, political, and institutional factors that govern how people produce, procure, and consume food and the implications for nutrition and health. It comprehensively examines local, national, and international hunger and environmental nutrition issues—specifically food access, food and water security, agriculture, food production, sustainable food systems, poverty, social justice, and human values (Hunger and Environmental Nutrition DPG 2008c).

JHEN seeks to serve as a resource for dietitians, nutritionists, agronomists, anthropologists, sociologists, economists, educators, epidemiologists, food scientists, public health practitioners, and policymakers by providing “current research and application information on public policy, legislation, and regulation related to sustainable ecosystems and the link with maintaining optimal nutrition and well-being for all people” (Hunger and Environmental Nutrition DPG 2008c). The journal provides a forum for highlighting and examining examples of civic dietetics.

Both the HEN group and of its journal provide evidence of increasing interest in civic dietetics, but are considered only the most recent manifestations of a longstanding interest among some nutrition professionals and support within professional associations. In 1992, the ADA’s governance body, the House of Delegates adopted a position paper on dietitian’s role in natural resource conservation and waste management. The 2001 revision of this position states, “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association to encourage environmentally responsible practices that conserve natural resources, minimize waste, and have the least adverse affect on the health of human being, animals, plant life and the environment” (Shanklin and Hackes 2001, p. 1221). Further, the ADA’s position is that “as responsible citizens, dietetic professionals should increase their knowledge of environmental issues and take responsible actions in their professional and personal lives and take responsible actions based on this knowledge” (Shanklin and Hackes 2001, pp. 1221–1222) and the position includes specific strategies for dietitians to encourage sustainable local food systems (Shanklin and Hackes 2001).

The 2007 update of this position paper reiterated and reinforced the ADA’s commitment to environmental sustainability and resource conservation, by recognizing that its members “work in settings where efforts to conserve natural resources, minimize waste, and support the ecological sustainability of the food system can have significant effects” (Harmon and Gerald 2007, p. 1033). This commitment had been confirmed at a 2005 meeting of the ADA House of Delegates. After identifying a need to increase ADA members’ awareness of sustainable food systems, the leadership began a process “to identify the role of ADA members in supporting a sustainable food supply that is healthful and safe” (American Dietetic Association 2007a, p. 2).

To accomplish this goal, a motion was adopted to appoint a Sustainable Food Systems Task Force. The Task Force met from February 2006 through March 2007 and developed a resource on sustainable food systems for food the nutrition professionals entitled, Healthy Land, Healthy People: Building a Better Understanding of Sustainable Food Systems (American Dietetic Association Sustainable Food System Task Force 2007). The primer identifies emerging roles for food and nutrition professionals. Adoption of a “civic agriculture” philosophy within dietetics would mean that dietitians connect the purpose of professional practice to larger issues.

Members of the Task Force conducted a training session on the Primer at the Spring 2007 HOD Meeting. The objective of the session was to provide tools for ADA members to use regarding sustainable food systems (American Dietetic Association 2007a). Also, the session was intended to encourage members to assume leadership roles in the many areas of sustainable food systems including civic agriculture.

While health impacts of food choices are of central importance to the dietetic profession, environmental impacts of how people eat are of increasing interest and relevance to dietitians and the public at large. In a survey of Minnesota Dietetic Association members, Robinson and Smith (2003) found that fewer than half (43%) of the respondents had heard of sustainable agriculture, only 13% had integrated sustainability concepts into their practice, and 20% indicated they were likely to incorporate such issues within the next six months. Reported interest among clients was low: only 8% of the respondents stated clients had asked about sustainable agriculture issues. However, respondents perceived at least some interest among their clients and most (90%) of the respondents themselves were interested in learning more about sustainable agriculture practices. A large proportion (88%) believed that how and where food is produced influences health outcomes (Robinson and Smith 2003).

In this study, dietitians in communities, research, consulting, or education had stronger belief that it is appropriate to integrate sustainable agriculture concepts than those employed in clinical dietetics (Robinson and Smith 2003). This study suggests that while most dietitians are interested in sustainable agriculture issues, they lack the knowledge or skills to incorporate the concept into their practice. Further, the dietitians participating in the study indicated they wish to learn more, which suggests a role for nutrition and dietetics professional organizations and the continuing education programs they organize.

Finally, evidence of interest in and concern over sustainable food systems, and what Lyson (2004) came to refer to as civic agriculture, has for many years emanated from outside the dietetics profession per se. Over 20 years ago, professors of nutrition Joan Gussow and Kate Clancy coined the term “sustainable diets” (1986) and suggested that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines be used to promote human health and ecological sustainability (McCullum 2004). Nutrition professionals nationwide have emphasized the connection between personal health, food production methods, food system structure, and the health of the environment and the community (Klitzke 1997; Feenstra 1997; Gussow 1999; Clancy 1999; and McCullum 2004).

Limits to development of civic dietetics

There is substantial and increasing interest in integrating social, environmental, and economic sustainability aspects of food choices into dietetics. However, organizational structures, practices, and alliances with external entities limit the extent to which the ADA provides leadership for its members to unify around a concept of civic dietetics, at least in the near term. These obstacles stem from the pervasive and traditional roles played by dietetic professions, real or perceived cooptation of professional organizations by food industry corporations, and long-standing partnerships with and biases toward industrial agriculture and related policies.

Registered dietitians work in a broad range of professional settings, including academic, clinical, administrative, hospitality, food service, and consulting. Much of dietetic practice has traditionally and primarily been informed by advances in the understanding of the role nutrients and foods play in enhancing health and reducing chronic disease risk. A major professional area of practice is in the clinical setting where dietetic expertise is applied, along with other medical approaches, to the treatment—rather than prevention—of illness, trauma, or disease. As such the focus in these areas of dietetics is traditionally on individual behavior change and emphasizes the role of food components—vitamins, minerals, fat, carbohydrates, protein, and calories—in health outcomes rather than the presence of community-based food systems, or civic agriculture.

Both within and outside of the clinical realm, however, the emphasis of dietetic practice is largely on the need for individual behavior change in health promotion and disease prevention. In this sense, the dietetic profession treats individuals as autonomous and self-determining agents. For example, the dominant message promulgated by the American Dietetic Association promoted in its 1996 National Nutrition Month campaign was, “There are no good or bad foods, only good or bad diets. Any food can fit into a healthful eating style” (Kendall 1996, 4D). In other words, people make either good or bad choices from a range of what is available, and if they would just make better choices, their diets would in turn, be more healthful. This denies or minimizes the importance of the eating environment, the food and agriculture system, and the policies that shape them.

While the position statements described in the previous section speak to an emerging interest in civic agriculture and all that encompasses, others stand in contradiction. The 1995 American Dietetic Association position on food biotechnology states that, “biotechnology techniques have the potential to be useful in enhancing the quality, nutritional value, and variety of food available for human consumption and in increasing the efficiency of food production, food processing, food distribution, and waste management” (American Dietetic Association 2006). In a subsequent update of this position statement, the language took on a more supportive and advocacy tone: “…agricultural and food biotechnology techniques can enhance the quality, safety, nutritional value, and variety of food available for human consumption and increase the efficiency of food production, food processing, food distribution, and environmental and waste management” (Brewer and Kendall 1995, p. 1429). Further, “the American Dietetic Association encourages the government, food manufacturers, food commodity groups, and qualified food and nutrition professionals to work together to inform consumers about this new technology and encourage the availability of these products in the marketplace” (Brewer and Kendall 1995, p. 1429).

Lyson (2004) holds that biotechnology—particularly its application to genetically modify food crops and animals in conventional agriculture—epitomizes reductionistic approaches to understanding and solving food and agriculture problems. In contrast, Lyson (2004, p. 75) proposes, “Civic agriculture rests on a biological paradigm best described as ‘ecological’.”

Just as Lyson (2004) rejected the notion that genetic engineering could be consistent with of supporting of civic agriculture, dietetic professionals supportive of environmental perspectives were dismayed with the ADA’s position on biotechnology. The revised position statement met with swift criticism primarily from ADA members, particularly within the HEN DPG. Many believed the statement did not accurately represent ADA members’ concerns about potential or realized benefits and risks related to biotechnology. Even more concerning to HEN and other ADA members was that the statement included several claims about benefits to be derived from biotechnology that were inconsistent with the accumulating science-based evidence related to its impact on health, the environment, and the structure of agriculture and the food system.

In one study, ADA members, like other professionals and academics, held one of three viewpoints toward the technology: “precautionary”, “discerning supporter”, or “promoting” (Roberts et al. 2006). These researchers found that, “across all viewpoints, respondents agreed that dietetics professionals should employ critical thinking skills to communicate the social, economic, environmental, ethical, and technical aspects of genetically engineered foods and crops” (p. 719).

In response to these criticisms the ADA agreed to review the position and published the following in the February 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association:

Due in part to scientific advances and suggestions from the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group for presenting a broader perspective, the Association Positions Committee is currently reviewing the Agricultural and Food Biotechnology position statement and the support paper. The purpose of the review is to determine whether the current Association position is adequate and accurate given the wider use of biotechnology as well as emerging scientific information about safety, regulation, and agricultural impact of bioengineered foods. This review may result in the following actions: a) determination that the present position paper is appropriate and should expire at the normal time, b) determination that there is a need to update and rewrite the position paper, or c) the position paper should be removed and another approach taken to address the changes in biotechnology and foods. (American Dietetic Association/APC 2007, p. 330).

The decision on the part of the ADA to undertake this review can be interpreted as a response to growing concern among dietetic professionals over potential (as well as documented) unintended and harmful consequences stemming from conventional agriculture technologies. It also speaks to a growing resistance within the ADA membership to position statements viewed as one-sided, lacking or ignoring evidence, and not reflective of the diversity of “positions” among dietetic professionals.

Once completed and reviewed, the following statement appeared on the member only section of the ADA website:

Note from the Association Positions Committee: In October 2007 the APC surveyed the ADA membership to determine if our members support the position statement, support the position paper and if members feel the position paper is useful. After reviewing the survey results APC concluded that the paper contains much ‘sound’ information, but that it needs to be updated regarding federal regulations and revisions that provide insight into the diversity of interpretation of research and that there is need for more research. The position paper will be revised prior to its expiration of December 31, 2010 (American Dietetic Association 2007b).

In Lyson’s view, corporations that control large segments of the food and agriculture system can limit the development of civic agriculture. Taking positions critical of the food industry and agri-businesses is problematic for the ADA in part because of its long-standing relationship with many of them. The presence of corporate food and agriculture giants at the ADA’s annual meeting, the Food and Nutrition Conference and Exposition (FNCE), is palpable. McDonalds Corporation, Cargill, PepsiCo Beverages and Foods, Monsanto, American Beverage Association, Kraft Foods, Inc., Nestle, Yum!, Tropicana (American Dietetic Association 2007c), for example, are among numerous companies with displays that represent corporate dominance in the agro-food system that Lyson (2004) calls on civic agriculture to resist. Further, food and agriculture corporations provide a wide range of varied professional opportunities for dietetic professionals. From a corporate standpoint, the professionalism and expertise embodied in a dietitian can help increase a company’s legitimacy and improve its image among the consuming public.

It is important to note, however, that floor space in the FNCE exhibit hall, like the DPGs within ADA, represent diverse interests and values with respect to the food and agriculture system. While industrial agriculture and food systems corporations may have the marketing budgets to purchase a greater amount of square footage for their displays than other entities, the space is shared with universities, publishers, health, disease, and nutrition education organizations, culinary education, commodity boards, foundations, governmental agencies, and small and organic food product makers (American Dietetic Association 2007c).


Tom Lyson (2004) concept of “civic agriculture” offers a useful framework for understanding past, present, and future opportunities within the dietetic profession for developing “downstream” or a consumer-driven push for sustainable locally-based food systems. The term “civic dietetics” suggests an approach to dietetic practice that considers environmental, social, and economic impacts (the “triple bottom line” (Savitz 2006)) inherent in the varied work dietitians do. Despite obstacles to a smooth, complete adoption of civic agriculture principles (e.g. traditional diet and health focus, organizational structures, alliances with and allegiances to food industry corporations, and long-standing partnerships with and biases toward industrial agriculture), there is much potential for civic dietetics and growing interest within prominent professional organizations. Part of the potential stems from the fact that dietetics professions are varied, and practitioners have diverse responsibilities and interests.

Through its formation of the Taskforce on Sustainable Food Systems and willingness to revisit its questionable position on food biotechnology, the American Dietetic Association has taken important steps in acknowledging the importance of broader social, environmental, and economic considerations related to food and diet. This may signal openness within the profession to embrace the philosophy of civic dietetics and an ability to provide real and much needed leadership. As it is, growing customer and client interest will likely provide a driving force for change to which the profession would be well served to respond. There is an increasing sense within the organizations that embracing sustainability and a food systems perspective is the “right thing to do” and the time for civic dietetics has come.


  1. 1.

    A farm is any establishment from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were sold or would normally be sold during the year.

  2. 2.

    Similarly, consolidation and concentration characterize other segments including food retail, livestock and grain industry focusing decision-making control throughout the food system among a handful of firms.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Nutritional SciencesCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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