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The ‘food prints’ of the world’s major economies illustrate our unsustainable food system

If the whole world ate like most G20 countries, we’d need as many as 7.5 additional Earths to support that food production.

The ‘food prints’ of the world’s major economies illustrate our unsustainable food system
[Photo: Wahyu Noviansyah/EyeEm/Getty Images]
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Out of the 20 largest economies in the world, only two—India and Indonesia—have diets that stay within the planetary boundaries for climate, the limits for what the Earth can support. If the whole world ate like the other 18 G20 countries, we’d need as many as 7.5 additional Earths to support that food production.

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That analysis comes from a new report called Diets for a Better Future, produced by EAT, an Oslo-based nonprofit, which calculated the carbon “food prints” of G20 countries. Though they make up only 10% of the world’s countries, they currently produce three-quarters of the total emissions from the global food system that are possible within the carbon budget. The report also looks at the emissions that are baked into each country’s national dietary guidelines and how tweaking those guidelines could help make food production sustainable, at the same time as it improves health.

[Image: EAT]
“Global food production, driven by our food choices, is the single largest human pressure on Earth, threatening local ecosystems, driving a sixth mass extinction of species, and impacting the stability of the entire Earth system,” the authors write in the new report. “The growing demand for animal-source foods is also increasing the risk of future pandemics,” lead author Brent Loken said in an email. Current diets in many countries also drive disease and now pose a greater risk to health than the combined effects of unsafe sex, alcohol, drug, and tobacco use.

In countries such as the U.S., overconsumption of such foods as beef and dairy (and underconsumption of fruits and vegetables) make diets unsustainable. The report suggests that changing national dietary guidelines could help drive a shift in consumption. A handful of countries, including Indonesia, already have official dietary guidelines that are in line with environmental realities.

Loken argues that the countries responsible for the most impact need to make a more concerted effort to change now. “I believe there is an increasing awareness around the world of the need to shift toward more healthy food consumption patterns,” he says. “However, my concern is whether this shift will happen quick enough. To coordinate such a global shift may take a coordinated response, like a Paris Agreement for food systems or a framework convention on food systems.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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