At least seven planets would be required for the world to sustain the level of food consumed by G20 countries. Germany and the US are among the worst offenders. Cutting consumption could prevent future pandemics.
Among all the globe's 20 most industrialized nations, only India and Indonesia maintain a diet low enough in carbon emissions to meet the Paris climate target, according to a report published Thursday. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Germany and the United States were among the countries that grossly exceeded sustainable levels of food-related carbon emissions, largely due to their high consumption of red meat and dairy products.
"This report clearly shows that food consumption in G20 countries is unsustainable and would require up to 7.4 Earths if adopted globally," said Joao Campari of the World Wildlife Fund.
Rich countries are consuming more red meat and dairy than is laid out in their countries' nutritional guidelines and much more than experts say is sustainable for the planet.
The Diets for a Better Future report, published by Norway-based non-profit organization EAT, focused on the national dietary guidelines and consumption rates of Group of 20 (G20) countries. The group is made up of 19 of the world’s most powerful and largest countries plus the European Union.
"This report shows the food system has a long way to go in delivering diets that achieve health and wellbeing within planetary boundaries. Yet the good news is that there is a lot of governments, businesses and citizens can do now to make this happen, building on existing action to bring win-wins to all," said Professor Corinna Hawkes, director of the University of London’s Centre for Food Policy.
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Sustainable food production could prevent pandemics
The Paris climate agreement aims to reduce increases in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The "food-print" emissions produced by G20 countries, which account for around 64% of the world’s population, currently create 75% of the total global food-related emissions.
The problem of wasted food is particularly important among the world’s wealthiest nations, said the report’s lead author, Brent Loken, who added that rich countries currently waste too much food.
"The current pandemic has shown just how broken our food system is," he added.
"The food that we eat and how we produce it are also key drivers in the emergence of deadly viruses such as COVID-19. A shift toward healthy and sustainable diets would reduce the risk of future pandemics," Loken said.
"The pandemic is a manifestation of our broken relationship with nature and how we produce and consume food is at the heart of this," Campari added.
Red meat and dairy to blame
About 40% of carbon emissions from global food production come from livestock farming and food waste, with the rest generated mainly by rice production, fertilizer use, land conversion and deforestation to accommodate commercial crops.
As such, red meat and dairy products are some of the least sustainable and most over-consumed foods in G20 countries.
The report also identified that many countries even have national dietary guidelines of red meat and dairy that exceed Planetary Health Diet guidelines. Germany, for example, recommends 50 grams of red meat a day; actual average consumption is almost 110 grams. Global guidelines recommend a maximum of 28 grams.
Argentina and the United States are among the least sustainable food consumers in the G20.
Meanwhile, almost all countries fall short on food consumption of nuts and legumes.
"National dietary guidelines are a lever countries can use to drive the urgently needed transformation to healthier, sustainable diets and, ultimately, a more resilient food system," Loken said.
The guidelines in most G20 countries also determine food production and regulation, making them vital to curbing emissions.