By Alessandro Galli and Marta Antonelli
On April 22nd, 1970 the first edition of what later became a key date in the worldwide environmental movement – Earth Day – was celebrated. The 1st edition of the Earth Day emerged out of the recognition of the many environmental problems of that time, and how they were expected to impact not only the health of our planet, but also human health. A few months after, in December 1971, another milestone event was hit, this time providing a quantitative measure to the qualitative understanding of the Earth’s environmental issues highlighted by the Earth Day. It was the Earth Overshoot Day.
Calculated by Global Footprint Network by relying on the National Footprint & Biocapacity Accounts (NFA) produced by the Footprint Data Foundation (https://www.fodafo.org/) and York University in Canada, Earth Overshoot Day marks each year the day in which humanity has used all the biological resources that Earth regenerates during that entire year. Over the past five decades, the human metabolism has kept exceeding the metabolism of the planet at an ever-faster rate, to the extent that humanity currently uses 74% more than what the planet’s ecosystems can regenerate—or “1.75 Earths.” In other words, planet Earth requires about 20 months to regenerate the resources humans consume and dispose the carbon dioxide waste humans emit in just 12 months. From Earth Overshoot Day until the end of the year, humanity operates on ecological deficit spending. This deficit spending is currently the largest since the world entered into ecological overshoot in the early 1970s and, over the past 50 years, annual deficits have cumulated in an ecological debt of 19-year worth of planetary regeneration. Earth Overshoot Day thus reminds us that the persistence of overshoot, now for over half a century, has led to huge declines in biodiversity, excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and heightened competition for food and energy. Pressures and symptoms are becoming more prominent with unusual heat waves, forest fires, droughts, and floods, leading to both energy and food insecurity.
Against a global ambition to “leave no one behind” as set by the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and ensure everyone lives well within the limits of our planet, the stark reality we are daily confronted with is that of rather inequal societies – in both their capacity to access resources and secure well-being – operating beyond planetary limits.
If all people on the planet had the same lifestyle and consumption pattern of an average European citizen, Earth Overshoot Day would fall on May 2nd, with even earlier dates in many European countries.
Why is this the case? What possibilities do we have at hand to reverse this situation?
Before digging into the possible solutions, it is worth better understanding the issue at stake. The goods and services that are at the base of our human societies and economies are all supported by functioning and healthy ecosystems. By harvesting resources from the planet, and releasing wastes into it, all of us contribute to placing an impact on our Earth. This impact defines our Ecological Footprint and can be measured. From the way we eat, to how we drive. From our purchases of goods and services to the way in which we heat and cool our houses, our daily activities contribute to the Ecological Footprint we place on the planet’s ecosystems. So, what is the role of each of these daily activities?
Ecological Footprint results aligns with many other studies in indicating that food systems worldwide significantly contribute to climate change, causing about 34% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as deforestation and biodiversity loss, water and air pollution and soil degradation, and increased risk of pathogen spillover, to name a few: in short, Food alone occupies nowadays 55% (i.e., over half), of the biocapacity of the Earth. Food systems use resources and emit greenhouse gases during each stage of their life cycle, from the production of the primary sources, processing and food refining, packaging, transportation, as well as the wholesale and retail distribution of the food we eat, and then dispose.
The dysfunctions of global food systems are multi-faceted.
Agricultural practices have become increasingly intensive to accommodate the demands of a growing population enduring a nutrition transition towards a Westernised energy-dense diet, thus greatly increasing global food supply. About half of the global agricultural land is used for pastoral or intensive agriculture, with detrimental environmental impacts that are often not accounted for, while not influencing choices about production methods to the extent that they should. Moreover, about 75% of the food available globally is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species.
Globalization has also led to the growth of long and fragmented supply chains, characterized by a high degree of complexity and many actors involved in the different stages. This often causes larger amounts of food to go lost or wasted – a phenomenon that accounts for one third of the food that is produced globally. Consumers that are increasingly disconnected from the source of their food can also be considered as a by-product of long supply chains, in a context where, at least in the European Union, policy makers advocate for shorter supply chains which reconnect the edges of the food supply chain, for the benefit of both consumers and producers. Economic inequality affects indeed the food system with unfair wages for workers in the different stages of the supply chain (from producers to retailers), and small scale farmers receiving a relatively low proportion of the wealth generated in the food system.
Unequal access to healthy diets jeopardises food security for many countries and communities. A healthy and nutritious diet is more expensive than a calorie sufficient diet. Approximately 3 billion people in the world (40% of global population) cannot afford a healthy diet, while about 2 billion people are overweight or obese. Globally dietary risk factors are estimated to cause 11 million deaths annually, while the impact of malnutrition costs the global economy 13.6 trillion US$ annually. It has recently been shown that life expectancy gains for a shift from typical Western to healthier diets could translate into more than a decade for young adults.
As the pressure on the planet due to food systems is increasing, measuring the environmental impacts due to our current food systems is becoming a priority to inform decision-making and food policy: transforming how we produce, source, distribute, consume, and discard food is a practical solution to reduce any country’s Ecological Footprint. Moreover, food connects us to ecological systems and can teach us about the world in which we live. If humanity delayed Earth Overshoot Day by 6 days every year, we would manage to safely bring the human enterprise back within the limit of one planet by 2050. Although ambitious, this change is at reach as indeed 4 key transformations in our global food systems would alone yield more than 4-year worth of Footprint reduction:
- Cutting food waste in half worldwide would help move the date of the Earth Overshoot Day by 13 days.
- Replacing 50% of global meat consumption with plant-based foods would help move the date of the Earth Overshoot Day by 7 days.
- Sourcing meat from local farms that preserve biodiversity and forest land would help move the date of the Earth Overshoot Day by an additional 5 days, if this solution were to be implemented around the world.
- Sourcing 80% of our food locally, leaving unchanged our dietary preferences, would finally help move the date of the Earth Overshoot Day by slightly less than additional 2 days.
To conclude, we believe that the way we eat is an ultimate indication of the sustainability of our food systems, as well as a fundamental agent of change towards sustainability. The “fork” is the most useful sustainability tool we have as citizens as the dietary decisions we make today can caused a positive cascade effect throughout the whole food chain, impacting each step along the way. Current global food systems are detrimental to interconnected human and planet health but several wellbeing opportunities, as we have shown, are within reach.
Moreover, foods known to be associated with improved human health have among the lowest environmental impacts, while resource-intensive foods are often associated with the largest increases in disease risk. Shifting our food systems is thus a way to recognize and act upon the fruitful interdependencies among health, the environment and the economy. Ensuring a sustainable and fair food system that works for both producers and consumers is the purpose of Foodnected, a project funded by MAVA Foundation.