Every food system is multidimensional. When we talk about making these systems better, we’re talking about addressing everything from pesticide use and farmland biodiversity to food security and social justice.
I’d argue that some factors are more important than others, though, and that greenhouse gas emissions are in the top tier. Because if we fail to rein in emissions, the catastrophic climate change that will follow will undermine attempts to tackle the other dimensions we care about.
That’s why I was interested to read the latest analysis from EAT, a leading food systems nonprofit. The EAT team assembled data on the per-capita emissions from the food systems of G20 countries. Then they compared the data to a reference diet, known as the Planetary Health Diet, that is both healthy and generates emissions that limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
As you can see, most of the G20 are nowhere near the target:
It’s interesting to dig into the EAT data and see where the problems lie. It probably won’t surprise you that developed-world consumption of low-carbon foods, including nuts, fish, vegetables, legumes and fruit, is within the 1.5 degrees C limit. In other words: We can grow our consumption of these foods and still stay on track.
Other products are already maxed out. On average, across all of the G20, we’re at our limit for eggs and poultry. But that’s only because some nations consume far less of these foods. In the United States, consumption of dairy is more than double the planetary boundary target.
And red meat? Well, I think you guessed the answer. The G20 average is more than 500 percent of the target. The worst offender is Australia, where per-capita consumption is around 10 times the amount recommended by EAT.
One lever for moving these national systems in the right direction could be government guides to what constitutes a healthy diet. No one should be naive enough to think that policy wonks can immediately change the way people think about cheeseburgers. But National Dietary Guidelines (NDGs), as the guides are known, shape discourse around what constitutes good food, which in time influences eating habits.
Unfortunately, the NDGs in the G20 are not in line with emissions targets. Here’s a related graph from the EAT report. This one shows what per-capita food emissions would look like if we all ate a diet in line with our country’s NDG. (No data was available for Saudi Arabia and Russia.)
It’s worth stressing that the governments of Australia, Argentina, Brazil and the United States are not advising a high-emissions diet for health reasons. There is no conflict between nutrition and emissions. The Planetary Health Diet provides everything a human needs; it just does so using less red meat and dairy and more legumes and vegetables.
Another thing worth noting is that the U.S. just passed up an opportunity to remedy this situation. Last week, the scientific committee that advises on the country’s NDG released its summary of what it considers the relevant evidence. The document is 835 pages long, yet the words “emissions” and “greenhouse gases” are nowhere to be found.
“The U.S. is in the dark ages,” EAT report author Brent Loken told me. “Not having environmental considerations in something to do with food is crazy.”
This article was adapted from the GreenBiz Food Weekly newsletter. Sign up here to receive your own free subscription.