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Food and sustainability

The day which the Earth goes beyond its environmental sustainability limit

Every year, a precise date calculated according to a special index marks the moment humanity finishes consuming all the resources which Earth is able to generate for that year. Everything consumed after that is a debt to the environment which we must urgently settle.

This year, the day of no return falls on 2 August: as of that date, we will have consumed more natural resources than the Earth is able to renew in a year. From 3 August onward, we’re living on credit, using resources which will no longer be replaced. To make the world’s citizens more aware of the continuous erosion of natural resources, Earth Overshoot Day was established in 2006 (quite literally “the day in which the Earth goes beyond its limit”). 

This international campaign was invented by a British think tank, the New Economics Foundation, to clearly mark the annual passage from sustainable consumption to consumption at the expense of the planet. Today, the “day of no return” is presented by the Global Footprint Network, a network of experts which have created a single, easily-comprehensible index to calculate environmental footprint. This is then used as the base to calculate the day in which humanity has exhausted its reserves and starts accumulating debt with the planet. 


For the BCFN, partnering with and supporting this initiative, one which is so closely related to its own mission, was a must: time is running out and the situation is only getting worse. Just think that in 2000, Overshoot Day fell in October, while in 2017 it’s already at the start of August. 

That means that 17 years ago, we used fewer natural resources than today (less water, less land for farming, fewer fish caught from the sea, less fossil fuel), and we released less production waste, in particular, less carbon dioxide. If we are unable to reverse the trend quickly, the situation will soon become irreparable. 


Sustainability is measured in planets

According to data collected by the Global Footprint Network, if the entire world lived like Australians, we would need 5.2 planets to satisfy our needs; the United States would need five Earths; and Italy 2.6.

Behind these numbers is a combination of factors, including urbanisation (moving about by bicycle or public transport and reducing the use of individual vehicles by 50% would be enough on its own to push Overshoot Day back by 10 days), energy sources (halving our consumption of fossil fuels would shift the date back a solid 89 days) and overpopulation (the Global Footprint Network has estimated that if one family out of two around the globe has one less child, Overshoot Day would move back 30 days by 2050). 

Even food production contributes (and by no small amount) to the increased consumption of natural resources. Food and its production count for more than a quarter of our individual ecological footprint.


China, for example, has promised to reduce its meat consumption by 50% by 2030: this one move is enough to push Overshoot Day back 1.5 days. 

The real turning point, however, may come from a reduction of food waste: halving it would delay the arrival of the day we go beyond the Earth’s sustainability limit by 11 days in a single year. Yet, currently, 1.3 tonnes of food are wasted each year. Lastly, if we all favoured food with low intensity farming methods and avoided the excessive consumption of food with respect to our dietary needs, the Earth would earn 31 days of a balanced budget.


To reach these objectives, we have to rely on good practices, the same ones analysed and evaluated by the Food Sustainability Index which the BCFN developed in collaboration with the Economist Intelligence Unit. Thanks to the environmental sustainability rankings by country and city, it’s possible to see what solutions have already been implemented on a collective level and which ones are the most effective. For example, France passed a law in 2016 which allows food which isn’t sold by supermarkets to be reused - food which normally would be thrown out. 

On an individual level, however, one can start with the three simple pieces of advice associated with the campaign for Earth Overshoot Day: go by bicycle instead of by car; try a new vegetarian recipe every week; and, lastly, reduce food waste with more prudent purchases and consumption, also considering the “weight” of various foods in terms of their ecological footprint, favouring, in the shopping cart and on the table, those which have less impact on the planet, such as seasonal fruit and vegetables.


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