There is a grave injustice at the heart of the global food system. Climate change has never been more prevalent, yet one of its principal perpetrators – the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption, species extinction, habitat loss, ocean dead zones and pollution, responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (at least 14.5%) than all transport in the world combined – is being persistently ignored.
“There is no doubt in the scientific community that the impacts of livestock production [on climate change] are massive.” Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur, 2014
World leaders and experts gathered at COP 21 in Paris in December to discuss cutting emissions, yet it was left largely off the agenda; brushed under the carpet. Environmental non-governmental organisations dare not discuss it, nor do policy makers, including the environmentally-conscious, notable by its absence from most Green political party manifestos.
What is this climate culprit shielded so securely from scrutiny? Animal agriculture. Many will already know this, so why do Governments across Europe appear to not? If they do, then why are they so apathetic towards it? Why are Green parties across Europe not doing more?
Unlike the transport, waste and energy sectors in which emissions reductions have repeatedly been attempted, the livestock industry continues to enjoy unprecedented freedom to carry on with business as usual. It remains, as ever, unchallenged.
The reasons are numerous. There continues to be immense pressure from powerful meat and dairy industries who lobby rigorously and relentlessly, while historical links between consuming meat and social status have unhelpfully stuck around, along with inaccurate ideas of good nutrition, courtesy of clever marketing.
Environmental charities, and probably many Green political parties, fear alienating their meat-eating donors and so leave the topic well alone, as do much of the mainstream press. But are the public that welded to meat and dairy and that averse to change?
The rise of veganism would suggest not. The number of vegans across Europe has grown enormously in recent years, especially in the UK and Germany, as people make more compassionate choices that are better for their health, the planet and animals. There has been a dramatic shift in global dietary tendencies and this ought to be reflected in food policy.
An alternative for farmers
Farmers are struggling all over Europe. Half of all UK dairy farmers are reported to be intending to quit their sector, resorting to publicity stunts to protest milk prices last year. Sales are down. These are signals that change is needed.
English dairy farmers receive around a third of their income in EU subsidies. This amounts, on average, to around £25,000 per dairy farmer per year, dwarfing the sums given to crop growers. Rather than to continue propping up a failing industry, why don’t Governments alter the agricultural system to make it better and greener? One solution would be to introduce financial incentives for farmers interested in diversifying away from livestock to growing sustainable plant protein crops. This can easily be done through EU subsidies.
The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which makes payments to farmers, could place far greater emphasis on truly sustainable practices like crop growing and could stop primarily promoting meat and dairy businesses that should not be exempt from market forces when they bring about such high levels of environmental degradation.
Europe’s farming landscape is diverse, hosting some of the world’s best conditions for plant protein crops. The UK in particular is especially well suited to growing fava beans and hemp. Both are nutritious and highly sustainable, and both replenish the soil and require less fertiliser than their animal-based counterparts. These inherent capabilities of rural Britain are being grossly under-utilised.
Grow Green – The Vegan Society UK’s report and campaign – outlines the process and the need for urgent change. Transitions of this type will take time, require research and greater cooperation between governmental departments, but the potential benefits stare us plainly in the face.
As farmers start to diversify, wider benefits will roll in. Fewer animals than the billions killed every year will be forced to live a life of pain and suffering. Citizens would become healthier, young farmers could see a brighter future than the uncertain future they face at present, and global food security issues would start to be properly addressed.
While CAP budgets are fixed until 2020, negotiations are now underway for its programmes post-2020. The Vegan Society UK, for example, will be lobbying for the CAP to offer schemes and a substantial budget specifically designed for farmers transitioning away from livestock towards crops.
Citizens are asked to turn off lights, recycle, and cycle instead of drive. These kinds of steps are positive, but will not help EU states meet their emissions-reducing obligations. Compared to not consuming animal products, their impacts pale into insignificance. The UK, for example, has a legally binding commitment to reduce emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050. This is entirely unachievable without reducing the quantities of animals being farmed.
It’s not just meat. Dairy production is every bit as destructive, alone accounting for about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, much of it methane, which is particularly damaging. Your average cow produces around 700 litres of methane per day, which is the equivalent of a large 4×4 vehicle travelling 35 miles in a day.
If everyone in the UK abstained from eating meat for just one day per week, the greenhouse gas emissions saved would equate to 13 megatonnes of CO2 – greater carbon savings than taking 5 million cars off the road. Increasing being meat-free to six days a week, however, would result in greater savings than taking ALL the cars off UK roads.
Intensive livestock production also undermines food security since it uses so much of the world’s grains – around a third. Feeding grain to animals to then consume ourselves will always be less efficient than eating the grains directly. This model, taking into account almost 800 million people in the world going hungry, makes little sense.
That animal farming enjoys such clandestine protection in a society that projects itself as forward thinking is nothing short of backward. Now is the time for action, and initiatives such as the Vegan Society UK’s Grow Green campaign are vital next steps.