Animal agriculture is the number one cause of climate change. The livestock industry in 2009 accounted for 51% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, yet the perceived blame consistently falls to the transport and energy sectors. More recent figures estimate around 14.5% of GHG emissions for the former industry, though this is still higher than the latter.
Eating a steak for dinner or drinking cows’ milk in your tea or coffee may seem like two of the most trivial and insignificant choices a person can make, but the omnivore’s diet comes with dark consequences. Alongside environmental impacts are issues of democratic legitimacy that arise from our manipulated food choices as we assess why the livestock sector’s contribution to climate change has been barely, if at all, discussed during the negotiations at COP 21.
Unknowingly, we continue to contribute to the survival of a dirty industry that with every bite of a hot dog further erodes the social contract between society and the state. That is, if we look at this from a Hobbesian perspective – simplified, it is the idea that we, as citizens, enter into a contract where we sacrifice an element of our freedom to a higher authority in exchange for safety from those who might do us harm. In the same gesture, we provide legitimacy to that authority to make decisions on our behalf that benefit us.
In the European Union, there exist two governing levels that bind the social contract: the state and the EU institutions. In the first instance, citizens enter into the contract with the state. In the second instance, the state itself enters into its own social contract with the EU, following the same philosophy of the citizen – sacrificing some freedoms for protection, cooperation, peace, and so on, for a personal and greater good. Additionally, by voting for its state to become part of the EU, the national citizen-state social contract is therefore extended to the citizen-supra-state level, too.
Two objectives that the EU strives to maintain are central to this argument: a “high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment” and “the wellbeing of its peoples”. But when the EU fails to meet, maintain, and sometimes even contradict these objectives, the trust that we hand over – to protect us and to make decisions for us that benefit us – is breached. So where does that leave us, and what does it tell us about the state of democracy in the EU?
Subsidising Cow Farts
A 2015 EU report stated that in 2011, agricultural soil management accounted for 28% of all agricultural emissions in the Union. This included soil fermentation through mineral nitrogen fertiliser and the application of livestock manure, the latter of which made up half of the reported agricultural emissions. The emissions arising out of livestock manure are more complicated: in the same year, ruminal methane and ammonia as a result of enteric fermentation (essentially, cow farts) made up a third of GHG emissions, 82% of which came from cattle.
What makes ammonia and methane much worse for the environment is that methane burns a lot faster and is much more damaging than carbon dioxide. So, high concentrations of ammonia and methane in the atmosphere mean that they have a much worse short-term effect – though it may only take around eight years to burn, compared to around a hundred for CO2, its short-term ramifications are much more detrimental.
The health effects from inhalation of particulate matter from ammonia on the human body are also disastrous, and can lead to severe bronchial-related conditions. In the EU, air pollution – 95% of which is made up of ammonia – is the highest cause of premature deaths, killing over 400,000 citizens a year. A 2014 French study showed that on days of high air pollution levels, 51% is classed as “secondary”, in that is comes from farms outside the city – most likely from practices that release nitrate ammonia, such as manure soil application.
The agricultural contribution to air pollution in the EU has not gone unnoticed, and attempts to curb emissions have met resistance. In October of this year, attempts were made via the NEC Directive (National Emissions Ceilings) to reduce agricultural emissions of methane and ammonia from the agricultural industry by imposing emissions targets on farmers. These were vehemently fought against by the farming lobby, to the point that enteric methane emissions were actually left out of the directive. Given that the nature of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) means that the agricultural sector in the EU is heavily subsidised, it manages to hold a huge amount of leverage when it comes to policy making – so a successful resistance to the caps is therefore hardly surprising.
However, such examples question the willingness of the EU to take climate action seriously. Leaving agricultural enteric methane emissions, the greatest source of ammonia levels, to continue being pumped into the atmosphere is irresponsible and throws the EU’s commitment to the climate under serious question. It also highlights flaws in democratic legitimacy, where the EU fails to act against leverage held by an industry, which, ironically, exists in part thanks to heavy subsidies induced by CAP.
Similar failures can be seen when we look to the impact that livestock agriculture has on our waters. Increasingly, reports surface about rising water acidification and pollution, largely due to improper irrigation systems that lead farmers to dump livestock excrement into natural bodies of water instead. The disposal of livestock waste into water is poisonous and destroys aquatic life. This kind of pollution is surprisingly easy to witness first-hand. In a piece he wrote for the Guardian, George Monbiot called out a local dairy farm for its disposal of livestock excrement into a nearby stream, leading to a “severe and chronic” fungal infection in the water. In spite of this, the matter was dismissed by the authorities, who cited only low ecologically damaging consequences. Monbiot asserts that this failure to act was due to cuts in funding to local governments, who do not have the proper resources, time or money that dealing with such a problem would encumber. Contextualising this, questions arise again about the state of democracy at play here, aside from the obvious environmental failures.
Cuts in funding have their roots in a variety of problems, but what is notable lies in the reality that local governments do not possess the strength – monetarily or politically – to challenge this kind of behaviour from farmers. That local government finds itself unequipped to deal with the actions of one man speaks volumes about the far-reaching protection of interests the livestock sector enjoys.
Big producers – big consumers
The environmental impacts of intensive animal agriculture are not limited to pollution but also highlight serious problems with our levels of consumption. The biggest consumer of fresh water, a fast growing global scarcity, is agriculture, one third of which falls to the livestock sector – an extraordinary portion size which transpires to a comparatively tiny amount of food. The amount of water that is used to produce meat and animal by-products is staggering: 6,800 litres of water is used to produce 1 pound of beef, or a 500 gram packet of mince. It takes about 4.5 litres of milk to make the same weight in cheese, and one 0.2 litre cup of milk requires 200 litres of water. The same goes for a single egg. So it would not be totally unfair to say that the average Big Mac could probably be a significant contributor to the projected oncoming water crises. A small percentage of this water use goes to the maintenance of irrigation systems in meat and dairy farms, though the point of this seems lost when often farmers choose to dump instead into bodies of water. But for the most part, this water use is concentrated to the production of feed and grain, or fodder, for the animals to meet their edible end.
60% of European Union cereals, often derived from maize and soybeans, are used for fodder. With the projected food as well as water crises looming, it is unsustainable and economically unfeasible that this amount of food is consumed only as a secondary source. It would make more sense to direct this towards human consumption instead, especially considering that as of 2012 we were already growing enough to feed 10 billion people, the projected population expectancy by 2050. Arguments in defence of the livestock industry often revolve around the claim that this vast output of meat and by-products is necessary as a solution to food crises. But this argument falls flat when we observe that meat and by-products are secondary food sources that we already waste a high portion of in any case: 89 trillion tonnes of food is wasted in the EU per year. This is up to half of our food consumption, enough to feed the world three times over. This problem has already been noted by the EU in a 2014 report, yet clearly, little has been done to address it.
Though member states respectively employ their own domestic import-export meat and animal by-product systems, the majority of meat consumed in the EU is mostly imported from Brazil, where JBS, one of a small handful of conglomerates that control global food distribution, originates. In September, the European Commission quietly accepted JBS’ conquering of one of the major European poultry suppliers, UK-based Moy Park Holdings. This raises more questions about the democratic framework the EU bases itself on. Allowing a corporate giant to squeeze out smaller businesses further feeds the rampant capitalist model that writers have argued are ruinous to democracy (David Harvey – Rebel Cities) and the environment (Naomi Klein – This Changes Everything). And with the threat of TTIP dangling over our heads, our worries increase. An enforced TTIP would mimic the infamous NAFTA bill of North America, where corporations were given the power to challenge governments over perceived legislative hurdles to trade. In the EU this could manifest with increased GMO crop consumption, which thousands of EU citizens have been actively vocal against, or increased use of antibiotics in animals destined for slaughter, which the EU currently opposes. Though JBS is a Brazilian company and (hopefully) rests outside the sphere of TTIP, other American conglomerates such as Tyson Foods or Smithfield Foods could give us something to worry about. And when we observe democratic initiatives such as the anti-TTIP ECI (European Citizens Initiative), put forward with tremendous citizen backing, being rejected by the European Commission, this adds more concerns of democratic legitimacy to our plate.
Consuming with conscience
Noting the environmental and democratic failures of the EU in the context of animal agriculture, we come to the realisation that the social contract we have entered into has been seriously eroded. When the state or EU institutions begin making decisions that directly contradict the agreement of protection in exchange for trust, this contract no longer bears any meaning.
So what are we to do? Hobbes would probably argue that in such case a citizens’ revolt is totally justified against the tyrannical governing body whose authority is no longer valid. Since we do not live in 1651, our modern day revolt would be an exertion of our democratic right to protest. In theory, the EU institutions would be obliged to at least hear out these issues. But examples like the rejection of the anti-TTIP ECI, or when policies that would be detrimental to our wellbeing are negotiated behind closed doors, we call into question the state of our “liberal democracy”. That an industry would factor more importantly into EU policy making than the welfare of the citizens that uphold its existence decries the notion that we live in a free and fair society. For the citizen, breaching the social contract by stealing the potato of another man means that the authorities can ensure justice would be done. When the authorities breach the social contract, the legitimacy that is lent to it by the citizens’ trust is shattered, but nothing happens. So where is our justice?
The livestock industry has not suffered the same backlash as the fossil fuel industry, and a “divest meat” campaign, reminiscent of the “fossil free” divestment campaign spearheaded by 350.org, doesn’t exactly have a catchy ring to it. In spite of the endless ramifications, the EU has shown no indication of restraining the livestock industry. The criticised reforms of the CAP in 2013 (cited as “greenwashing” by environmental groups) and more recent failures such as the NEC Directive demonstrate a lack of motivation to curb the environmental degradation impacted by this powerful industry.
Increased awareness of the problem at hand is the first step. Food is a sensitive issue; people don’t like being told what they can and can’t eat. But people also didn’t like being told that the cars they were driving were leaving behind a trail of carbon sludge in their wake (figuratively… but also literally), so detrimental to the environment that we see now millions of people calling on companies, institutions, charities, local governments and more to divest their assets from fossil fuels. When the realisation pervades society that eating a burger is much worse than driving a car begins to take hold, there is hope that change will come. The success and speed of 350.org’s fossil fuel divestment campaign lends us that hope.
But we need to act soon, and fast. COP 21 has made it clearer than ever that the EU is no longer a climate leader, so the responsibility therefore falls to consumers to affect change. We must consciously decide to eat less – or better, none at all – meat and animal by-products so we can affect positive and very noticeable change. We need to #Eatfortheplanet – for sustainability, for the climate, and for democracy!
 The Meat Atlas – Heinrich Böll Stiftung (Heinrich Böll Stiftung and Friends of the Earth 2014)
 Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat – Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott (Bloomsbury 2014)