WSPA (the leading global animal welfare charity) has helped to secure agreement from the UN to include sustainable livestock AND animal health on the agenda for the UN Earth Summit (Rio+20) - the first time that the treatment of animals has ever been considered in global discussions on sustainable development at this level.
It is one of the few sparks of hope in a text put forward by the Brazilians that is generally devoid of any ambition. WSPA is now calling on global leaders to recognise the importance and benefits of humane animal farming practices in ensuring we can feed the world sustainably and urging them to set goals to ensure animal welfare is core to future sustainable development.
The growing market for food has led to the intensification of livestock farming in recent years, and also to increasing global trade, with a range of consequences for humans and the 62 billion animals raised each year for food.
The production of increasing volumes of concentrated animal feed has meant the conversion of large areas of land to soybean production, leading to the displacement of small-scale famers and communities.
In countries with growing populations there are already concerns over the diversion of grain for humans to feed animals. This will only become greater as populations grow and we start to see more examples of animals and humans competing for food.
Intensive farming has high environmental impacts, particularly water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
And intensification brings a range of animal welfare problems: systems that prevent natural animal behaviours as simple as being able to spread their wings (for example, battery cages for hens); mutilations (tail docking in pigs); hunger (starving laying hens to force moulting); and health problems from mastitis to lameness.
If we do not address the impacts of this intensification, the ability of livestock to meet our various needs - for food, income and social safety - will be impaired, and millions of animals will continue to suffer.
At the Summit we have been drawing attention to the environmental, economic and social benefits of considering animal welfare as a key part of sustainable farming practices.
On the economic side, moderate-scale farms, with local supply chains and markets, contribute to national and regional self-sufficiency and vital food security, as well as retaining money and jobs locally. In the United States, for instance, one farm that allows cows to graze on pasture is creating long-term jobs.
Humane animal production systems often require fewer inputs of grain feed, fuel and water: grass-fed beef production can use just half the fossil fuel energy of intensive industrial farming, reducing costs as well as environmental impact.
Animals bred to live outdoors are often more robust and resilient to environmental challenges than breeds chosen primarily for high yield. Good animal health and welfare can reduce costs and raise profits for producers, both over the lifetime of an animal and at specific points in the food chain.
High-welfare products can also attract a premium, with producers benefiting from higher prices. Developed country consumers are likely to eat less but eat better, with associated public health benefits. For example: meat from grass-fed cattle can contain as little as half the fat of that reared in intensive, grain- fed farming, and cage-free poultry farms in the EU were found to be significantly less likely to harbour bacteria that can cause deadly food poisoning.
Environmental benefits include the stocking densities on moderate-scale farms, which reduce the risk of major pollution compared to intensive farming. In addition, managing crops alongside livestock helps to manage the environmental impact of animals, by recycling nutrients and enhancing soil fertility and water retention.
All of this can be very simply summed up: humane farming is clever farming. You can read more case studies that illustrate that here.
WSPA has five recommendations to the UN, national government delegates and the agricultural industry:
• Recognise that good local and global animal welfare farming practice and policies are key to safeguarding people, animals and the environment
• Give formal government support to farmers who rear their livestock humanely and sustainably and phase out subsidies and investment to those farmers who do not.
• Make it clear that farm animals reared on humane, sustainable farms are vital to a country's economic development and lifting people from poverty
• Address the challenge and highlight the local and global implications of the unsustainable demand for meat, eggs and dairy products.
• Support and invest in research and development that shows how animal-friendly farming systems protect and develop rural economies.
The final Rio+20 outcomes and goals need to acknowledge the role of animals and their welfare within food production and wider society, and make on-going political and financial commitments to guarantee that we can feed the world's growing population sustainably and humanely.
Find out more about how WSPA are putting animal welfare on the agenda.
Follow Dr Michael Appleby on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@wspa