Animal Agriculture's Environmental Impact Is Still Being Ignored

04/06/2016 15:52

This World Environment Day marks 10 years since the UN described the livestock sector as 'one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global,' but has anything been done in the subsequent decade to address such a grave warning?

The landmark report Livestock's Long Shadow, in which the UN called for 'urgent action' in 2006, offered great hope for change at a policy level. Instead, nothing. No policies, no initiatives or any kind of public education campaign aimed at trying to curb climate emissions from farming animals. Just freedom for the sector to carry on with business as usual.

Last year's UN Climate Change Conference in Paris presented a ready-made opportunity to agree carbon cutting obligations in specific areas. Animal products were all over the world leaders' menus, but left completely off their agenda. The Paris Agreement, signed by 196 countries, omitted any mention of livestock, agriculture or animals across its 31 pages.

Why has animal agriculture been brushed conveniently under the carpet? There is of course intense pressure from an extremely powerful meat and dairy lobby, the extent of which should not be underestimated. There also remains historical links between consuming meat and social status, and misinformation about the need for animal products in a healthy diet.

Policy makers are not always objective - they have their own tastes and preferences which influence their decision making. Animal products are deeply ingrained in our culture, so often the focal point of social events. We form attachments to food which can be difficult to shake even when presented with irrefutable evidence of the widespread harm they cause.

More significant independent research has been published this week from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems with a similar message to that of the UN: the world needs to move away from industrial agriculture to avoid ecological, social and human health crises.

The past 10 years of governmental apathy in this area has been an injustice of the highest order, and cannot be repeated. Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than all transport combined. It must not continue to be shielded from scrutiny and afforded protected status given the severity of the implications.

It's not just a climate issue. One in nine of the world's population - almost 800 million people - go hungry, yet enough grain to feed up to 3.5 billion people is fed to livestock. Deforestation is also occurring at an alarming rate with the World Bank estimating that animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction.

Nor are the problems a result of just meat production. The dairy industry, far from its perception as an innocuous by-product, is every bit as destructive, alone accounting for roughly 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 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.

Farmers are struggling. So much so that half of all UK dairy farmers are reported to be intending to quit their sector. English dairy farmers receive around a third of their income in EU subsidies amounting, on average, to around £25,000 per dairy farmer per year. Rather than continue propping up a failing industry, the Government ought to improve the agricultural system, make it greener.

One solution: subsidise farmers interested in diversifying away from livestock systems to growing sustainable plant protein crops. The EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which makes these payments to farmers, must place far greater emphasis on truly sustainable practices like crop farming and stop primarily promoting meat, milk and cheese businesses, whose products should not be exempt from market forces.

A new report by The Vegan Society - Grow Green - outlines this process and its far-reaching potential benefits. We would become healthier, young farmers would see a brighter future than the gloomy predicament they face at present, and global food security issues will start to be properly addressed.

Fewer animals than the billions killed every year would be forced to live a life of pain and suffering and we would be able, finally, to reduce climate change emissions in a meaningful way.