The Blog

We Need To Talk About The Cow In The Room

Next month, world leaders will convene at COP23 in Bonn to embark on the second round of discussions about the future of our planet following the Paris Climate Talks in 2015. They will consider targets for energy, transport and industry. They will talk about how we need to build a 'grand coalition' of action between all levels of government, business and civil society. They will deliberate over long-term strategies for keeping the global temperature below 2C degrees above pre-industrial levels to ensure that this planet is habitable and sustainable for future generations.

The one thing they won't be talking about, however, is the cow in the room.

The cow, quietly chewing away on her cud, burping out small but potent blasts of methane, has replaced the proverbial elephant and represents animal agriculture and our broader, severely broken food system; the vast industrialisation of which being one of the main drivers of impending climatic and environmental catastrophes.

Agriculture is responsible for 25% of our global greenhouse gas emissions. This figure alone surely merits its inclusion in climate talks, but politicians don't seem to want to discuss it. Why?

Delving further, we see that animal agriculture alone is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse emissions, which is more than the whole of the world's transport combined, making it a leading contributor to climate change. Not only that, but it is responsible for some of the greatest environmental crimes being committed against our planet today. It is the main cause of biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification, pollution, fresh water usage. The list goes on. The intensive farming of animals is also responsible for one of the greatest threats to human life: a slow-brewing major health crisis in antibiotic resistant super bugs.

This is not news. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation released its landmark report Livestock's Long Shadow over a decade ago. Since then, there have been numerous reports, most recently the WWF's Appetite for Destruction, which echo the same concerns, citing startling evidence which shows that animal agriculture is propelling us towards humanitarian and environmental disaster.

This might seem like hyperbole, but we are talking about fishless oceans by 2050. Two-thirds of known species wiped out by 2020. Scientists, who are usually conservative in their language, warned us last week of 'ecological Armageddon'. It all relates to our pathological food system, whether it's the destruction of habitat to grow crops that are fed to animals raised for meat or excessive use of pesticides, our appetite for animal flesh is a major threat to life on Earth, including human life. Our planet's resources are already at breaking point and if we continue along the same trajectory, we are looking at full-scale environmental collapse.

We can no longer afford to see the environment and nature as something foreign and remote. It is the land beneath our feet. It's the air we breathe. It's the food we eat. Like it or not, humans are part of a delicate ecosystem, but we have become so disconnected with nature that we are now systematically destroying the very thing that is integral to our survival as a species.

All this talk of impending doom is too immense for many people to process and understandably so. The complex web of issues present a problem so mountainous that most of us see the only option as sticking our heads firmly in the sand and hoping someone else is dealing with it. The bad news is that world leaders are not.

The good news, however, is that the solution is so ridiculously simple that most people wouldn't believe it. We just have to change what we eat. Yep. That's all.

A new study revealed that in the US, one simple dietary change of swapping beef for beans (which have a similar nutrient profile, but with zero cholesterol among its other health benefits) would mean that the US would meet up to 75% of its climate targets by 2020. That's without making any changes to their energy, industry and transport sectors. This shows just how powerful the decisions we make about our food are. By transitioning to plant-based food, we can literally change the world.

The WWF and Compassion in World Farming recently hosted the Extinction and Livestock Conference in London, which saw some of the finest minds from a range of disciplines - from doctors and scientists to policy makers and pioneers in food technology - come together for the first time to present evidence and discuss solutions. The problems are immense and incredibly complex. But we have the science, we have the tools and we have solutions. What we don't have is the political will.

In the 1940s, in the throes of WWII, our food system was in disarray and we had to dramatically rethink it, the result of which is the behemoth of a system we see today. During the war, people accepted radical changes to the way they ate because they were fighting for a common cause: for our freedom and democracy. Now, we must once again radically change the way our food is produced and consumed, but this time the stakes are even higher: we're fighting for our very survival, not as nations and armies but as a species.

Popular in the Community