Feels Like Nobody's Joining the Dots

Photo: “Moving Animals”

Photo: “Moving Animals”

Something interesting happened while reviewing the highlights of a series of studies published over the last six months warning us about the various threats facing humanity — from antibiotic resistance to global warming. There appears to be a common denominator, industrialized animal agriculture. Despite being one of the biggest drivers of these two threats -- not to mention harmful to land and marine animals (both farmed and wild), human health, biodiversity, and water, soil and air quality, industrialized animal agriculture has managed to avoid much of the spotlight shining on climate change contributors such as fossil fuels.

“Subsidies to fisheries, industrial agriculture, livestock raising, forestry, mining and the production of biofuels, or fossil fuel energy, encourage waste, inefficiency and over-consumption”, says Professor Robert Watson, Chair of the recently-released (May 6), UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services.

In what the WHO describes as the “silent tsunami”, it has stated, “Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today,” and to preserve the effectiveness of these drugs which are the cornerstone of modern medicine, WHO recommends significant reductions in the use and abuse of antibiotics for livestock (see our March 1 blog on the existential threat of antibiotic resistance).

The focus of the UN IPCC report on climate change (October 2018), is the danger posed by man-made greenhouse gas emissions, of which animal agriculture is the second largest source. The report said specifically that mitigation efforts to slow global warming must include, “the reduction of nitrous oxide and methane (both powerful greenhouse gases) from agriculture” (see our March 17 blog on the damage done by methane), and “changes towards less resource-intensive diets”.

“Without action, the livestock sector could take between 37% and 49% of the GHG budget allowable under the 2 and 1.5 degree C targets for global warming, respectively, by 2030,” warned a recent study in the “Climate Policy” journal.

These conclusions and recommendations are taken from studies focused on discrete issues such as human health, biodiversity loss, global warming and antibiotic resistance. Animal agriculture features as a major contributor in all of them yet, surprisingly, it doesn’t get much profile. Dots are not being joined it seems because the findings of these studies, taken together, are a powerful indictment of the harm being done by the animal agricultural industry as well as the governments that continue to support them by way of favourable policies and massive subsidies.

It is time to redirect these incentives and manage the transition to more sustainable models for producing our food, however, it’s beginning to look like animal farming and Big Ag are sacred cows that are immune from a cold-eyed look at the damage they are doing to the planet’s resources. This would be consistent with what we know about the power of the animal agriculture lobby in various countries, and the suspected influence of corporate advertising on editorial content and points-of-view in major media. Here’s what The Lancet Commission on Obesity had to say: “Leaders must take a hard line against powerful commercial interests and rethink global economic incentives within the food system.” The Commission called for a global treaty to limit the influence of Big Food on government policy-making (see our March 11 blog on the food system).

Fortunately, most of us can make our own choices about which companies and industries to support as consumers, and which policies and political leaders to support as voters. But we also get to make choices three times a day when we sit down to eat.

Percentages differ by country, but the EAT/Lancet Commission study (published in The Lancet, Jan 16, 2019), says those who consume the standard western diet need to consume up to 90% less red meat and 60% less dairy starting now if we are to avert catastrophic effects of global warming by 2030. It looks as if the new kids on the block – tasty, plant-based food options – have arrived just in time. If we choose more of these – instead of meat and dairy -- we can shape the future of protein and make serious progress towards solving our most pressing problems.

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