Reports of wildfires, intense heat and floods add an urgency to the climate crisis that surely can’t be ignored. Action must be taken now, and thinking about what food we produce and eat is a positive step we can all take.
The climate, nature, and health emergency we face is undoubtedly caused by multiple factors. But globally, academics agree intensive animal farming is a major contributor. The sheer scale of agriculture – 92 billion animals are produced every year, and that figure is rising – is having a devastating impact on animal welfare, biodiversity loss, pollution, soil degradation, antimicrobial resistance and greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot continue increasing the number of animals raised in industrial systems if we want to have a sustainable food system and a healthy planet.
The biggest single waste of food is feeding human-edible crops to industrially farmed livestock, which convert them inefficiently into meat, milk and eggs. Almost a fifth of the world’s total catch of wild fish is processed into fishmeal and fish oil, largely used to feed farmed fish [FAO]. In this way, enough food to feed four billion people – half of humanity today – is wasted.
At the same time, two billion men, women and children are overweight or obese, and poor diets are responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor [Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation]. The overconsumption of meat, dairy and eggs in developed regions exceeds both dietary guidelines and new planetary diet guidelines. Obesity costs the NHS around £6.5bn a year and is the second-biggest preventable cause of cancer, according to the Department of Health and Social Care. Only drastic changes to our food system and what we eat can improve this.
Food businesses are vital in effecting change at scale. Some have already made positive steps to transform their supply chains, to reduce the impact of intensive farming on animals and the environment.
A global trend for cage-free eggs now exists, and to date over 600 businesses across the US and Europe have signed the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC), promising to deliver better welfare standards for chickens reared for meat – the most commonly eaten protein in the world. Many are responding to consumer demand by offering more plant-based alternatives on menus.
However, if we are to create a food system that is truly fit for the future, we need to reduce the number of animals farmed and move to higher-welfare regenerative farm systems that work with nature, not against it. Society as a whole must adopt a more sustainable diet – one that consumes less, but higher-welfare, animal-sourced products, supplemented by more plant-based foods.
Governments too, have a key role to play by encouraging healthier diets, supporting regenerative farming, and embracing new food solutions such as cultured meat and precision fermentation that can satisfy the desires of meat eaters without harming animals.
There’s no time to waste. The planet is at breaking point and the only way to secure our future is to act now. Reject factory farming, reduce consumption of animal-sourced foods, and create a global food system that benefits animals, people and the planet. The solution is in our hands.