Experts will soon gather in Paris for the annual UN Climate Change Conference to discuss how to cut carbon emissions and halt temperature rises, but the principal contributor is likely to be left off the agenda.
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption, species extinction, habitat loss, ocean dead zones and pollution, responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all transport in the world combined.
Its impact is persistently ignored, wilfully neglected in favour of comparatively trivial initiatives like the 5p carrier bag charge which pay little more than lip service to notions of environmental preservation. Unlike the transport, waste and energy sectors in which emissions reductions have repeatedly been attempted, the livestock industry continues to enjoy unprecedented freedom to carry on with business as usual. It remains, as ever, unchallenged.
The reasons are numerous. Pressure from an extremely powerful industry is omnipresent, while historical links between consuming meat and social status have unhelpfully stuck around along with inaccurate ideas of good nutrition courtesy of clever marketing. Environmental charities fear alienating their meat-eating donors so leave the topic well alone, as do much of the mainstream press. But are the public that welded to meat, dairy and routine, and that averse to change?
The rise of veganism would suggest not. The number of vegans in the UK has roughly doubled in the last nine years. We have also seen similar rates of growth in the United States, Germany and Israel as people make more compassionate choices, better for their health, the planet and animals. There has been a seismic shift in global dietary tendencies, and this should be reflected in food policy.
Farmers are struggling. So much so that half of all UK dairy farmers are reported to be intending to quit their sector, resorting to publicity stunts to protest milk prices earlier in the year. Take this as a marker for the need for change.
English dairy farmers receive around a third of their income in EU subsidies. This amounts, on average, to around £25,000 per dairy farmer per year, dwarfing the sums given to crop growers. Rather than continue propping up a failing industry, the Government ought to alter the agricultural system; make it better, 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 and cheese businesses, which should not be exempt from market forces.
The UK has some of the world’s best conditions for growing plant protein crops, fava beans and hemp in particular. Both are nutritious and highly sustainable, and both replenish the soil and require less fertiliser than their animal-based counterparts. These inherent capabilities of rural Britain are being woefully under-utilised.
A new report by The Vegan Society – Grow Green – outlines the process and the need for urgent change. Transitions of this type will admittedly take time, require research and greater cooperation between governmental departments, but the potential benefits stare us plainly in the face.
Fewer animals than the billions killed every year will be forced to live a life of pain and suffering. We would become healthier, young farmers would see a brighter future than the gloomy predicament they face at present, and global food security issues would start to be properly addressed.
At the very least, let the Grow Green report be the catalyst for wider discussion about the role of animals in future agricultural policy. The current CAP budget runs until 2020, but new budget negotiations will most likely start next year. Now is the time to influence the debate on its longer-term role and responsibilities. Write to your MP and urge them to raise these issues with the relevant minister.
We are asked to turn off lights, recycle, use energy-saving lightbulbs, and cycle instead of drive. These are of course positive steps to take, but their impact pales into insignificance when compared to eating less meat and fish and drinking less milk.
Animal farming in the agriculture sector is akin to fossil fuels in the energy sector, only more damaging. That it enjoys such clandestine protection in a society that projects itself as forward thinking is nothing short of backward.