Photo credit: Intergroup
On January 16, 37 leading scientists representing 16 countries published a study recommending a plant-based diet for the benefit of the planet. The EAT-Lancet’s report is the latest in a long series of studies recommending dietary choices as a way to fix the world’s broken food systems, but overlooks a key first step: curbing the excesses of the cruelest food industries.
A “Win-Win diet”
In response to the challenge of a booming world population and the adverse consequences of food production on the environment, the EAT-Lancet report lays out dietary recommendations that benefit both human health and environmental sustainability. This “win-win diet” primarily comprises grains, fruits and vegetables, and little to no animal products.
The report is the latest of a long series of studies advocating for a radical change in dietary choices. As the EAT-Lancet study reports, “vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with the greatest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and land use, and vegetarian diets with the greatest reduction in water use”.
The effects of food systems on the environment are so overwhelming that environmentalists have aligned with animal advocates on the issue of food. In March of last year, Greenpeace published a report advocating for a 50% reduction in meat production, in line with Eurogroup for Animals’ “50×50 Strategy” (50% reduction in meat by 2050).
Individual choice and international commitments are not enough
Yet not much has changed. Despite international commitments to halt climate change (the Paris Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Goal Development), public policies around the world are still geared towards the intensification of livestock production – with the EU’s agricultural policy being no exception. Its upcoming reform, although likely to include more funding for animal welfare measures, continues to ignore the contradiction of promoting cruel and unsustainable industrial farming practices.
Even the EAT-Lancet’s recommendations may not be as animal-friendly as they first appear. For non-vegetarians, scientists advise consuming poultry rather than red meat; but that’s hardly a ‘win-win’ from a chicken’s perspective. Partly in response to a shift towards leaner, cheaper meat, the conditions in which chickens are raised have degraded over the past six decades.
Although dietary choices are crucial in fighting climate change and improving farm animal welfare, the first thing that needs to be questioned is the lack of political will to regulate agricultural practices and move away from cruel and unsustainable systems.
“Great Food Transformation” needs to embrace governance of food production first
The report also falls short of questioning the role of certain corporate practices in making intensive livestock production the default model of animal agriculture in developed and developing economies. Little is said of the extreme consolidation of agribusinesses across the world, and its negative effect on animal welfare – let alone food security and environmental protection.
Similarly, the report overlooks the use of public funding for production methods that contradict sustainability and animal welfare and, most importantly, go against public opinion. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, for instance, has no requirement to exclude intensive livestock production from public funding. Its EU School Scheme, which offers dairy producers privileged access to young individuals whose dietary habits are still in the making, doesn’t require that they comply with stringent sustainability requirements or animal welfare standards: a concern, given the proliferation of state-of-the-art dairy factory farms across the EU.
The need for more practical solutions
The EAT-Lancet report doesn’t distinguish between industrial farm animal production – a cruel, unsustainable way to massively produce animals for food – and smaller-scale, mixed crop-livestock systems. In this way, it overlooks the huge range of opportunities to improve animal welfare and environmental practices on non-arable land (land that cannot be used to grow crops for human consumption), and the improvements in food systems that could result.
The report also lacks creative solutions to change agricultural practices. The authors list “sustainable and ecological intensification” and “precision agriculture” as solutions for sustainable food production, in the same ballpark as organic farming or diversified farming systems. But while the latter are identifiable agricultural practices regulated by law, their suggested solutions are vague enough to encompass practices typical of intensive livestock production. Eurogroup for Animals believes that these solutions are unable to significantly improve animal welfare in systems where extreme confinement is the norm.
Similarly, the report barely mentions the potential of cellular agriculture in reducing the environmental footprint of animal agriculture. With only a small minority of vegetarians and vegans in Europe, a more realistically achievable “win-win” world diet would require a product with a low carbon footprint free of animal suffering.
All in all, the EAT-Lancet report is a step in the right direction for animal advocates; but to reduce the level of consumption of animal products, it’s hoped that experts will address the pressing need to challenge the existing status quo where private and corporate interests still hold a great deal of influence over consumers’ choices.
Alice Di Concetto, Programme Officer – Farm Animals
Tel. +32 (0)2 207 77 11 | firstname.lastname@example.org