Current food production and livestock farming methods are creating an unsustainable situation. At a recent conference in Brussels, Dr Peter Stevenson presented a precise analysis of how our consumption of meat and dairy products influences the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At our request, Dr Stevenson kindly agreed to summarize the main points of his talk, which showed unequivocally how unsustainable current industrial methods of farming and livestock production are. The complete PowerPoint presentation can be seen on the CIWF (Compassion in world farming) website. Dr Stevenson is the organization’s Chief Policy Adviser.
SDG 2 calls for a doubling of the productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers. However, industrial animal agriculture outcompetes small famers and so undermines their livelihoods. At this year’s Global Forum on Food and Agriculture the FAO Director General said: “more than half of the world’s rural poor are livestock farmers and pastoralists … We need to make sure that [they] will not be pushed aside by large capital-intensive operations”.
SDG 2 also aims to achieve food security. But industrial animal agriculture undermines food security. It is dependent on feeding human-edible crops to animals who convert them very inefficiently into meat and milk. 36-40% of global crop calories are used as animal feed. For every 100 calories of human-edible cereals fed to animals, just 17-30 calories enter the human food chain as meat or milk. The Commission’s Joint Research Centre says: “the use of highly productive croplands to produce animal feedstuffs … represents a net drain on the world’s potential food supply”.
The developed world’s high consumption levels of red and processed meat – made possible by industrial livestock production – contribute to heart disease and certain cancers. The overcrowded, stressful conditions in which industrial livestock are kept promotes the emergence, spread and amplification of diseases. Industrial production depends on the routine use of antibiotics to prevent these diseases. This leads to antibiotic resistance, which can then be transferred to people.
Industrial livestock systems generally use and pollute more ground- and surface water than mixed or grazing systems. Studies show that if we do not reduce global consumption of meat and dairy, it will be very hard to meet the Paris climate targets.
So, what changes are needed to enable food production and consumption to play their part in meeting the SDGs? Animals are only efficient when they are converting materials we cannot consume into food we can eat. The following are efficient: raising animals on extensive pasture or other grasslands; the use of by-products such as brewers’ grains; the use of food waste and crop residues; and, crucially, rotational integrated crop-livestock systems.
We need to re-establish the link between animals and the land through mixed rotational systems in which animals are fed on grass and crop residues and their manure, rather than being a pollutant, fertilizes the land. These systems can re-build soil quality through the use of legumes, green manure and animal manure.
A reduction in meat and dairy consumption would deliver multiple co-benefits. It would:
- help feed the growing world population as a much greater proportion of crops would be used for direct human consumption
- allow cropland to be farmed less intensively so enabling biodiversity, soils and water quality to be restored
- reduce the incidence of heart disease and certain cancers (this applies to reduced consumption of red and processed meat)
- make it possible to meet the Paris climate targets
- reduce pressures on wildlife as habitat destruction could be reversed
- enable animals to be farmed extensively to high welfare standards.
In conclusion, major changes are needed if food and agriculture are to meet the SDGs.
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CIWF Website: https://www.ciwf.org.uk