Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

Opinion

'Denial' - is meat the new climate change?

  • Pigs and chickens are intensively farmed and almost wholly dependent on feed, which contributes to EU demand for protein crops (Photo: The Humane League)

Climate change denial was once more widespread, but over the past decades a wealth of science has shown that global warming is not an inconvenient, but an indisputable, truth.

Today, 195 countries are signatories to the historic Paris Agreement to halt global warming. This would have been unthinkable in the 1990s.

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Yet denial has found a new outlet in the shape of animal products. Multiple scientific studies point to the threat animal agriculture poses to our environment, with around nine billion land animals raised for food each year in the EU, predominantly in industrial systems, and overconsumption of animal products is contributing to the heavy European chronic disease load.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation identified the farm animal sector as "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global" and suggests it should be a major policy focus when dealing with environmental issues.

Important research conducted by think tank Chatham House found that across countries and cultures, the public expects governments to lead efforts to reduce meat consumption - and the risk of any public backlash is overestimated.

Strategy binned

The European Commission made headway in 2014 by drafting a strategy for building a sustainable European food system. Unfortunately, it was binned at the eleventh hour, allegedly due to concerns relating to the mild reference to increasing the proportion of plant-based foods in diets.

The Humane Society International/Europe's repeated calls to publish this important document have been met with the same response, that it has not been demonstrated that EU-level action is necessary and is therefore the responsibility of individual member states to take action. We do not agree.

Unsustainable food production and consumption are EU-wide problems needing EU-wide solutions.

HSI/Europe's recent petition request to deliver this strategy and reduce animal product consumption highlighted the fact that meat is the elephant – or indeed the chicken or pig – in the room, eliciting a two-page response from the commission with just one reference to "animal-derived foods", asserting that EU agricultural production is already "efficiently addressing environmental and climate impacts".

In an overt display of denial, when questioned about what the EU can do to incentivise a reduction in beef and dairy production and consumption to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan responded "Well, there's no evidence whatsoever that the intake of these products actually contribute enormously to the emissions".

It is worrying that the EU's agriculture chief so readily dismisses the FAO's widely accepted estimate that animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 percent of human-induced GHG emissions.

In the EU the figure is even higher, reportedly up to 17 percent. Based on expected demand, farm animal production alone is projected to emit over two-thirds of the GHGs considered sustainable by 2050.

A 2017 report requested by the parliament's agriculture committee, to follow-up on the Paris COP21, clearly identified reducing meat and dairy consumption as an important means of mitigating climate change, and noted the lack of EU action in this area.

Sadly, this attitude of denial pervades the EU institutions.

The parliament's largest group, the centre-right European People's Party, has a history of blocking any recognition of the need to reduce animal product production and consumption.

Last summer, they successfully threatened to block an entire report on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) if any such language was included. The European parliament duly adopted the report without any reference.

A 2016 peer-reviewed study advises that adopting more plant-based diets could play an important role in achieving a number of the SDGs.

Word is that the EPP is again threatening to vote against an entire agriculture committee report on an EU plant protein plan if any reference is made to shifting diets from animal to plant protein.

A robust plan must recognise that animals, particularly chickens and pigs who are more intensively farmed and almost wholly dependent on feed, contribute to EU demand for protein crops.

It must also address the need for a sustainable EU protein crop supply to meet the demand of the burgeoning plant-based alternatives market, which is set to expand by over eight percent a year reaching €4.2bn by 2020.

It is frustrating to see such regressive attitudes still abound, more than eight years after organising the European parliament hearing: 'Less Meat = Less Heat', with Sir Paul McCartney, to highlight the link between animal agriculture and global warming.

Enough is enough, the age of denial must end.

We depend on decision makers to act on evidence and in good faith and therefore urge MEPs to not give in to pressure to yet again omit any reference to meat reduction in this important report.

It is time to move beyond acceptance to deliverance of concrete policies to stem high levels of EU animal product production and consumption.

Alexandra Clark is a campaigner with the Humane Society International in Europe

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