An Event Not to Have Missed
The first week of October was an eventful one—on Monday I had a knee operation, and thankfully it went well. A planned public transit strike was called off, and so on Thursday, the 5th and Friday, the 6th I attended the Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) Conference on Extinction and Livestock, which was held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London. It was worth the hobble to London, and the indignity of looking aged … leaning on a walking stick!
The main reason why I was determined to attend this conference is because concerted international policy advocacy is vital and urgent if we are to save our environment, wildlife, health, food sovereignty, and security. Not to mention the need to bring an end to the unconscionable suffering of animals in industrial animal agriculture.
The conference promised to act as a catalyst for future collaboration and solution development. As the organisers said: “Livestock production and its use of finite resources is devastating biodiversity and pushing wildlife to the brink of extinction. With millions of over and under-nourished people and the planet in peril, it’s vital that effective and practical solutions are found.” The organisers urged participants (individuals, organisations, and policy-makers from more than 30 countries across the world) to “help end the devastating impact of livestock production on wildlife, people, and the planet” by identifying and developing much-needed solutions.
The conference was the first ever to examine how current food production is driving two-thirds of wildlife loss worldwide, causing massive deforestation in countries such as Argentina and Brazil, using up the world’s precious natural resources, polluting our waterways, and creating ocean ‘dead zones’ where nothing can live, creating the perfect breeding ground for superbugs and contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans.
The conference was planned meticulously and ran beautifully on time. Most important, it had a brilliant array of speakers, contributors, and session chairs, as can be witnessed here. They covered many diverse, but highly relevant, interests and areas of expertise.
The content of the conference covered all the major arguments against industrial animal agriculture, highlighting detrimental impacts in many fields, such as, social, health, environmental/resource use, economics, and animal welfare. This built a shared vision of the urgent need for change.
Professor Katherine Richardson, of the Sustainability Science Centre in Copenhagen, warned during the conference that there are limits to how much humans can “push” the Earth’s services without risking irreversible alterations to the state of the ecosystem upon which we depend. She stated: “We are over the ‘safe limit’ for four of the nine identified planetary boundaries, and agriculture has been the primary driver in bringing us over these limits. Sustainable development cannot be achieved without a major transformation of our food system.”
Current meat consumption is also negatively impacting our health. Frank Hu, Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology and Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University, said at the conference: “A diet that is higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods is healthier and has less environmental impact. Substituting just one serving of red meat per day with other healthy foods is associated with a significantly lower mortality rate.”
The conference then examined some forward progress in a number of areas (consumers, companies, agro-ecological farming, animal product replacements, technological advances, etc.), and the need for change in our problematic and highly subsidised food system. In this way, in addition to building a strong case for change, optimism was generated about moves in the right direction.
With a self-selecting audience of sympathisers, it was difficult not to get caught up in the emotion—and indeed, the logic—of the event, and to feel that the case for change was unquestionable, and that the demise of industrial animal agriculture will be imminent. However, some participants provided salutary reminders that vegans and vegetarians remained a niche market, and that there were serious barriers to sustainable policy change and to the replacement of industrial systems with agro-ecological alternatives.
It was unfortunate that there was not more time for working groups to collaborate on the most effective ways ahead. The combined expertise and experience on the room was massive and great things could have come from this. Yet there was just one breakout session (with three parallel sessions, so we could each only attend one) on the first day of the conference, and lasting just a little over an hour, including further presentations. This meant that there was little time for anything other than a few questions and remarks at the end. This was a real shame. However, we welcome the commitment from CIWF to move the dialogue forward outside the conference.
A Collaborative Event
The conference was held in partnership with WWF and supported by Birdlife Europe, the European Environmental Bureau, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, and the University of Winchester. It was particularly interesting and encouraging to see conservationists now on board with the need to eat more plants and moderate meat consumption, both red and white.
Glyn Davies, WWF’s Executive Director of Global Programmes, said, “The decline of species is reaching a critical point, and we cannot ignore the role of unsustainable livestock production. If nature is to recover, we need to work together and encourage sustainable farming systems which will limit pollution, reduce habitat loss and restore species numbers. The Extinction and Livestock conference is a launching pad for action on this global issue.”
CIWF CEO’s Keynote Speech
In a passionate and well-structured keynote speech, CIWF’s CEO, Philip Lymbery, warned that there will be catastrophic impacts for life on earth unless there’s a global shift from intensive farming. He warned experts, campaigners, policy-makers, and business leaders from around the world that a new UN Convention on food and farming is needed to integrate objectives and ensure that the current climate change targets and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are achieved in order to save the planet.
Philip, who spent several years investigating the impact of intensive farming on people, animals, and the planet for his books “Farmageddon” and “Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were,” said: “We need a total rethink of our food and farming systems, before it’s too late. Intensive livestock systems are at the heart of so many problems affecting health, food security, biodiversity, the environment, and animal welfare.”
He then added, “Unless we have a UN Convention to specifically tackle the wide-ranging impacts of food and farming, the targets on climate change won’t be achieved and our world will continue to be ravaged by our broken food systems.”
Call for Cohesive Food and Farming Policies
CIWF believes that cohesive food and farming policies are needed with objectives relating to livelihoods, food security, natural resources, dietary health, climate change, and animal welfare that are properly integrated so that one objective is not achieved at the expense of another. They consider that the best way to achieve this is through a UN Convention on food and farming.
“Without global agreements that have a holistic approach, our wildlife will be pushed to extinction, our landscapes will be bulldozed, our precious natural resources will be used up, and our health will suffer,” says Philip.
“There’s already enough food for our growing population; the trouble is that we feed much of it in the form of cereals to factory farmed animals to produce meat, which makes no sense. By eating less and better meat and dairy products, such as pasture-fed, free-range, and organic, we can help secure more sustainable food systems.”
Philip then concluded, “If we’re really going to safeguard the future, we’re going to need something more; some kind of global agreement to replace factory farming with a regenerative food system. Something akin to the UN Convention on Climate Change agreed in Paris.”
The message that we all need to eat less meat and more plants came across loud and clear. CIWF and WWF both warned that diets rich in animal protein are having dire effects on the environment and wildlife.
Duncan Williamson, WWF’s Food Policy Manager, stated: “The simple fact is that the world is consuming more animal protein than it needs and this is having a devastating effect on wildlife. A staggering 60 percent of global biodiversity loss is caused by the food we eat. We know a lot of people are aware that a meat-based diet has an impact on water and land, as well as causing greenhouse gas emissions, but few know the biggest issue of all comes from the crop-based feed the animals eat.”
As Philip said: “It’s almost as if the food system has been hijacked by the animal feed industry—like a giant machine sweeping the landscape. Vast acreages of arable land are now devoted to growing feed for industrially reared animals. If we put all of those feed crops worldwide into one field, that field would cover an area equivalent to the entire land surface of the European Union.”
Policy “Lock-Ins”—or Barriers to Change
The barriers to change were examined briefly—and we heard a wonderful new phrase (to many of us, at least): “policy lock-ins.” This is exactly what we have been supporting in our current warped food system.
The difficulty of achieving significant change in people’s diets was ascribed to greed and tradition, with people being hooked on the foods they grew up with, and which were rooted in their culture and society.
In regards to production, a key factor mentioned was the difficulty of scaling up more alternatives to industrial models, although this was disputed from some who had worked closely on agro-ecological solutions and found excellent outputs and sustainability over the longer-term (a system does not have to be large to be productive).
The impact of short-term economics was also discussed as a barrier to changing production. This is indeed a factor, with industrial agriculture, and monocultures, being akin to an extractive industry—with no costs incurred for environmental, health, and social impacts. As was pointed out, consumers pay for this food three times: once when they buy it, again when they pay for the subsidies, and lastly when they bear the cost of detrimental impacts.
Yet there is a more fundamental barrier to change—a root cause, if you will. The recently launched Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2017, entitled “A food crisis that never went away,” describes this as a “clash of food system paradigms.” The industrial system is part and parcel of “unjust and marginalised food systems that for decades has built on profit over people.” In short, it is a product of society’s economic and socio-political crisis, and an integral part of the capitalist system supported by neoliberal policies. Despite growing support for agro-ecological and local food solutions, the rise of industrial agriculture will march on regardless, led by Trans National Corporates (TNCs)—unless we can secure greater control and regulation over these TNCs (against the prevailing neoliberal political system).
The prevailing system also causes the spectacular lack of political will of governments to address these issues, despite the now overwhelming evidence in favour of change. Their priority is clearly economic growth, as this is currently the primary measure of successful development.
Another serious barrier to policy change, which wasn’t explored in any depth, is the difference in degree of development—and perspectives—between the Global North and the Global South. There was nothing said about the massive thrust towards livestock intensification in Africa, or OECD–FAO projections (from 2009 to 2018) that 87 percent of the global growth in meat production will occur outside the OECD area. The fact is that whilst awareness is growing in the Global North, there are still significant barriers to change in the Global South. This point was illustrated to some degree by Jimmy Smith, the Director General of the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute, which stressed the importance of increased livestock production for Africa. To make real progress internationally, these different perspectives will need to be considered and tackled.
The Way Forward
We at WAN have been facing these barriers in our international advocacy and have been examining ways to break through them by using opportunities in various international organisations, including United Nations bodies. We are in the process of finalising:
- Guidance on the International Policy Environment for animal protection organisations, which includes information about all major international organisations and advocacy opportunities.
- Guidance for animal protection organisations on opportunities for engagement with the UN, including influencing the Sustainable Development Goals at the High Level Political Forum (the UN system is massively complex, and we are just learning how to negotiate this, and want to share our learning).
- A suggested roadmap of advocacy opportunities at UN level.
We share the view of the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition that action in this sphere “requires multi-scalar action: from local struggles to resist predatory forces and build sustainable alternatives, to the coalescing of movements for change at the next scale, be it sub-national, national, sub-regional, regional and global. At all these levels, critical institutional engagements within legitimate national and international governance spaces are essential, so as to reclaim the public interest, redirect development strategies and promote policy change.”
We look forward to cooperating with CIWF, their allies, and others within and outside of the animal protection movement in building the proactive and effective advocacy strategies needed to overcome policy “lock-ins” and secure a humane and sustainable food system.
CIWF will be posting videos of the presentations online over the next week or so. They will also issue a podcast of the conference shortly, which will be available at stopthemachine.fm and downloadable from iTunes.
CIWF released an excellent new report to support its call for change, called “Towards a Flourishing Food System,” which details how our global food systems should be reformed in order to secure food for future generations.
Other interesting reports at the conference included:
CIWF: Case Studies for Post-Industrial Agriculture
A folder was given, and it included some helpful good practice examples.
Photo Credit: Compassion in World Farming (CIWF)