European Commission, don’t ‘chicken’ out on a sustainable food strategy

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Pet chickens. Spencer, Oaklahoma. [David Spencer/Flickr]

The Commission must develop a strategy towards a sustainable EU food and farming system, including the introduction of a target to reduce the consumption of animal products by 30 percent by 2030, writes Joanna Swabe.

Dr Joanna Swabe is the Executive Director for Humane Society International/Europe

It is a most inconvenient truth that we are eating far too much meat in the European Union. In 2013, more than 77 billion land animals were raised for the production of meat, eggs, and milk across the globe – over 8.3 billion in the EU alone. So, while EU citizens account for approximately seven percent of the world’s population, they are in fact responsible for 16 percent of the world’s meat consumption.

This has had significant consequences for animal welfare. Our post-war clamouring for a constant supply of cheap, safe animal products contributed to the development of industrial production practices, which has effectively reduced sentient creatures to animal machines. While we have succeeded in eradicating some of the most inhumane practices, such as barren battery cages and veal crates, much work remains to be done to protect animal welfare in the EU.

The ramifications of such high levels of meat consumption, however, go much further than compromising animal welfare. According to the FAO, the animal agriculture sector is also one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems that our planet faces, including land degradation, climate change, water shortage and pollution, and loss of biodiversity.

Recent studies on the environmental impact of meat consumption uncover the true cost of meat. Animal products generally have larger water footprints than non-animal products. It is staggering, for example, to learn that an average of 4,325 litres of water is required to produce just 1 kg of chicken, whereas less than half of that is needed to produce 1 kg of cereals.

It is mindboggling to consider that animal agriculture presently accounts for 12.8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. Yet there is a very simple solution: a recent study found that a 50 percent reduction in our consumption of meat, dairy and eggs in the EU could bring those emissions down to much more sustainable levels. 

Is this really such a radical idea? It would far be too easy to dismiss calls to moderate our meat consumption as the ravings of a radical vegetarian. Scientific study after scientific study has shown that maintaining our current levels of consumption of animal products is simply unsustainable. Progressive thinkers, luminaries, such as Bill Gates and Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, have also started investing in the development of meat analogues, because they too recognise the need to reduce meat consumption.

And, if an altruistic concern for the future of our planet or the welfare of animals is not sufficient to consider moderating meat consumption, then perhaps spare a thought for how it could benefit your health. Studies have, for example, found that those who eat less meat tend to have slimmer waistlines. They also have a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and cancer. Such non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of premature deaths in the EU; they are also often preventable, and treating them costs untold billions.

Humane Society International/Europe believes that there EU policy action to promote more sustainable diets is clearly needed, but thus far attempts to address the issue of sustainable food – let alone diets – seem to have proved a bit too politically hard to swallow.

Indeed, towards the end of the last Barroso Commission, the higher echelons blocked a Communication on Building a Sustainable European Food System, which had been signed off on by three former Commissioners. The Juncker Commission has since applied the ‘principle of political discontinuity’ to the document. In other words, it has been kicked so far into the long grass that it will never see the light of day.

We are therefore calling on the European Commission to develop a meaningful strategy towards achieving a sustainable food and farming system in the EU. One of the goals thereof should be the introduction of an EU target to reduce the consumption of animal products by 30 percent by 2030.

It is vital for the Commission to produce guidelines on what constitutes a healthy and sustainable diet, including the need to reduce consumption of animal products for health, environmental, and animal welfare reasons, and to encourage such guidelines to also be adopted at a Member State level. The Commission could certainly make a start by including the reduction of animal-based foods in the revised Green Public Procurement guidelines.

To quite literally give the EU policymakers some food for thought – together with our partners Compassion in World Farming, Beyond GM, Food for Life Global and the European Parliament’s Sustainable Food Systems Group – HSI/Europe will be hosting ‘The Free Lunch’ outside the Parliament on 29th September. 

This culinary event aims to show we have many sustainable choices when it comes to our diets. At a macro-level, politicians and policymakers must act on concrete measures to reduce consumption of animal-based foods. But, also at a micro-level, individuals can make a huge difference by making more plant-based meal choices.