A group of concerned investors has examined the sustainability of the world’s largest fattening farms and dairy factories that supply the global food industry. And the results aren’t mouth-watering, EURACTIV Germany reports.
Food companies are increasingly committing to producing more sustainably, as part of their marketing strategies. For example, Nestlé plans to reduce the CO2 emitted from its foods by 35% in the next decade. And McDonald’s wants to recycle all its packaging by 2025.
This is good news for the environment, but what about those companies that supply to these food giants?
The conditions under which meat, eggs and dairy products are produced for the global market are still catastrophic for the most part, and contradict the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
This is the conclusion of a study by the FAIRR Initiative, a global investor network which aims to raise awareness about the risks and opportunities caused by intensive livestock production.
Their latest study, the FAIRR Protein Producer Index, examined the business practices of the world’s sixty largest suppliers of animal products. And, predictably, the results show that only a handful of suppliers operate sustainably. Worse, most do not take any measures to protect the air, water, animal welfare, or to prevent deforestation.
Asian companies are among the poorest performers, while the few European companies – mainly Scandinavian fisheries and the French group LDC – have at least some sustainability strategies.
However, that won’t mean much as long as farming practices don’t change. The cultivation of soya bean sprouts has led to the desertification of entire areas, and the pork – for which large quantities of nitrate-polluted water have been released into the environment – still end up in the products of Nestlé, McDonald’s and co.
And these products end up on European plates.
This means that protecting the environment does not start with the buying of organic products, but before.
“Investors, customers and traders should look more at how suppliers deal with the climate damage they cause – and whether they do it at all,” Iman Effendi, one of the study’s authors, told EURACTIV.
Greenhouse gases and wastewater are not controlled
Based on published company data, analysts found that meat production, in particular, has placed little emphasis on sustainability so far. Less than a quarter of livestock and poultry companies measure their greenhouse gas emissions or have targets to reduce them.
86% of the cattle farming companies have no strategy against water scarcity in many regions where they operate. Only one company had a comprehensible fertiliser disposal plan. This is also a problem because animal manure can have a major impact on groundwater if it is released into the environment in large quantities.
When it comes to animal welfare, almost all suppliers perform very poorly. Not even a third of the companies have guidelines on animal sheltering or regulations regarding the use of antibiotics.
Substances are being administered to animals in mass livestock farming facilities to stimulate their growth and prevent diseases. “Antibiotics are also routinely given to healthy animals. This should be limited to disease cases,” said Effendi.
In total, three-quarters of the livestock breeding companies and 60% of the fishing companies were ranked as “high risk” regarding animal welfare.
Besides, the clearing of forests is indirectly related to meat production. This is because the land has to be cleared for millions of cattle and the cultivation of animal feed. Currently, there is an explosive political debate regarding this issue because of the forest fires in Brazil.
And yet, according to the study, not a single corporate group has a credible strategy to prevent deforestation.
Macron wants European ‘sovereignty’ on protein
In the Paris climate agreement, the international community agreed that emissions from the global food sector needs to be curbed. Livestock farming alone accounts for 14% of greenhouse gases worldwide.
And the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) expects the world’s meat consumption to grow by another 85% by 2050.
An increasing amount of meat is also being produced in the EU. According to Eurostat statistics, the EU produced about 23 million tonnes of pork in 2017, a quarter of which came from Germany alone.
Poultry production has grown by 25% since the start of the decade. This is accompanied not only by greenhouse gases and the high nitrate pollution of groundwater but also by an immense demand for land.
For the supply of the German market, more than twelve million hectares were used abroad in 2015 – that is slightly less than the area of Greece.
Because of the dramatic effects on the rainforest, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a “European ‘sovereignty’ on protein” at the last G7 meeting, urging the EU to be less dependent on foreign feed supplies.
According to a report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the beginning of August, the meat industry will have to undergo a radical change to meet the targets of the Paris climate agreement. And according to Iman Effendi, no one in the food production industry is exempt from the agreement.
“When food companies set their climate targets, it also affects their suppliers. But if they do not do their part, these targets cannot be achieved,” she said.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]