Ever since he took office, Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan has promoted the interests of the livestock sector while ignoring health and environmental warnings related to over-consumption of meat, writes Olga Kikou.
Olga Kikou is European Affairs Manager at Compassion in World Farming, an international NGO working on the welfare of farm animals and sustainable farming and food.
In a recent speech at the annual Sommet de l’Elevage in Clermont-Ferrand, France, Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan promised to fight lower meat consumption by introducing measures to promote beef consumption in the European Union. He actually pledged €15 million intended for the internal European market while reacting against the negative publicity surrounding meat, the bad treatment of animals and meat’s detrimental impact on human health, which he contested.
Commissioner Hogan has defined his role within very narrow parameters, catering to the meat sector while ignoring scientific advice and public concerns. Engaged in efforts to increase production, open new markets for producers and encourage exports, his drive to increase meat consumption in Europe is the latest attempt to boost a sector which, according to FAO, is one of the most important contributors to a series of environmental problems related to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and wildlife, water scarcity and pollution, and land degradation. So many valuable resources are being depleted and wasted because of policies that keep the farming industry happy. The production of beef meat in particular, is associated with serious problems, which will never be solved if the Commission proceeds with the business as usual model.
The high levels of meat consumption in the EU have been made possible by industrial farming, which actually threatens food security with its high resource use, increases in crop land and land use change, excessive use of water, fertilizer and feed. The production of animal feed in particular, is a form of food waste since land that could be used to feed people, especially in the developing world, is used to fatten animals instead, which constitutes a highly inefficient use of these crops and exacerbates poverty. Unfortunately, much of EU agriculture is dependent on feeding human-edible cereals to animals.
Over-consumption of animal protein increases the risk of food-related non-communicable diseases and can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers in humans. The World Health Organisation recently classified processed meats as carcinogenic and red meats as probably carcinogenic. Furthermore, overuse of antibiotics in livestock production contributes to the development of antimicrobial resistance. The animal agriculture sector is responsible for much of the antibiotic use in the world today. New data published by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) reveals that many European countries are failing to put an end to massive overuse of antibiotics in farming. Use of antibiotics in Europe remains more than twice as high in animals as in humans.
Besides ourselves, our meat eating habits have damaging consequences for other animal life on this planet. Industrial farming is detrimental to the welfare of farm animals. Tens of billions of land animals are raised for food every year, close to 8 billion in the EU alone. Despite the Treaty for the Functioning of the European Union (2009) which recognises animals for their own intrinsic value, in reality, farm animals are currently being treated as nothing more than commodities.
Despite EU bans on some forms of extreme cruelty, such as the severe confinement of animals, EU laws fall far short of what is necessary to bring the farming sector to the 21st century. Many farm animals are not covered by species specific legislation and there are serious, ongoing problems associated with many farming practices and with transport and slaughter of animals across Member States. Farm animal suffering is actually a European reality but the European Commission has been very reluctant to pursue full enforcement of existing legislation across the EU. During this current term, we actually experience a shift away from urgently needed legislation proposals, resulting in an actual stagnation of progress in the field of animal welfare.
However, the heavy toll associated with the over production and consumption of animal products has been recognised by the scientific community. Investors have taken notice too. Briefing papers such the FAIRR initiative, make the case for protein diversification, with an emphasis on promoting plant based proteins. Already people are talking about a ‘snowball effect’. The latest example came a few days ago when Tyson Foods, the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork, announced that they have started investing in plant based foods. The “fast growing segment of plant based protein” has already attracted many entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates, Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, and venture capital firms in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, who have invested in the development of meat analogues and meat alternatives. It is estimated that demand for meat substitutes will grow significantly over the next few years.
It is clear that the future of food and agriculture lies far beyond the walls of the Commission and its Directorate for Agriculture and Rural Development. It lies in all those involved in the sustainable food movement, the loose-knit coalition of environmental, animal welfare, public health, farming, consumer and development groups who have been asking for an urgently needed, radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, a policy accountable for nearly 40% of the EU budget. It lies in companies that build on developing trends and explore many available opportunities, moving away from current EU policies of excessive meat production and consumption. It lies in the public’s positive attitudes toward animals and the shift toward more sustainable and compassionate choices. It lies in consumers who with their buying power can and will demand a transition to better diets and quality food for themselves and their families.
Pledging public funds to support a sector with such negative impact across so many areas is short sighted and dangerous. It’s time the Commission takes seriously the compelling evidence and scientific advice for a significant reduction in meat consumption and uses the opportunity to shift policies towards more sustainable ways of farming, encouraging farmers and consumers alike to transition to healthier and responsible choices.