We need transition farming in the EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

"Transitioning away from the EU’s intensive farming model would have multiple co-benefits." [Shutterstock]

European tastes are changing and so must farms, therefore we need to support a transition away from industrial animal farming, writes Alexandra Clark.

Alexandra Clark is a sustainable food consultant writing on behalf of Humane Society International/Europe.

Over the last decade, there has been considerable growth in the popularity of low-meat and no-meat diets, and companies producing plant-based alternatives to animal products are now serious players in the global protein market. It is vital that EU farmers are assisted in adapting to this changing demand.

According to Euromonitor, in 2017, plant-based milks represented 12% of the global fluid milk market, and dairy alternatives are predicted to grow to a market value of €19bn by 2022.

Europe is currently the largest market for meat substitutes, having a 39% global market share and, with an eight percent annual growth rate, they are predicted to reach a global net worth of €4.2bn by 2020. A 2017 report by Rabobank suggests that alternative proteins could represent a third of total EU protein demand growth in the next five years.

According to Forbes, in one of the largest conventional US retailers, a plant-based burger outsold the beef patties when sold side by side in the meat aisle of its grocery stores in southern California; and the manufacturer of a mung bean-based egg alternative say that their product ‘…outsold all liquid whole eggs in its first week in a major retailer.’

The world’s biggest fast food chains are getting in on the act as well, with McDonald’s, KFC, Quick and Subway all launching or trialling meat-free versions of their popular meaty options.

The United Nations Environment Programme recently branded meat as ‘the world’s most urgent problem,’ awarding plant-based Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods the 2018 Champions of the Earth Award in the Science and Innovation category. The seal of approval from the UN will further ensure consumer acceptance of these innovative new products. Alongside home-grown counterparts, they are reshaping the EU protein market.

Cellular engineered ‘clean’ meat, real meat grown in-vitro from animal cells is predicted to be available on the market in the coming years, and also has the potential to take a sizeable share of the EU protein market.

As the demand for alternative products continues to grow, it is the intensive animal farming sector that will feel the brunt of this shift. In recent years, around 350,000 tonnes of excess powdered milk were stockpiled by the European Commission, in a move to prevent a backlash from the industry.

Few sectors are afforded the ability to continue to produce products for a declining market, yet these already heavily subsidised products were bailed out with public money. This is neither a sustainable solution nor an ethical use of public funds.

The money spent subsidising and stockpiling these products would be better spent assisting farmers who wish to transition away from industrial animal farming to the production of plant crops for human consumption, to meet the growing demand.

It is imperative that governments support these efforts and aid this transition by allocating funds to grant initiatives that will assist farmers in acquiring new skills and equipment to meet these changing needs.

As custodians of the land, it is paramount to protect the livelihoods of EU farmers and rural communities, as recognised in the European Commission’s Communication on ‘The Future of Food and Farming’, which states that ‘…the most important role for the [common agricultural] policy is, therefore, to help farmers anticipate developments in dietary habits and adjust their production according to market signals and consumers’ demands.’

Transitioning away from the EU’s intensive farming model would have multiple co-benefits. Industrial animal agriculture is a major greenhouse gas emitter and plays a significant role in numerous environmental crises including degradation of land, water and air and loss of biodiversity. It also poses a threat to human health in the form of antimicrobial resistance and the spread of zoonotic and foodborne diseases.

Chronic diseases are responsible for approximately 80% of deaths in the EU, yet studies show that many can be prevented, and in some cases reversed, with plant-based diets. In terms of farm animal suffering, the acclaimed historian Yuval Noah Harari called industrial farming ‘one of the worst crimes in history.’

To mitigate these significant detrimental outcomes, governments must do more in the coming years to incentivise a shift away from harmful agricultural practices. A report by Rise Foundation recently found that EU animal production falls far outside a ‘safe operating space’.

Its analysis found that in order to meet the EU’s GHG reduction target set following the Paris Climate Agreement of 80% by 2050, each member state would need to reduce farm animal sector emissions by, on average, 74 percent.

The report highlights that ‘…meat consumed by EU citizens has risen by 60% since the 1960s, led by a rapid expansion of poultry meat and pig meat production that have become cheap sources of animal protein.’

Chickens and pigs are the most intensively farmed animals and almost wholly reliant on feed, often imported from Latin America, contributing to mass deforestation and biodiversity loss outside the EU’s borders.

In a time when drought is a real threat, in particular for the farmers who raise animals, a European Commission study published in September found that compared to existing diets, a reduction of 35-55%  of the water required to produce our food could be achieved by adopting healthy vegetarian diets.

Despite the advice from its own report, the Commission responded to the recent drought by announcing advance payments and compensation for farmers, but no measures to reduce the agricultural sector’s water footprint. This may provide temporary relief, but it does not build resilience and protect farmers from future water shortages.

The odds are stacked against continuing business as usual for ethical, health and environmental reasons. As the EU reforms its common agricultural policy, it is essential that funds are allocated to protect livelihoods and assist farmers in transitioning away from intensive animal production.

Just as we have transition towns that focus on shifting to more self-sufficient practices that reduce effects on the environment and the economy, we need to support a similar transition away from industrial animal farming.

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