One of the great disgraces of our age is the takeover of a purely utilitarian vision in our interaction with our surrounding ecosystems. This is particularly true in regards to our relationship to farm animals: growing economic imperatives with little concern for animal welfare have reduced pigs, cows and chicken to little more than milk and meat machines. This has brought cheap meat, eggs and dairy to every plate, but at what cost?
It turns out the cost is huge. Agriculture alone could account for a 1.5 degree temperature increase by 2050, making it impossible to reach the Paris Agreement commitments. There are a number of reasons for this: the Co2 intensity of agricultural practices (think tractors, energy intensity of fertilisers and phytosanitary products), the loss of soil Co2, but most importantly methane emissions from cattle and the relative inefficiency of producing meat. The intensification of livestock rearing also brings a host of problems for local communities – from respiratory problems to more serious environmental issues from the tons of urine and manure dumped in the surrounding environment.
This aerial photo of a feedlot shows a grid of cattle pens (brown) with roads for feed trucks (grey horizontal lines), and a huge lagoon of run-off urine and manure (green). Source: big picture beef
The animal breeds have been selected to maximise their output: a chicken will typically have lived less than 60 days before it ends on a plate (without having seen the sun) and this accelerated growth causes a range of health issues; cows have also been stretched to the limit, with milk output doubling from around 12 litres per day in the 1970s to 25 litres in 2012. For these production methods to be viable, the industry overuses antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease outbreaks in these unsanitary environments. This leads to an acceleration of the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria which is yet another cost not considered by the sector.
Reducing agriculture’s impact will also mean changing our habits: reducing the quantity of animal products we consume, favouring quality producers that respect animal welfare and accepting that slightly more expensive food is an inevitable consequence of an agricultural sector that trades lower production for higher animal and environmental welfare.
Another key point is to support organisations that work for better animal welfare: GAIA has a stellar record of over 25 years of campaigning and have successfully pushed legislation on a number of causes (against forced feeding, cages, fur…). While our personal choices might seem small, joining our efforts to such organisations truly makes us part of something bigger.