This is a guest post by Gene Baur, the president and co-founder of the Farm Sanctuary, which advocates for a just and compassionate food system and operates shelters for rescued farm animals in New York and California.
We are witnessing the effects of climate change with more frequent fires, floods and extreme weather events. At the same time, ecosystems and biodiversity are being lost as species go extinct. Humanity’s expanding environmental footprint is largely to blame, and animal agriculture is a major contributor. It’s no wonder that entrenched meat and dairy industry operatives made a big show at COP28 with false claims about “sustainability” to combat the unprecedented focus on food system change at the U.N. Climate Change Conference. Make no mistake: raising animals for food requires inordinate amounts of land, water, fossil fuels and other resources, and it is making our planet uninhabitable.
While it’s been reported that there was more plant-based food at COP28, Big Ag used the annual climate conference to expand the market for animal products. It’s greenwashing at its finest, and you shouldn’t fall for it.
Most of us who live in affluent societies are eating too many animal-based foods and thereby supporting an industry that is threatening the well-being of everyone, especially the most vulnerable, on Earth. There is a large body of scientific evidence and increasing public awareness about the harms of factory farming, and many consumers are looking for sustainable alternatives to animal products. In response, agribusiness is stepping up its greenwashing efforts to propagate false narratives and persuade citizens and policymakers to believe that exploiting animals for food is environmentally beneficial. It is not.
Animal agriculture occupies nearly 80% of the world’s agricultural land, yet it produces less than 20% of our food calories. We are squandering increasingly scarce resources to feed and slaughter more than 70 billion farm animals every year to feed the 8 billion humans living on Earth. We are also killing trillions of aquatic animals to satisfy our gluttony for flesh. As wild fish populations are decimated, aquaculture operations — basically factory farms for fish — are expanding as a false solution to our oceans’ decline.
The earth has abundant resources that could easily nourish the world’s human population, but not if we choose inefficient meat and dairy-centered diets. The fact is, we can feed more people with less land and fewer resources through plant-based agriculture.
Six major companies that market dairy pledged at COP28 to begin reporting their methane emissions — and eventually reduce those emissions. Transparency is critically important, but industrial animal agriculture is a known contributor to climate change and it needs to act immediately to reduce its emissions.
Just as in Washington, D.C., and other policy centers, agribusiness is focusing on wrong-headed half-measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from animal agriculture. These include investments in genetic engineering, pharmaceuticals and methane digesters for cesspools of animal waste. Spending time and funding to make an inherently destructive system less harmful distracts from the best and most obvious way to preserve our shared planet and slash agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. We need to prevent the expansion of factory farming and invest in efforts to build a healthy, just and sustainable plant-based food system.
It is time for bold action consistent with the findings of professors Michael Eisen of UC Berkeley and Pat Brown of Stanford University in their research paper: “Rapid global phaseout of animal agriculture has the potential to stabilize greenhouse gas levels for 30 years and offset 68 percent of CO2 emissions this century.” The authors describe how land being used to raise animals for food could be better utilized to effectively combat the climate crisis, pointing out: “The magnitude and rapidity of these potential effects should place the reduction or elimination of animal agriculture at the forefront of strategies for averting disastrous climate change.”
In the U.S., ten times more land goes to feed farm animals than to feed people. Shifting toward eating plants instead of animals is more efficient and would allow some of this cropland and vast expanses of acreage that are used for grazing to regenerate or be rewilded. It has been estimated that a global transition to plant-based diets would lead to a 75% reduction in our use of land for agriculture. This could help restore healthy ecosystems and support biodiversity and carbon sequestration to the benefit of animals, people and the planet.
Business and policy leaders are finally beginning to recognize the deleterious consequences of animal agriculture, and our food system is entering into important climate discussions, including those at COP28. This is positive news, but we need to be aware of agribusiness’ entrenched influence and greenwashing efforts aimed at maintaining the status quo at all costs.
Billions of dollars intended to address climate change and protect the environment have already gone to support factory farms. This needs to stop. If we hope to make meaningful progress, we must reduce or eliminate the use of animals for food.