In order to 'feed the world' we must stop factory farming our animals

In order to 'feed the world' we must stop factory farming our animals
© Getty Images

Hurricane Michael slammed into Florida and threatened parts of the Carolinas, which were already inundated by Hurricane Florence less than a month ago. Florence killed 48 people, engulfed cities and towns  and drowned thousands of pigs and millions of chickens confined in factory farms. It also fouled miles of rivers and streams with animal manure and coal ash that breached enclosure walls. Although farmers took a $1.1 billion hit, North Carolina’s pig producers already claim they’re “returning to normal.”

But what does “normal” mean? Michael was the strongest hurricane to strike the Florida Panhandle in a century. It was followed by Florence, which was also considered a once-in-a-generation storm. And in 2016 hurricane Matthew, which was a Category 5 hurricane, also devastated the Carolinas.

ADVERTISEMENT

This year saw new records for heat around the planet.  Projections of temperature increase in mid-century (over 2000) threaten to diminish crop yields in America’s breadbasket and elsewhere. This makes it harder to grow the corn and soy that feed billions of farm animals in the U.S. and around the world.

Speaking of farm animals, 4.1 million chickens were also lost in Florence’s rain and wind. They only represent four-hundredths of a percent of the nine billion chickens slaughtered in the U.S. annually and 5,550 pigs killed are also just a small percent of the 120 million pigs killed for food each year.

Now a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that “normal” may be catastrophic. It states that human societies may have only a dozen years to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to keep the warming of Earth’s atmosphere to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — the goal of the Paris Agreement. Even with this level of warming, extreme storms like Florence will become more likely and so will intense heat waves, especially in tropical regions.

The report’s four scenarios to achieve a 1.5 degrees celsius increase paint a stark reality. We must drastically reduce GHG emissions from agriculture — principally caused by the production of animal-based foods — and transform our energy sector to renewables. The longer we wait and the less we change, the more we’ll need some form of risky and unproven geo-engineering in the second half of the century to actively remove C02 from the atmosphere.

The IPCC urges the decarbonization of the global energy system, as well as a substantial reduction in methane from agricultural production—in one scenario by up to 69 percent from 2010 levels. Worldwide, animal agriculture is responsible for 90 percent of methane emissions and the U.S. habit of raising animals for food contributes more than half of our carbon footprint.

We can hear the objections already — that people want meat and that we need to feed the world. The trouble is, as the IPCC report indicates, our current trajectory means these goals not only contradict one another, but may be leading us off a climate cliff.

We already use three-quarters of Earth’s arable land and a third of cereal crops to feed farmed animals, which could rise to half by 2050, especially as the UN estimates that global annual meat production will grow to 376 million metric tons by 2030. A recent study calculated that domesticated livestock constitute 60 percent of the biomass of all mammals alive on Earth (humans were 36 percent and wild species a mere four percent).

It’s time to jettison the “normal.” Animal agriculture as a whole must change. Governments should take steps to internalize the costs of meat production, including to the global climate and end tax and other incentives for growing feed crops.

We should be paying the world’s farmers to use their land to sequester carbon through plant-based agriculture and afforestation (where it doesn’t affect biodiversity) and install wind turbines and solar panels.

Major strides have been made in developing cellular meat, dairy and fish products. Plant-based meats are proliferating and plant-based milks are now 13 percent of the U.S. milk market. At the moment, private capital (including from some agribusinesses) is pushing this change, but it isn’t enough; governments shouldn’t just regulate the protein-delivery system, but help transform it to feed the growing human population well and equitably and with much lower GHG emissions.

Of course, some lobbyists and politicians will stand in the way, misguidedly believing that denial, tradition, or even a wall will stop the waters rising and waves of hundreds of millions of climate refugees crossing borders. But 12 years is only two or three elections away. Every candidate of every party now needs to be held accountable for their climate change policy, or lack of one.

It’s clear that feeding billions of animals in order to “feed the world” both threatens and is threatened by catastrophes much more devastating than Hurricanes Michael and Florence — ones in which no “normal” may be possible.

Mia MacDonald is the executive director of Brighter Green, an environmental think-tank based in New York, who has taught on climate change, animal agriculture and sustainable food systems at Columbia and New York universities. Gene Baur is the co-founder and president of Farm Sanctuary, which works to protect and advocate for farm animals and a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.