Animal agriculture: the climate culprit shielded from scrutiny

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» Animal agriculture: the climate culprit shielded from scrutiny

Jimmy Pierce reports on some hard truths surrounding the state of our planet, and provides a solution to the impending environmental crises we are to face.

Experts will soon gather in Paris for the annual UN Climate Change Conference to discuss how to cut carbon emissions and halt temperature rises, but the principal contributor is likely to be left off the agenda. Environmental NGOs dare not discuss it, nor do policy makers.

The identity of this climate culprit shielded from scrutiny? Animal agriculture – the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption, species extinction, habitat loss, ocean dead zones and pollution, responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all transport in the world combined.

Its impact is persistently ignored, wilfully neglected in favour of comparatively trivial initiatives like the 5p carrier bag charge which pay little more than lip service to notions of environmental preservation. Unlike the transport, waste and energy sectors in which emissions reductions have repeatedly been attempted, the livestock industry continues to enjoy unprecedented freedom to carry on with business as usual. It remains, as ever, unchallenged.

The reasons are numerous. Pressure from an extremely powerful industry is omnipresent, while historical links between consuming meat and social status have unhelpfully stuck around along with inaccurate ideas of good nutrition courtesy of clever marketing. Environmental charities fear alienating their meat-eating donors so leave the topic well alone, as do much of the mainstream press. But are the public that welded to meat, dairy and routine, and that averse to change?

The rise of veganism would suggest not. The number of vegans in the UK has roughly doubled in the last nine years. We have also seen similar rates of growth in the United States and Germany as people make more compassionate choices, better for their health, the planet and animals. There has been a seismic shift in global dietary tendencies, and this should be reflected in food policy.

Farmers are struggling. So much so that half of all UK dairy farmers are reported to be intending to quit their sector, resorting to publicity stunts to protest milk prices earlier in the year. Take this as a marker for the need for change. 

English dairy farmers receive around a third of their income in EU subsidies. This amounts, on average, to around £25,000 per dairy farmer per year, dwarfing the sums given to crop growers. Rather than continue propping up a failing industry, the Government ought to alter the agricultural system; make it better, greener.

One solution: subsidise farmers interested in diversifying away from livestock systems to growing sustainable plant protein crops. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which makes these payments to farmers, must place far greater emphasis on truly sustainable practices like crop farming and stop primarily promoting meat and cheese businesses, which should not be exempt from market forces.

The UK has some of the world’s best conditions for growing plant protein crops, fava beans and hemp in particular. Both are nutritious and highly sustainable, and both replenish the soil and require less fertiliser than their animal-based counterparts. These inherent capabilities of rural Britain are being woefully under-utilised. 

A new report by The Vegan Society – Grow Green – outlines the process and the need for urgent change. Transitions of this type will admittedly take time, require research and greater cooperation between governmental departments, but the potential benefits stare us plainly in the face.

Fewer animals than the billions killed every year will be forced to live a life of pain and suffering. We would become healthier, young farmers would see a brighter future than the gloomy predicament they face at present, and global food security issues would start to be properly addressed.

At the very least, let the Grow Green report be the catalyst for wider discussion about the role of animals in future agricultural policy. The current CAP budget runs until 2020, but new budget negotiations will most likely start next year. Now is the time to influence the debate on its longer-term role and responsibilities. Write to your MP and urge them to raise these issues with the relevant minister. 

We are asked to turn off lights, recycle, use energy-saving lightbulbs, and cycle instead of drive. These are of course positive steps to take, but their impact pales into insignificance compared to eating less meat and fish and drinking less milk. 

Animal farming in the agriculture sector is akin to fossil fuels in the energy sector, only much more damaging. That it enjoys such clandestine protection in a society that projects itself as forward thinking is nothing short of backward.

By Jimmy Pierce

In the UK you can use Write To Them to easily and quickly share the report to your MP. Suggested text:

"Please consider the damaging effect animal agriculture is having upon our planet. The Grow Green report outlines a solution to this which has other positive benefits for our society as a whole: subsidising livestock farmers to grow green crops instead. Download the report here:"

Thank you for spreading the word!


Hello, Thank you for posting this article. Very needed before our march in London and discussions in Paris. Kind regards, Beata Ciupinska

I've been really pleased with the work of the Vegan Society, and the steps forward we have made since I chaired the board. The subsidies for meat and dairy are a key lobbying point. When the rest of the country is losing public funding, animal farming is getting hand-out after hand-out. Truth is, we are all paying for meat and dairy, whether we buy it or not. Nor does animal farming pick up the cost of 'externalised economic events' like river pollution, the marine 'dead zones' caused by slurry run-off, nor the destruction caused by climate change emissions due to animal husbandry. Even farmers (and their lobbyists) admit that if government stops the subsidies the industry will cease to exist. Twitter - @grahamneale

great article !! thank you

Thanks for this. I will certainly be forwarding it to my MP. I think there is an urgency about diet generally and meat-eating in particular at the moment so this is a good time to suggest alternatives and hopefully open the door to discussing sustainable alternatives to animal farming.

Very well said...everyone needs to be educated about this situation...

What a well written article, succinct and informative without overloading the reader. Ideal for those who are less aware, could it be used as a flyer / campaign leaflet? Well done & thank you.

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