The Global Alliance for the Future of Food recently released a statement on animal agriculture giving an important and positive perspective on the role livestock must play in our future food systems.

The statement was developed following a meeting the Global Alliance hosted last year at which an expert report on animal agriculture was presented by the Meridian Institute. The SFT’s director, Patrick Holden was one of the speakers.

While recognising that the current conventional and industrialised system of meat production and consumption is not sustainable, the Global Alliance also sees a way forward, towards more sustainable animal agriculture systems. These alternatives have great potential to restore natural resources, climate resilience and human health.

Animal agriculture systems exist which are more sustainable because they integrate diversified, ecologically sound farming with livestock production and, consequently, help to resolve pressing environmental issues, instead of adding to them.

Global Alliance Executive Director Ruth Richardson points out, “In many parts of the world we have inherited an extractive system that maximizes production, concentrates the supply of cheap/heavily subsidized raw materials, and supplies a food processing industry that encourages reliance on cheap animal proteins and processed meats. It’s not sustainable for the planet or for human health.”

But this cheap meat comes at a high cost when the problems caused by such systems are taken into account. These ‘negative externalities’ include a growing epidemic of antibiotic-resistant infections, low wages and exploitation of workers, exposure of workers and local communities to toxic waste and air pollution, reduced biodiversity, an eroded and polluted landscape, increased greenhouse gas emissions and many more.

These issues were explored at the True Cost of American Food conference, organised by the Sustainable Food Trust and supported in part by the Global Alliance, in April 2016, in San Francisco. In particular, an expert panel discussion on the hidden costs of CAFOs explored animal agriculture externalities in depth. An animation created by the Sustainable Food Trust and the Lexicon of Sustainability as part of the conference, called A Tale of Two Chickens, also delves deeper into this issue, exposing the real costs of cheap meat.

But what can be done to ensure animal agriculture becomes more sustainable? Working closely with partner organisations, including the SFT, the Global Alliance, is committed to mapping “viable and tangible” solutions to make animal agriculture more sustainable.

The Global Alliance prioritises three ‘pathways’ to shift thinking and practice around animal agriculture:

Policy – which has a critical role to play in raising awareness of the issues at stake and behaviour change. Driving consumer demand for sustainable meat within a policy framework that encourages sustainable livestock production, will ensure both producers and consumers are supported in this transition.

Consumption – emphasising the “conflicting education and messaging around animal product consumption – including one-dimensional solutions (‘meat is unsustainable’) – [that] confuse consumers and undermine systemic solutions.” To avoid this, we must be clear in differentiating between sustainable and unsustainable animal agriculture, encouraging a consumer shift in favour of pasture-fed better quality meat, which is higher in Omega 3, whilst moving away from industrially produced, grain-fed meat.

Industry and investment – encouraging institutional investors to look critically at their investments, considering the environmental impacts they may have. More and more institutions are moving away from investments – for example, in fossil fuels – that have a negative public profile and towards more responsible investments. Similarly, food companies are making commitments to more sustainable practices in food production, driven by consumer demand as awareness of social and environmental impacts are recognised. Mapping the metrics of sustainability in food production and its myriad externalities to create a robust ‘true cost account’ of its production, is an important next step.

Finally, the Global Alliance proposes a narrative for what sustainable animal agriculture would look like. It is one that is “renewable, resilient, equitable, diverse, healthy and interconnected”. Only when these values are realised, can animal agriculture play the vital and important role in global food systems, that it should, enriching communities and increasing human and environmental health in ways that support a viable future for the planet and all that live on it.

Richardson also explains that, “Core to what we wanted to achieve by bringing people together was to develop a shared narrative, because if we are going to see a transition to more sustainable food systems, we have to tell the story of what we want our food systems to do for us – and we all need to be singing from the same song sheet.”

The Global Alliance and its partners now plan to explore how to move beyond the usual strategies to generate the viable and tangible new solutions needed to transform animal agriculture on a global level. At SFT, we look forward to being a part of this continuing work.

Photograph: USDA

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