It’s as if the future we worried about, in which Earth grows hotter and our ability to adapt doesn’t keep up the pace, has arrived. We can’t deny it. We know that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions has to be drastically reduced or the consequences we’re seeing will only worsen. Earlier this month, unprecedented rainfall engulfed New York, the city where I live. The transit system was flooded and shut down. Many people’s homes were filled with several feet of water, and a number of people died. Something similar and tragic happened in Zhengzhou, China in July, and floods, heatwaves, or droughts have become an unjust, recurring reality for millions of people across the global South.
About one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions come from the world’s food and agricultural systems. And these emissions are rising. A major reason is that the world is producing and consuming more meat and dairy products. The U.S., Brazil, China, and members of the European Union are the biggest livestock-producing countries. Many parts of the world are leaving behind the plant-forward ways of eating and rushing toward beef, chicken, cheese, and pork, sometimes three times a day. How much of this, I wonder, is people’s actual desire or the result of the massive marketing of meat and U.S.-style fast food, along with big agricultural corporations looking for new profit centers?
We’ve seen “big meat” and “big dairy” try to shape the narrative, and actions, that will emerge from the first UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) taking place (all virtually) on September 23rd. They continue to claim that more intensive, industrial production is needed to “feed the world”, even as corporate consolidation in the agricultural sector accelerates, and documentation of the astonishing damage this causes mounts.
The Global People’s Summit on Food Systems is also taking place this week to challenge some of the processes and outcomes of the UNFSS, while also offering visions and examples of just, sustainable, equitable ways of farming and eating. It’s re-imaging, top to bottom, the realities of the seriously broken (and frankly bizarre) global food system. (For context/disclosure, I had a formal role in the UNFSS, as deputy co-lead of workstream one on “food environments”, which was part of Action Track 2 on sustainable consumption. Some good work emerged from this process, although the transparency around who was involved and why wasn’t adequate. I and Brighter Green also supported the Global People’s Summit process and joined some of the sessions.)
A new edition of the Meat Atlas, co-published by Friends of the Earth, found something astonishing. Just 20 meat and dairy corporations emit more greenhouse gas emissions than Germany or the UK do. Food production is also one of the main drivers of the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems — forests, grasslands, and marine environments. And agribusinesses all too often capture the water, land, and climate “space” of independent producers and rural communities, threaten or violate their rights, and then gobble up government resources through billions of dollars in public subsidies.
It isn’t right and it isn’t sustainable, and it poses huge risks for the climate, as well as human rights, food sovereignty, animal welfare and rights, public health, and biodiversity. Scientists, farmers, and activists are warning that we can’t meet the Paris climate agreement’s goals if we don’t cut emissions from food systems, and especially animal agriculture.
We also know that the health of the environment, other animals, and human beings are deeply intertwined. These linkages have to become central to how we plan and how we act. COVID has shown us this beyond a shadow of a doubt. Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases around the world are zoonoses — they come from animals, both wild and domesticated. The U.S., Germany, and other countries have seen outbreaks of avian and swine flu in recent years; China and Vietnam have had African swine virus. Each is devastating to millions of farmed animals and to agricultural producers and poses threats to human health, too.
We know that for the animals, “standard” industrial production is a nightmare as far as their welfare is concerned. Literally, billions of farmed animals in industrial systems are crammed into overcrowded cages, stalls, or the floors of buildings. Few can feel the sun or breathe fresh air. Almost all of them have natural behaviors, like roosting or bathing, or reproducing, harshly controlled. And their waste pollutes waterways and land and heats the climate. While factory farming was born in the U.S., it’s been exported to many, many countries, relying on many enablers.
How can this be the future of the food system or the earth? It can’t be. Science and ethics and the persistence of myriad injustices tell us so. A recent report from the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at the U.S.’s Harvard University concluded that protecting forests and changing agricultural practices are essential and cost-effective strategies to prevent future pandemics. I quote one of the researchers’ key findings: “Spillover of possible pandemic pathogens occurs from livestock operations; wildlife hunting and trade; land-use change — and the destruction of tropical forests in particular; expansion of agricultural lands, especially near human settlements; and rapid, unplanned urbanization.” We’re going to have to reverse many of the trends we see now and move forward in new ways — rapidly.
The ongoing COVID pandemic continues to teach many lessons. New ways of relating to each other, of caring for each other, and listening to each other . . . or not. The pandemic has, in ways large and small, showed that the way we live on this planet needs to change. In the U.S. right now, certain regions are experiencing a surge in COVID infections. Millions of people, including me, have been grateful to receive the COVID vaccine. But many millions of others have refused to be vaccinated, often due to a deep well of misinformation. It’s a tragedy all around — and maddening, too. At the same time, billions of people in other countries won’t have the opportunity to get a vaccine for many more months or even years. How can that be?
A number of commentators have concluded that the COVID crisis represents a failure of international cooperation. We — the countries of the world — had a chance to work together to bring the pandemic to an end, and we haven’t done that. Or we haven’t done it nearly as well as we should have. But we know that international cooperation is absolutely essential to solve some of the most urgent challenges we face. The climate crisis. The massive loss of biodiversity in almost every country. Threats to Earth’s life support systems. Plus, epidemics of poor health, food insecurity, rights violations, and injustice.
The UN Environment Program and other global agencies, along with citizen movements nearly everywhere, are highlighting the urgency of creating a new relationship with the non-human world. This relationship has to be based on respect and mutuality, not exploitation and disregard. Otherwise, it’s hard to see how we can all survive future pandemics or the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Can we do this? Can we find ways to live sustainably and fairly on this planet? Can we be honest about the manifold failings, injustices, and inequities embedded in so many food and agricultural systems? Will we? The evidence is decidedly mixed. And time is running out. Ten years ago this month, Nobel peace laureate Wangari Maathai succumbed to cancer at age 71, much too young. She was a mentor to me, and a peerless example of purpose and conviction to millions of people, and remains so. As the UN and the Global Peoples food summits take place, and the climate summit, COP26 in Glasgow, looms on the horizon, a section from Maathai’s autobiography, Unbowed, which I worked on with her, resonates anew:
Those of us who witness the degraded state of the environment and the suffering that comes with it cannot afford to be complacent. We continue to be restless. If we really carry the burden, we are driven to action. We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!