Extinction and Livestock Conference
London, October 2017
PAL recently attended the international Extinction and Livestock conference (http://www.extinctionconference.com) in London, hosted by charity Compassion in World Farming. The aim of the conference was to explore the devastating impact that farming animals (‘livestock production’) has “on animals, people and the planet and the need for a global move away from intensive farming”.
The two day event was attended by over 500 people, including campaigners, policy-makers and business leaders from all over the world. Talks and discussions were varied but focussed on how intensive animal farming is often at the centre of problems in animal welfare, food security, loss of biodiversity and health problems in people.
We heard from many renowned speakers, including food activist Raj Patel; conservationist and author of ‘Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel’ Dr Carl Safina; farm animal welfare expert John Webster; environmentalist Tony Juniper; and public health specialist Dr Aysha Akhtar.
The world currently produces enough food to feed not only the current world population, but the projected 2050 population. However, we waste so much through feeding human-edible grain to animals, and in many countries (particularly the global north) we overconsume and waste food and have inadequate distribution systems.
During the conference we heard how intensive animal production:
Undermines human food security;
Creates serious health problems (diseases, resistance to antibiotics);
Destroys wildlife and biodiversity.
“We each have power”
A few highlights included:
Tony Juniper emphasised the environmental destruction caused by plantations of soya beans (produced to feed farmed animals, not people), the runoff of nutrients into rivers and coastal waters creating deadzones (where all life is killed off) and greenhouse gas emissions (“probably the biggest threat to life on earth”).
Dr Olivier De Schutter, of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, said that the demand for meat and dairy is the key reason deforestation is difficult to end.
Raj Patel highlighted that people are often exploited within the industrial animal farming chain too, saying “cheap food is part of a world of cheap pay” and that people of colour are disproportionally represented in the meat industry workforce. “We can’t separate cheap work, cheap lives, cheap care,” he said.
Public health specialist Dr Aysha Akhtar was one of the few speakers to mention she is vegan and stressed the fact that we can all make a difference: “We each have power: just chose one plate of food over another”.
Chris Darwin (great-great grandson of Charles) encouraged people to go vegetarian – or preferably vegan – for 5-7 days each week. He has launched a free phone app to help people track how their meat-free days are improving their health and the world: https://www.thedarwinchallenge.org
Don’t mention the ‘v’ word
It was clear from the conference that much of the devastation created by industrial farming could be reduced by more people adopting a vegan diet. Unfortunately, this was not the message given by the vast majority of speakers, or by CIWF. There was lots of talk about “eat more plants and less meat”, but it seemed that few speakers wanted to mention either of the ‘v’ words – ‘vegetarian’, or (given that farming animals for their milk is a major contributor to all of the problems highlighted at the conference) ‘vegan’.
CIWF’s new report, launched at the conference (https://www.ciwf.org.uk/media/7431691/towards-a-flourishing-food-systemweb-spreads_93944.pdf), does state that reforming the food system needs to be combined with “a predominantly plant-based human diet and a significant contraction in dietary animal sourced foods in high-consumption countries and convergence to a healthy low-level elsewhere”, but stopped short of the ‘v’ word.
Not everyone speaking at the conference was encouraging a reduction in meat and dairy consumption. The Director of the International Livestock Research Institute (falsely) claimed that a vegan diet was not healthy, and the final panel discussion included an animal farmer ranting against plant-based foods and a senior director of McDonald’s saying that it’s new vegan burger, launched the same week, “probably isn’t very good” (the company’s marketing department probably wouldn’t be happy with that comment).
A concerning trend is how some animal welfare organisations that you may expect to be promoting veganism (for the benefit of animals, people and the planet) instead choose to work with animal farming industries on ‘welfare’ programmes. For example, CIWF USA and the head of the USA giant Perdue Farms explained their cosy relationship to ‘improve’ conditions for chickens at this company – a company that still kills 13 million chickens a week, something which CIWF is not asking them to stop doing.
One of the areas highlighted as a future beneficial trend was new technologies in ‘meat analogues’, the artificial meat being grown in labs which it is suggested would have the same taste and texture of eating an animal but pretty much animal-free.
We won’t go into detail here, except to say that while this may encourage some ardent meat eaters to make the switch to a non-animal diet, there is already plenty of tasty, nutritious vegan food available. Lab-grown meat alternatives will be expensive and out of reach of most people in the world. Why not encourage people to make ethical choices about their diet instead, and show them foods that are available to the vast majority of the world’s population that are already vegan and have far reduced impacts on the environment (locally produced pulses, grains, fruit, vegetables, etc.)? In some countries (such as China), more people are adopting Western meat-based diets as they become wealthier. Promoting a meat-style based diet, even if the lab-grown products are vegan, continues to encourage the devastating impact consuming animal products has in these other countries.
WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) was a co-host of the conference and while their track record means that no-one would expect them to promote a vegan diet (despite it’s huge benefits for biodiversity), they did release a new report, Appetite for Destruction (https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2017-10/WWF_AppetiteForDestruction_Summary_Report_SignOff.pdf) that looks at the impact of eating meat on the environment. Like CIWF, they encourage people to “eat more plants” and “moderate your meat consumption”, but stop well short of promoting veganism. They actually encourage more animal exploitation by recommending that farmed animals and fish be fed on a mix that includes crickets and other insects to reduce the amount of grain used.
According to CIWF, the conference “was just the beginning of what will be an international movement working to identify solutions to mend our broken food systems”. While this was a useful start in identifying the issues, we need to ensure that future discussions have more focus on encouraging people to adopt a vegan diet as one of the solutions to creating a world that is more ethical and sustainable.