Many people are surprised to find out that the meat and dairy industry produces more climate-changing emissions than all the planes, cars and lorries on the planet – and that a hidden chain of destruction links animals in British factory farms to rainforest destruction in South America.
Animals in British and European factory farms are pumped full of high-protein feed to grow quickly and produce high yields. The protein in animal feed is provided by soy, most of which is shipped in from industrial GM plantations created by cutting down rainforest in South America. This releases vast quantities of climate-changing gases, destroys trees, plants and animals and drives out communities that have lived on the land for centuries.
The huge soy plantations needed just to feed factory farms in Europe every year cover almost 10 million hectares in South America – and demand is growing fast.
In the UK, factory farming is almost wholly dependent on the availability of this cheap soy feed – but at the expense of UK citizens and farmers.
Earlier this year new research from Friends of the Earth revealed that families in England are paying more than £700 million each year to fund the factory farming system through agricultural subsidies, despite the fact it is wiping out rainforests and making climate change worse.
And yo-yoing feed prices have hit farmers hard, playing a key role in the crisis in UK pig farming last year. The intensification of farming has also led to a decline in traditional farming in the UK, with a consequent haemorrhaging of jobs. At the same time supermarkets continue to demand more for less, forcing farmers into a downward spiral of ever more intensive production methods and worsening environmental degradation.
All across South America, resistance to soy plantations from local communities is growing. World Food Day on 16 October 2009 will see a global day of action against agribusiness giant Monsanto by La Via Campesina, the largest movement of small farmers in the world. But soy plantations are still spreading to satisfy the growing demand from the global market. Unless this is curbed, green soy deserts will continue to grow.
Yet the response from the UK Government is so far short of the mark. Last month the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published a new report promising a future food system which would link sustainability with food security. It recognised the huge impacts of meat and dairy and the need to reduce the UK’s own emissions from this industry, without simply exporting them overseas.
But to date Ministers have failed to bring forward strong and effective measures to deal with the global impacts of our meat and dairy system or deal with the looming food crisis caused by growing consumption, climate change and unsustainable farming. Instead, the Government is preoccupied with ensuring supermarkets and food companies are in the best position to scour the globe for ever cheaper commodities such as soy.
When food and animal feed prices soared earlier this year, the Government blamed strict EU rules on GM imports. Ministers are still pushing for these rules to be weakened to allow more GM soy into the UK, despite clear evidence that growing soy on the current scale is driving the food crisis by displacing land normally used to grow food for people.
Rather than promoting GM and more intensive farming, Ministers should take the golden opportunity to ensure a healthy and sustainable food supply and promote thriving UK farming by supporting home grown animal feeds, grass-based feed systems and supporting small-scale, sustainable farming.
Friends of the Earth’s Food Chain Campaign is calling for action to tackle this crisis by fixing the food chain and supporting planet-friendly farming. It is calling for a new law to quantify the global impact of the UK’s meat and dairy consumption and develop a strategy to tackle it.
Supporting farmers also means the Government will have to establish an independent supermarket Ombudsman to stop the bullying practices of the supermarkets and ensure fairer terms of trade for farmers and suppliers here and overseas.
The Government must also commit to maintaining and reforming farming subsides in the UK so that public money currently supporting factory farming is instead directed to generating planet-friendly meat and dairy farming. The planned reform of the European Common Agricultural Policy in the run up to 2013 – which opens up previous legislation for change – will be a key opportunity to make much-needed changes at an EU level to stop taxpayers money fuelling every more intensive farming.
So far, more than 27,000 people have supported the Food Chain Campaign’s call to tackle the hidden link between factory farmed meat and dairy and rainforest destruction. We can enjoy good quality meat and dairy without damaging and degrading our world – but first politicians must hear and act on the growing calls for them to fix the food chain.
Kirtana Chandrasekaran is a food campaigner for Friends of the Earth