Feed humans - not factory farms

A field of wheat in Ukraine, by Ilya

Flickr
The war in Ukraine will only exacerbate the problems caused by feeding food crops to farm animals rather than people.

We should be talking about prioritising food for people rather than feeding for the excessive numbers of farm animals exploited for food production.

Never let a crisis go to waste, they say. The Russian military invasion of Ukraine has immediately sparked alarmist statements from the animal agriculture industry about the serious threats that this war will pose to food security in Europe and beyond.

Straight away came the calls to re-evaluate or even altogether shelve the environmental objectives of both the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies. 

No one denies that the brutal war in Ukraine will impact the supply of wheat, maise, sunflower seeds, and sunflower oil for both food and feed to the EU and exports of EU agricultural products, particularly of meat to meat our Eastern neighbours.

Consumption

But it is beyond cynical to see that this conflict serves as an excuse to delay or curtail the crucial transformation to our food system that is urgently needed to halt the loss of biodiversity and combat climate change. 

Global warming will not suddenly slow down and wait until the Russians lay down their arms. Without decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect biodiversity, the impact on both people and ecosystems will be catastrophic and irreversible.

The issue of food security is, of course, a sensitive one. No-one wants to see food prices go through the roof, shortages of staple foodstuffs or people, often the most vulnerable, going hungry.

Yet one question is even more important now: how much of the cereals and oilseed that we produce and import is destined directly for human consumption.

Exploited

According to the European Commission's data, around two-thirds of EU cereal production and 70 percent of oilseed production is intended for animal feed - this is not nearly enough to feed the billions of farm animals that are kept for meat, dairy and egg production in the EU.

We also supplement this by importing millions of tonnes of soybean meal every year, primarily from the industrial monocultures that have destroyed rainforests in Latin America. Around 95 percent of these imports feed farm animals rather than directly feeding people.

Using cereals and legumes to feed farm animals is an incredibly inefficient and wasteful means of producing protein. It can take around 20kg of feed to make just one kilo of beef. Feed conversion rates vary between species, but there is nothing more efficient than directly feeding people with these plant-based proteins.

If we are serious about protecting food security, we should be talking about prioritising food for people rather than feeding for the excessive numbers of farm animals exploited for food production.

Safeguard

My own nation, the Netherlands, provides a shameful example of how the intensive animal agriculture industry in a country can far exceed the food needs of its populace. Indeed, the industry primarily focuses on export markets for its products, such as pigmeat.

We should be talking about prioritising food for people rather than feeding for the excessive numbers of farm animals exploited for food production.

With its concomitant greenhouse gas emissions and ammonia pollution, farm animal production has got so out of hand that the Dutch government was obliged to consider the radical step of cutting farm animal numbers by 30 percent. The government is facing a significant 'nitrogen crisis' since the High Court ruled that national legislation was in breach of EU legislation for nitrogen emissions.

While the EU Farm to Fork Strategy acknowledged the climate impacts of animal agriculture and the need to transition to a more plant-based diet, it fell short of explicitly calling for a reduction of the number of farm animals. Instead, it primarily sought to reduce animal production's environmental and climate impact by supporting innovative solutions and requiring 'sustainable' animal production practices.

Innovation is not a panacea for the problems posed by intensive animal agriculture. Reducing farm animal numbers is one of the best ways to protect not only the environment. It is also a way to safeguard food security in the EU: during the present crisis and in order to reduce our dependency on imported agricultural products in the future.

Sustainable

A recent letter on food system transformation in the light of the Ukraine crisis, which a group of 80 concerned scientists signed, pointed out that "reducing the EU's use of grains to feed livestock by about one-third could compensate for the collapse of Ukrainian exports of grains and oilseeds."

Rather than suspend the Farm to Fork Strategy, or taking measures, such as intervening to prop up the already ailing pig meat sector or allocating more land - especially that reserved for biodiversity purposes - to animal feed production, we should seize this opportunity to reduce farm animal numbers and accelerate the transition to a more plant-based diet.

The first step in achieving this is introducing a breeding stop for sectors, such as pig production—the fewer animals born, the less animal feed required to feed them. 

It is a simple equation that can also move us closer to achieving a more sustainable food system and protecting food security in one fell swoop.  

This Author

Anja Hazekamp MEP represents the Party for the Animals in the Netherlands, and also is a member of the Left Group in the European Parliament. 

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