What comes to your mind when you think of food waste? Leftovers in the kitchen trash, sad leftovers in the fridge or maybe rotting fruit on the counter? Most of the time when we think of garbage, we don’t think beyond our own homes. But waste occurs at every step of the food supply chain.
Each year, about 2.5 billion tonnes of food is wasted around the world, which represents about 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This wasted food takes up an area of about the size of China and India combined to grow. Nowhere in our food supply chain is the amount of waste greater and more damaging than in industrial meat production. An estimated 153 million tonnes of meat is wasted at the farm level each year. Coupled with horribly high livestock mortality rates caused by poor animal husbandry standards, among other factors, this waste represents not only a moral catastrophe but also an environmental catastrophe. And that’s only part of the problem.
A waste of precious resources
Currently, more than a third of the calories produced by the world’s crops are used for animal feed, and only 12 percent of these dietary calories ultimately go to human consumption (in the form of meat and other animal products). animal origin). Producing 1 kg of beef, for example, requires around 8 kg of feed.
With such low yields, is it still wise for humanity to invest in animal production?
The livestock industry is gobbling up resources, degrading the environment and still failing to provide us with adequate nutrition. Research has estimated that 400 million hectares of cropland produce feed for livestock in a way that rivals producing food crops. Basically we are using large amounts of land to feed livestock which could be used to feed humans. It is estimated that growing crops for human use alone could increase available dietary calories by up to 70 percent, serving an additional four billion people. In other words, there is ample evidence that switching to plant-rich diets can help improve equitable food distribution and nutritional security.
If food production is to aim to provide maximum nutritional yield with minimum environmental impact, then factory farming should have no place in future food systems.
An inherently inefficient method of food production
The livestock industry is vast – there are 23 billion chickens, 1.5 billion head of cattle, 1.2 billion sheep, 1 billion goats and 1 billion pigs living in factories and farms. in the world. This means that the humans and animals that we raise for our food make up 96 percent of mammalian biomass, with wildlife making up just four percent.
Nowadays, advertising campaigns try to convince us that most of our meat comes from small family farms concerned with animal welfare and the environment. But this is not the case. About two-thirds of the cattle are raised on factory farms. A few large companies dominate the livestock industry, and most of them see the loss and waste of food as a cost of doing business.
And even if the big ranching companies made a real commitment to reducing mortality and meat wastage in their supply chains, they still wouldn’t be able to reconcile the inefficiencies inherent in the industry – after all. 88 percent of the calories fed to livestock are never intended for human consumption.
The livestock industry remains viable only to the extent that it externalizes costs on our planet, using large amounts of land and water to produce little benefit beyond profits for shareholders. This extractive method of producing food is wasteful and ultimately unsustainable – we just have to produce (and eat) less meat.
Towards a “just transition of livestock farming”
Today, it is urgent to change the way we produce and consume animals. If allowed in a timely manner, a just transition in animal production would not only help alleviate the climate crisis, but could also be a powerful driver of job creation, social justice, poverty reduction and improvement. of public health.
Currently, the demand for industrialized livestock products in the Global North and developing countries is particularly damaging to the Global South. The enormous amount of land required for animal production on an industrial scale leads large meat and feed producers (often headquartered or with substantial operations in the Global North) to accumulate large tracts of land. land in the Global South at the expense of smallholder farmers, especially women and indigenous peoples. This often leads to land disputes, loss of livelihoods and compromised food sovereignty.
Research shows that without taking action to decarbonize food systems, even though all other sectors of the economy are decarbonized, we cannot meet our primary climate goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 ° C. . However, halving food waste, eating a healthy level of calories, and switching to sustainable diets could provide 88 percent of the total mitigation needed within the food system to limit warming to 1.5 ° C. For this transformation to happen, we need to stop thinking of trash only as what ends up in our trash cans, and start thinking of it as a symptom of a dysfunctional food system.
To enable such a transition, global multidisciplinary policy measures must be taken to encourage the equitable reduction and redistribution of the production and consumption of animal proteins. The diversion of public subsidies for industrial feed and animal production and the adjustment of national food guidelines, public procurement rules and promotional campaigns must be on the political agenda. It is also essential to encourage sustainable food production and consumption. As we saw at COP26 in Glasgow, there is an urgent need to put repairing food systems much higher on the climate change agenda. 2022 could be the year when the link between food and climate will be part of the negotiations. Therefore, the COP27 in Egypt must make the fight against equity, food loss and waste its priority.
Where possible, replacing foods of animal origin with more resource-efficient plant alternatives can increase food availability by reallocating production resources from feed to human consumption. With around 800 million people suffering from hunger in the world, we cannot afford to continue the food production which only exacerbates the crises of nutritional, climatic, environmental and health security.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.