Even if millions went vegan overnight, it wouldn’t make a dent in the fight against climate change

The rise in industrial farming and meat consumption isn’t down to our changing tastes, but a product of massive investments by mega-powerful states and corporations

Benjamin Selwyn
Wednesday 01 May 2019 11:04
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From the school students’ strike, to Extinction Rebellion’s mass protests, to the Labour party’s motion to parliament to declare a climate emergency, capitalism’s damage to the environment is now at the top of the news agenda.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward. The 2018 Special Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that “without societal transformation and rapid implementation of ambitious greenhouse gas reduction measures, pathways to limiting warming to 1.5°C and achieving sustainable development will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve”.

Any genuine plan to combat climate change must tackle the state of the global food economy. Recent research shows that meat and dairy companies are rivalling the oil industry as the world’s biggest polluters.

An increasingly popular solution to agro-industries’ contribution to the world’s ills is to promote veganism and focus upon reducing meat consumption. By excluding animal products from our diets we could reduce food’s land use by 76 per cent, and food’s GHG emissions by 49 per cent.

But does veganism hold the answer to climate change? I don’t think so.

Total world meat production was 71 million tonnes in 1961, 155 million tonnes in 1985 and 296 million tonnes in 2010. This growth required a profound shift in world land use. Today around 33 per cent of arable land is devoted to crops that are used to feed animals.

Industrial agriculture is a major contributor to climate change because of its heavy reliance upon fossil fuels. They are central to the production of fertilisers, the use of machinery in agriculture, and the transportation of animals pre and post-slaughter. Methane emissions from cattle is also rising, as their numbers and size increase.

Two big issues are raised by the arguments for veganism. First, can individualist solutions such as changing our diets really transform the world food system? And second, where does this lead in terms of a progressive politics that can make the changes we need? To understand the answers to both of these questions we need to look at the agro-industrial system itself.

The rise of industrial agriculture and meat consumption is not simply a market response to changes in consumer demand. It is a product of massive investments by leading states, agro-tech, and livestock producing firms.

Just like other sections of industry, industrial agriculture is reliant on a gigantic worldwide fossil fuel subsidy regime – amounting to $5.3 trillion, or 6.5 per cent of global GDP in 2015. Without these subsidies large swathes of modern capitalist production would be prohibitively expensive. Transformations in meat production and land use were driven, primarily, by mega state interventions in agro-industrial markets.

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From the 1930s onwards, first domestically and then internationally, the United States promoted an industrial model of subsidised agriculture, focussing particularly on what would become the most popular cattle feed grains: corn, grain sorghum, oats, rye, and barley. It responded to the great depression and mass bankruptcies in agriculture by guaranteeing farmers a price for their produce. This had the unintended consequence of locking-in systemic overproduction into the national food system. Such programmes of supply management were adopted across much of the world following the Second World War.

The unintended consequences of these new policies were to contribute to the cheapening of feed grains, which in turn underpinned large-scale increases in livestock production.

The world food system is not shaped by consumer choice, but by mega-powerful states and corporations. Even if millions of us went vegan overnight, it would not make a dent in the fight against climate change. What can change the food system, and contribute to the fight to reverse climate change, are similarly large scale state interventions by progressive political parties.

That is why the Labour Party and sections of the US Democrats’ call for a green new deal (GND) is so important. Part and parcel of a GDN is the aim to decarbonise agriculture. Here are five ideas for a GND for Britain’s agricultural sector.

Currently, more than 50 per cent of land in England is owned by less than 1 per cent of the population. A GND for agriculture will only be possible if Labour brings land under democratic control via an extensive land reform. Once achieved, it will be possible to re-shape the countryside in order to cut carbon emissions and restore the natural environment.

A second policy would be to re-direct subsidies away from meat and feed crops towards diverse farming systems producing crops for human consumption. Third, biodiversity can be improved by re-wilding some formerly meat/feed-crop areas. Fourth, use the state’s purchasing power in schools and hospitals to shift the structure of consumer demand towards healthy and environmentally sustainable food production and consumption. Fifth, enable the establishment of producer-consumer councils to influence the foods sold in supermarkets.

The choice humanity faces is between climate change and system change. Veganism is based upon good intentions, but its emphasis upon individual consumer choice obscures the systemic forces that support the global food system. A bold green new deal based upon democratic principles and implemented across the major economic countries represents a programme that could deliver the transformations needed to help save our planet.

Benjamin Selwyn is professor of International Development at the University of Sussex, where amongst other things, he teaches a course on the Global Politics of Food. His most recent book is The Struggle for Development

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