Transforming food systems requires challenging the status quo, which means it won’t be easy; I’ve seen some of that rocky road for myself.
In June, I was appointed a co-lead to the Sustainable Livestock Solutions Cluster, a working group set up in preparation for the Summit to curate game-changing ideas relating to animal production.
The first thing I noticed was that the working group was heavily weighted toward industry interests. The primary solution being put forward was that the world needs substantially more livestock production, tweaked by technical innovations, led by farmer-driven roadmaps. It seemed like more of the same, with lip-service to sustainability. Alternative voices in the working group had been largely ignored. I’d come up against this scenario before in UN discussions. In Nairobi in 2019, my keynote speech calling for shifts away from factory farming and high-meat diets, a theme supported by other speakers, was airbrushed out of conference conclusions.
Centre of Gravity
The Livestock cluster had been identified by Summit leadership as a ‘centre of gravity’ cluster with wide significance to the overall Summit, not surprisingly as it is difficult to overstate the planetary impact of the livestock sector.
Almost half the habitable land surface of the planet is used for agriculture, four-fifths of it is devoted to livestock production. Despite the vast commitment of land, livestock products provide only 37 per cent of humanity’s protein and but a fifth of our calories. Hardly efficient and with little room for growth. It is also a useful indicator of how the natural and manmade worlds are now out of balance. Taken together, the weight of humans and the animals we rear for food account for 96 per cent of all mammals on Earth. Everything else, from elephants to badgers and mice make up just 4 per cent. In the avian world, domestic poultry account for 70 per cent of birds by mass. As David Attenborough puts it, “This is now our planet, run by humankind for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world”.
In a world producing 80 billion land animals for food a year, most of them factory farmed, resetting the balance will require switching to welfare-positive, nature-friendly production with fewer animals.
Turning Things Around
My time with the Sustainable Livestock Solutions Cluster reminded me just how difficult meaningful change can be to achieve. Especially when there are competing voices and vested interests. It can feel overwhelming. Marshalling a wider range of solutions ideas meant encouraging progressive voices to become engaged in the process. It wasn’t easy; canvassing ideas from busy people and making sure that alternative voices were heard in ways that were faithful to the principles of a people’s summit: where all voices bear equal weight and are heard with equal interest.
The outcome was that moving away from industrial animal agriculture, reducing the size of the livestock industry and seeing animal welfare as an essential component of healthy and regenerative food production, were eventually accepted as part of the Summit’s official repository of ideas (see Paper C). I urge governments to highlight these particular ideas in ministerial statements at the Summit itself.
Despite being billed as a ‘people’s summit’, some important civil society interests have chosen to boycott it. Others have pulled out along the way, frustrated by the difficulties involved in creating change. Fears have been raised about the lack of process and accountability in decision-making, and that rules of engagement seem to have been determined by a small number of actors weighted in favour of industry. The central concern has been that the Summit risks being captured by a narrow set of industry interests to the detriment of social movements, indigenous peoples and civil society organisations. Whilst empathising with concerns, I find disengagement regrettable, counterproductive even. When civil society steps out of the process, it creates a vacuum filled by those seeking to preserve the status quo.
Better in my view to be involved in shaping the Summit and celebrating the fact that food is being elevated as a cross-cutting issue of importance.
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