Why we must scale down rather than scale up, for the well-being of animals, people and planet
As food prices escalate, Peter Stevenson OBE, Compassion in World Farming’s Chief Policy Advisor, explains why we must scale down rather than ramp up, crop production to increase food security.
Peter a qualified solicitor and received an OBE in October 2020 for “services to farm animal welfare”. He has worked in the animal welfare movement for almost three decades, and played a leading role in winning the EU bans on veal crates, battery cages and sow stalls as well as a new status for animals in EU law as sentient beings.
The surging price of wheat and maize due to the devastating conflict in Ukraine has led to calls to ramp up crop production in Europe and the UK. Some farming bodies are pressing for sustainability measures to be relaxed in the interests of food security.
Yet, this makes no sense. Rather than improving food security, allowing farming to continue down the industrial path will have the opposite effect. It will jeopardise future food security even further by greatly undermining the key elements – soils, water and biodiversity – on which our continuing ability to produce food depends.
Instead of increasing arable production, we should lower the demand for crops by reducing the use of grains and soy to feed industrially-farmed animals. Globally, 40% of cereals are used to feed animals. The figure is even higher in the developed world; almost two-thirds of EU cereals – wheat, maize, barley and oats – are used as animal feed. In the US and UK, 67% and 55% of cereals respectively are used as animal feed.
The reason this matters is that animals convert cereals very inefficiently into meat and milk. For every 100 calories of cereals fed to animals, just 17-30 calories enter the human food chain as meat and milk. Some studies calculate that, for meat, the calorie conversion efficiency is even lower. Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, released last year, states that growing crops for animal feed is “a wildly inefficient use of land”. To put that into perspective, if all the grain used as animal feed were fed directly to people, an extra 3.5 billion people could be fed each year.
Soaring fertiliser prices – which predate the war in Ukraine but have been pushed even higher by it – are putting huge pressure not just on arable farmers but on livestock producers too. In the developed world, a large proportion of chemical fertilisers are used to grow feed crops, so escalating fertiliser prices translate into rising animal feed prices
We must scale back our use of fertilisers – current global levels of their use are undermining soil quality and polluting water. Instead, soil fertility should be built by the use of composts, cover crops, rotations, nitrogen-fixing legumes and animal manure. Over half the nitrogen fertilisers applied to crops are not even taken up by them and this unabsorbed nitrogen is a major pollutant. It runs into rivers and lakes, leaches into groundwater and creates dead zones in marine ecosystems where nothing can live. It pollutes air and soils, erodes biodiversity, and emits greenhouse gases.
We need to rethink our approach to farming both animals and crops. Animals only make an efficient contribution to food security when they are converting materials we cannot consume into food we can eat. So instead of being fed wheat, soy and barley, animals should feed on grass, crop residues, by-products such as brewers’ grains or citrus pulp, or unavoidable food waste such as left-over bakery products or discarded fruit and vegetables.
This would result in a major reduction in livestock production and consumption. But such a shift would bring about enormous benefits – it would improve our health, help tackle climate change, protect wildlife and improve animal welfare. Both the Committee on Climate Change and the National Food Strategy recommend reductions in UK production and consumption of meat while many studies highlight the need for a global decrease in the consumption of meat and dairy.
Only a holistic approach, which protects the health and well-being of animals, people and the planet, will ensure that we create a sustainable global food system that truly protects food security for future generations.