SDGs without food system reform are missing the elephant in the room

The link between farmed animal welfare and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is often overlooked. Sustainability is usually associated with reducing our consumption of plastic, cars, and air travel. However, dietary change is rarely on the agenda. This may be due to political reasons. Many people are unwilling to accept that we need to treat ‘food animals’ differently if we want to address the climate crisis effectively.

Yet, awareness of the catastrophic environmental consequences of animal agriculture is slowly trickling into the mainstream. On March 2nd 2022, thanks to the concerted efforts of international environmental and animal welfare organisations, the UN Environment Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Nexus resolution. This was the first time a UN body adopted a resolution promoting animal welfare. They acknowledged that ‘animal welfare can contribute to addressing environmental challenges, promoting the One Health approach and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals’. They also recognised that ‘there is a strong body of science supporting animal welfare’. The Eurogroup for Animals commented that ‘animal welfare is not, currently, part of the UN Environment Programme’s mandate. This resolution calls on UNEP to prepare a report on the nexus between animal welfare, human wellbeing and a clean environment and include improving the wellbeing of animals into its work’.

We all know that action speaks louder than words. We need only look to the best-in-class organic farming methods to understand how food production and animal welfare already play a pivotal role in achieving the SDGs on both a direct and secondary impact level. They are a key part of the supply side equation and solution. Government incentives, including a redirection of subsidies, should be aimed at promoting organic farming. A just transition for farmers is an integral part of the changes needed in our food system. We think this could be achieved if policymakers and industry bosses would adopt the 3R principle, which we’ve adapted from animal testing in medicine, to animal agriculture. In short, food system reform needs to focus on refining, reducing, and replacing the use of animals in our diets. This would have a tremendous impact, not only on the animals themselves, but on our efforts in reducing and mitigating climate change.

How can refining, reducing and replacing the need for ‘food animals’ help us meet the SDGs?

Our food system is linked to many of the SDGs, as listed below:

SDG 2: Zero hunger – providing food and humanitarian relief, and establishing sustainable food production

Growing crops to feed animals, which are then slaughtered to feed humans, is not sustainable now nor for the future, given that our population is expected to rise indefinitely. It is an inefficient and wasteful use of resources, and causes immense environmental damage. Sentience works to change this inefficient food system from an animal ethics point of view, but it is relevant for those concerned about global hunger as well.

SDG 3: Good health and wellbeing – better, more accessible health systems to increase life expectancy

Meat consumption is linked to impaired human health in terms of increased heart disease and other illness risks. Importantly, industrial farming uses antibiotics to prevent illness in their livestock, which causes antimicrobial risks for humans. A reduction in, and eventual replacement of, meat consumption would be a solution to these problems.

SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation – improving access for billions of people who lack these basic facilities

Animal waste and the use of pesticides on animal feed crops negatively impact our water quality. Agricultural runoff from intensive farms carry pollutants such as fertilisers and ammonia to local water sources. This is a leading contributor to water pollution. The reduction and replacement of animals in the food chain would address this issue.

SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth – creating jobs for all to improve living standards, providing sustainable economic growth

Working conditions in factory farms are notoriously bad. The Factory Farming Awareness Coalition writes that ‘workers are routinely exposed to air pollutants that can cause respiratory illness and frequently suffer from repetitive stress injuries and chronic pain. Repeated exposure to, and perpetration of, violence also leads many workers to suffer from mental illness.’ This does not qualify as ‘decent work’.

SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure – generating employment and income through innovation

Replacing livestock with plant-based and cultivated alternatives provides an opportunity to innovate and provide new technologies and jobs. According to a 2022 report by the Boston Consulting Group, 11% of all protein consumption will come from these sources by 2035. Of course, this comes with an entire industry of new jobs, and there are possibilities for animal farmers to transition to more sustainable forms of agriculture.

SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production – reversing current consumption trends and promoting a more sustainable future

Reducing meat consumption, and a replacement with plant-based and alternative proteins, would be dramatically better for the environment. It would bring in a more efficient use of resources and help to protect biodiversity by freeing up land which is currently used for cattle grazing and growing the crops that feed the cattle.

SDG 13: Climate action – regulating and reducing emissions and promoting renewable energy

Animal agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions. This has been acknowledged by the UN in their report, ‘Livestock’s long shadow’. Although some investors are interested in mitigating the emissions naturally given off by cattle, we think a more sensible approach, if harder to achieve, would be to remove the use of animals for food altogether.

SDG 15: Life on land – reversing man-made deforestation and desertification to sustain all life on earth

According to the International Livestock Research Institute, the land used for livestock systems amounts to 45% of the Earth’s land surface. For context, all the cities in the world occupy between 0.5-2% of the planet’s surface. The problems of land use therefore have less to do with expanding city perimeters and much more to do with diet. If we reduced our meat and dairy consumption by half, then that would already free up huge swathes of land which could be reforested to nurture and reintroduce biodiversity. Those rewilded areas would also act as carbon sinks, reducing the overall burden of emissions on the environment.

SDG 17: Partnerships for the goals – revitalize strong global partnerships for sustainable development

Each of the 3R principles (refine, reduce, replace) encourage cooperation and collaboration amongst governmental, public and private sector stakeholders. Subsidy policies must be changed to reflect the damage inherent in meat production and consumption. The participation of the retail sector is vital, as is the education of consumers on their responsibility to make sustainable choices. Sentience focuses on projects and campaigns to address these issues and find sustainable solutions. We are always open to collaborating with organisations from any sector who share our vision of a sustainable food system where animals are no longer subject to unnecessary suffering. For example, our upcoming Protein Lab project will involve a multi-stakeholder collaborative process to figure out how to accelerate a transition to sustainable protein in Switzerland.

In a nutshell, we focus on the inconvenient reality of what true sustainability means for our lifestyles. Whilst the SDGs are commendable, without food system reform they are ignoring a vital part of the problem. We will keep working to highlight the disastrous consequences of animal farming to our audience. If you would like to support this work, then please consider making a contribution here.

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