It is time to change how we produce and consume, including to reduce greenhouse emissions. Transforming food systems is crucial for delivering all the Sustainable Development Goals
António Guterres, United Nations (UN) Secretary General, 2020
Nearly half of the world’s habitable land surface is used for agriculture. Globally more than 80% of farmland is devoted to the production of meat, dairy, and animal feed. As global demand for animal-sourced foods increases, agriculture encroaches further into the world’s remaining wildland. Ecosystems, the planet’s life-support system, are coming under ever-increasing pressure - even to the point of collapse.
Additionally, the intensification of crop production for animal feed has accelerated land and soil degradation. At the current pace, the UN warns that there are less than 60 years of productivity left in the world’s soils.
In Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat (2014), Compassion in World Farming’s Global Chief Executive, Philip Lymbery created a publicly accessible and informative illustration of how factory farming is at the epicenter of a failing food system with massive impacts on animals, people, and the planet.
In February 2021, the Chatham House report Food System Impacts in Biodiversity Loss, launched in partnership with Compassion and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), highlighted that the global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, with agriculture alone being the identified threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 (86%) species at risk of extinction. It also stressed that biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate unless global food production stops following the “cheaper food paradigm” - producing more food at lower costs by increasing inputs.
The impacts of producing cheaper food are not limited to biodiversity loss. The global food system is a major driver of climate change, accounting for around 30% of total human-produced emissions. Livestock production is responsible for 14.5% of these, accounting for more greenhouse gases than the direct emissions from the global transport industry.
As the footprint of humanity grows, agricultural encroachment and the industrialisation of farming causes irreversible damage to biodiversity, forests, soil and water. This causes more wildlife to become extinct and nature is overwhelmed. As she retreats, nature stops providing essential services like pollination, soil replenishment and carbon sequestration.
Under a ‘business as usual’ food production and consumption model, we will continue to fail. Meat and dairy consumption will continue to increase, in line with a growing global population and rising GDPs; many of the planetary boundaries that safeguard the stability and resilience of the planet will continue to be crossed and, by 2050, the agriculture sector alone will emit enough greenhouse gases (GHGs) to take up the entire two degrees Celsius emissions budget.