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Working and Eating Towards a Sustainable Future Part two: Transforming into this new decade

Part II: This second article focuses on solutions for transformation towards Humane and Sustainable Proteins. These include a balance of high welfare animal proteins and a major increase in plant based and cellular protein products to replace industrially raised meat, milk and eggs.

Kate Blaszak

I dedicate this article to a past colleague who sadly lost her life last year. Remaining committed to the principles of ‘humane’ and ‘sustainable’, she approached me to write the first article for Vet Sustain in May 2020. She was also dedicated to EAST, (Environment and Animal Society Taiwan) an organisation we both agree is one of the most effective local animal welfare / environmental advocates we’ve both worked with in Asia.

This is the second in a two-part series on Working and Eating Towards a Sustainable Future. Read Part I here.


Happy new and Chinese new year! After doing ‘my time’ in Melbourne quarantine, arriving from Singapore, I reflect on the challenging year of 2020. In December, it was sobering to find myself entirely contained in a hotel room, grateful for my electronic enrichment, amazed by the rapid innovation of covid-19 vaccine developments but dismayed at the lack of address of the root causes of the pandemic crisis we’ve all experienced. Since May 2020, many experts and institutions voiced their concern about our food system. Key pandemic impacts on farming and food systems were published (1), and the UN emphasised livestock intensification and animal protein demand as top drivers of the emergence of zoonotic diseases (2). A new strain of zoonotic swine flu was reported (3), World Animal Protection released a report on how global overuse of antibiotics in intensive farming continues to fuel pandemics on top of the superbug crisis, and the world’s largest pig farm was announced (4). Despite all this and the ongoing major challenges, there are signs of change and a wider understanding of “One Health”, and I remain excited as we launch into the next decade.

This second article focuses on actual and systemic solutions for transformation towards a vision World Animal Protection refers to as Humane and Sustainable Proteins. These include a balance of high welfare animal proteins and a major increase in plant based and cellular protein products to replace industrially raised meat, dairy, eggs etc.

Firstly, for investors and their increasing interest in farm animal welfare (a) and linked climate and public health risks (b), Farm Animal Responsible Minimum Standards (6) (‘FARMS’) was developed by the major international animal welfare organisations. FARMS orients investors and insurers, in the first instance, around risk and mitigation principles. The initiative emphasises that outdated housing systems (e.g. all cages and crates) will become stranded assets during the capital lifetime of a farming business and represent the reputational risks that poor welfare carries (5). Financial and food companies are encouraged to commit to the species specific FARM standards in conjunction with the OCED Guidelines (6). FARMS for fish in aquaculture is also anticipated.

Some examples of how higher pig welfare serves sustainability and a reduction of carbon emissions are provided. The use of immunocastration (i.e. anti GnRH vaccination) for pigs leads to a 3.6% reduction in carbon footprint by increased feed conversion efficiency (7). Raising entire males demonstrates the highest feed conversion efficiency and feed saving. Avoiding surgical castration and other painful procedures in pigs (e.g. teeth reduction, tail docking) avoids associated routine antibiotic use and welfare impacts. Weaning piglets later (28 days minimum) is correlated with more robust piglets and significant reductions in antibiotic use, as regulated and demonstrated in Sweden (8). Provision of enrichment (even pre-weaning enrichment) can reduce the risk of tail biting, along with reducing antibiotic use (9). Farm and business case studies of the above examples are provided from several countries (c).

There are also examples associated with higher welfare broiler systems. Of particular note, is the significant reduction in antibiotic use achieved in slower growing broiler systems in the Netherlands (10). Wageningen University in the Netherlands launched The Greenwell Project (2018-2020) to develop tools to assess various sustainability dimensions of chicken production, including animal welfare, environmental impact and economics. The project brings together a diverse group of stakeholders, including producers, genetics companies, government bodies and civil society organisations. It disputes the long-standing belief that higher feed conversion and growth rates are the key to efficient production. Instead, the solution focuses on highly effective production chains, which use fine-tuned combinations of genetics, raw feed and residual flows (from human consumption) in circular thinking to minimise environmental, animal welfare and productivity impacts (11) and optimise social acceptance. The environmental and animal welfare reports are pending.

Photo credit: Laura Higham

Existing practices and new opportunities for ecological, regenerative or circular farming (the terms are very similar in principle and practice) offer far greater sustainability and are the antithesis to intensive farming. They often do or can incorporate high welfare standards for animals. It is generally encouraging to note the 2020 Vet Sustain webinar on regenerative farming and discussions on the role vets might play. The EU Farm to Fork Strategy also heralds increased organic farming targets (12).

However, it is essential to note that high welfare systems alone will not be able to meet global protein demands or sustainability needs. Similarly, refined livestock farming as supply side measures, will be insufficient alone to achieve the necessary reduction in farming’s GHG emissions (13),(14) let alone remedy the other planetary boundaries already breached (see Part 1). Technical experts and investor agencies are looking at intensive farming systems as unsustainable and future stranded assets. Intensive farming is becoming the ‘new coal’.

FAIRR, Farm Animal Investor Risk and Return network has a new tool and ranks 60 major producers (15) on a number of sustainability risks. FAIRR also report around 25% of the 60 companies have started to diversify into plant-based products, and some have even re-named themselves. These ‘protein companies’ would appear better prepared for what many see as an inevitable transition. Meanwhile, investor agencies and banks have recently been projecting the global market share of ‘alternative proteins’ (plant and cultivated meat) over the coming decades with estimates ranging up to 28% by 2030 and 60% by 2040. This includes substantial growth in Asia which already consumes the majority of plant based protein by value (16). While some of the higher end projections seem fanciful, Jefferies International reflects on past disruptions of similar scale in feed markets by GMO corn and soya (17).

However variable the investor projection figures, the UN and climate modelling academics agree that meat and animal product consumption reduction will lead to GHG emission reduction(18). Dietary shifts could contribute up to a fifth of the mitigation needed to meet Paris targets below 2°C (19) . Radical shifts in diet could even enable food security in 2050 with current food production, if we most efficiently avoid feeding human edible crops to animals and secondarily reduce food waste (20). Nothing is more efficient and sustainable for human food security than directly eating suitable crops, rather than growing feed for animals. More moderately, in 2018, UN FAO reported a 15% reduction of animal products in the diets of high-income countries by 2050 would contribute to containing the need to expand agricultural output due to upward global population trends (21). This would seem a simple yet crucial starter goal in redefining the global food security narrative and policy trajectory.

In late 2020 another UN FAO report on global food security and nutrition, reflected on business as usual if we continue as per the last decade, the limited progress towards the 2030 sustainable development goals, as well as the challenges posed by the covid-19 pandemic. The report concludes with the policies and strategies needed to transform food systems to ensure affordable, healthy diets. The report compared current dietary patterns with four healthy alternatives: flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian and vegan. It states: “Under current food consumption patterns, more than three-quarters of the diet-related GHG emissions (77%) were associated with animal source foods consumed worldwide”. It adds that in 2030 “any of the four alternative healthy diet patterns worldwide would reduce projected diet-related GHG emission by 41–74%” (22). There’s an opportunity for the UN to consider its own reports amongst many others during the UN Food Systems Summit this June, 2021.

Life cycle analyses also demonstrate major reductions in use of water, land and GHG emissions as well as eutrophication potential (via farm pollution) comparing plant based and conventional meat proteins (23). Meat and dairy reduction in the high consumption countries also conveys a multitude of personal and public health benefits. It can assist to reduce the risk and burden of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and bowel cancer from meat consumption (latter linked with preserved meats) as well as respiratory disease from aerosols and pollution risks from farms. Given around 70-80% of global antibiotics are used in livestock (24) and this is expanding as a result of the growing demand for animal protein, meat reduction has been modelled as one option to reduce global antibiotic use and risk of antimicrobial resistance (25) and associated costs. Meat reduction would obviously also avoid massive animal suffering.

Social studies show meat reduction associated with flexitarianism is by far the most popular and widespread trend. The ‘new generational’ plant-based products are targeted for meat eaters with taste, texture and looks like meat. In fact one company reports 9/10 of their customers in the US are meat eaters and has calculated that 72% of their US sales displace animal derived foods (27). This market thereby also offers a high(er) welfare product opportunity, among their flexitarian dietary choices. The most recent surge in plant based product demand has been boosted by the covid-19 pandemic impacts (26), curiosity and younger generational interest in ethical living. Sales of plant based meat substitutes are also growing globally and driven primarily by health and climate concerns (including in Brazil, India and China), but are still comparatively small compared to animal products (d). The race is on however and dairy alternatives shed light on future potential market share with 22% CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) over the past 15 years in the US (28). The World Animal Protection Business Case for Protein Diversification outlines the retail change and drivers in the US sector and context especially (29).

There is also substantial investment, start-up innovation and sector growth particularly in Asia as well as other Western markets. The Good Food Institute (various hubs internationally) and others support this with information, also to investors and policy makers (30). Singapore Government is financially supporting research and development for cellular meat based on food security and sustainability grounds (31). Foundations like Green Monday help to expand and accelerate the global trend for alternative protein sources regionally, internationally. Recent consumer research even suggests greater acceptance of plant based and clean / cultivated / cellular meat in China and India, than the US (32).

Finally, 2020 closed with the first commercial release of cultivated chicken by two companies, almost simultaneously in Singapore and in Israel (33). While initial limited restaurant availability (34), this marks the first regulatory approval and public access to what some also call ‘slaughter free meat’. The welfare impact is minimal to nil, as long as the few primary animals are hosted in the highest welfare standards. Starter stem cells are harvested from either a tissue needle aspirate or punch biopsy (from a live animal) or pluripotent cells from the umbilical blood of a live calf, removing any invasive procedure (35). Foetal calf serum once used for the medium is now mostly replaced by plant based media. A few cells can produce up to 10,000kg of meat and the process involves 99% less land and 96% less water than conventional livestock production (36). Refining the scaffolding, carefully regulating supply of growth media, and improving energy efficiency for scale up as well as priming society for acceptance of such products are ongoing. There is still a way to go to mass production but development has been relatively rapid in a sector that receives comparatively minimal research funding compared to the renewable energy sector. However, initial public surveys of acceptance are very encouraging as is sustainability modelling, even projecting land saving for potential rewilding (37). Imagine – it may be possible to have the meat, sustainably, kindly.

Where does this leave vets as we bridge a new decade? Hopefully excited, inspired, motivated to learn more – about specific welfare or cellular agriculture innovations, about how higher welfare enables reduced reliance on antibiotics, how to avert a climate crisis through a planetary health diet. It’s also about how our profession can remain progressive and technically advise policy, practices and industry to transform to reduce or prevent risk. It’s not a question of if any more, it's a question of when and how….and why not lead the way?


Footnotes

a. As of July 2020, 33 investors, representing £2.5 trillion in assets under management, have signed the Global Investor Statement on Farm Animal Welfare. https://www.bbfaw.com/investors/investor-statement/ and https://www.fairr.org/article/fairr-awards-reflect-growing-importance-of-intensive-farming-issues-to-global-investors/

b. https://www.fairr.org/about-fairr/making-the-argument/, https://www.fairr.org/article/climate-risk-agriculture/ and https://www.fairr.org/article/industry-infected/

c. Sharing success – the global business case for higher welfare for pigs raised for meat. World Animal Protection. 2019. https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/sites/default/files/media/int_files/sharing_success_-_gbc_pigs_raised_for_meat-final_moderate_size_pdf.pdf This global business cases and a range of practical fact sheets on avoiding the various painful procedures of pigs are available from World Animal Protection.

d. Predominantly the sales are tofu consumption in Asia, and the largest sales of meat substitutes are actually in Asia but the fastest growth is in the US, Europe and UK. Global survey covered also Russia, China, India, Brazil. Meat Substitutes Recorded USD 19.5 Billion Sales Globally in 2018 [Internet]. Market Research Blog. 2019 [cited 2021 Feb 12]. Available from: https://blog.euromonitor.com/meat-substitutes-recorded-usd-19-5-billion-sales-globally-in-2018/

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