Sustainability & CSR

Covid, climate and food

26 May, 2020

While food production and distribution has not been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic so far, future global food security is being threatened by climate change, zoonotic diseases and our insatiable appetite for meat


By Duncan Levine


In her inauguration speech ahead of the start of her second term as president on 20 May 2020, Tsai Ing-wen said, “we are going to establish strategic stockpile industries that can ensure the steady provision of critical supplies. Facing changes to the global order, we need to keep key industrial chains in Taiwan and maintain a certain degree of self-sufficiency in the production of face masks, medical and daily supplies, energy, and food.” While the last item, food, may seem like a footnote in a long to-do list, it highlights the critical issue of food security that governments the world over have had to start worrying about since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But governments need to be looking beyond the current pandemic to prepare for a future when more serious pandemics caused by zoonotic diseases may occur as well as other threats to the global food supply posed by climate change and the world’s growing demand for meat.


Two months ago, there were long lines of trucks used to transport food on the borders of countries in central Europe over concerns about truck drivers infected with Covid-19 spreading the disease to neighbouring countries. In the past couple of weeks numerous meat packing plants in Germany have had to be shut down because of outbreaks of the disease among employees. At the end of April, Tyson Foods, a major US meat-packing company, warned of pending shortages of meat, saying the country’s complex food chain was “breaking” after it closed slaughterhouses due to Covid-19 outbreaks at several of its plants. However, while there remain some glitches in the global food system owing to the pandemic, including a shortage of workers, most of them have been resolved, for now.


European authorities have since moved to ensure transport systems remain open and fears of food security issues prompted US president Donald Trump to issue an executive order to force meat-processing factories to continue operating. In a 7 May article, The Economist reported that the global food supply chain is passing a crucial test, so far. However, changing food consumption habits and climate change will pose much bigger challenges to global food supply chain in the longer term.


According to The Economist, global food supply has tripled since 1970 and the global food system now accounts for 10% of world GDP and employs around 1.5 billion people. At the same time, the number of people without enough to eat has fallen from 36% of the population to 11%, and a bushel of maize or cut of beef costs less today than 50 years ago in real terms. Moreover, food exports have grown six-fold over the past 30 years and today, four-fifths of people live in part on calories produced in another country.


While a more sophisticated global food supply chain can cause some disruptions, the interdependedness of the global food chain has actually increased food security because it allows the more even distribution of food globally, notably for excess food supply in one season in some regions to offset shortages in others, owing to natural disasters, such as droughts or floods.


On the face of it, the current healthy state of the global food trading system is good news for Taiwan, since the island is dependent on imports for a significant portion of its food needs. According to the Council of Agriculture’s Food Balance Sheet for 2018 (the last report available on its website), Taiwan is mostly self-sufficient in rice production (imports account for only about 3% of its total domestic supply), the island is heavily dependent on imports for almost 100% of its wheat and soy beans and about 79% of its starchy roots (like potatoes). One item that dwarfs all others in the balance sheet is Taiwan’s imports of almost 4.3 million tonnes of corn in 2018 (numbers were similar in previous years). This was more than triple the tonnage of wheat imports and almost double the volume of soy bean imports (the next highest import item by volume). Another column in the data, “feed”, indicated that most of this corn was used for animal feed, itself dwarfing the next highest item used for feed (318,000 tonnes of soy). Assuming that most of this is fed to pigs and poultry, this would explain how Taiwan is almost self-sufficient in the domestic supply of eggs, and imports account for about 12% of its pork and 25% of its poultry needs (although it imports 96% of its beef and around a third of its milk).


According to the balance sheet, while a lot of fruit and vegetable crops are grown in Taiwan, and some premium quality fruit are exported (around 200 tonnes of fruit), Taiwan still relies on imports for about 11% of its fruit and vegetables. The only food category where exports exceed imports is seafood (mostly fish and shellfish). However, one should bear in mind that this is because Taiwan has enormous fleets of fishing trawlers, which extract seafood from all the world’s major oceans and cannot therefore be regarded as a local food source.


The bottom line is that Taiwan’s livestock farming industry would not be possible without cereal imports and that, as a major food importer, Taiwan is vulnerable to global food supply disruptions. While increasing local food production must be part of the solution, addressing the problem will have to involve an increase in stock-piling of imports since the shortage of suitable arable land will make it difficult for Taiwan to increase production sufficiently to feed its 23 million people.  


While there are no severe global food shortages at present, the shortage of farm workers owing to global travel restrictions will cause some disruptions in the short term. The UK, for example, has had to fly in Eastern European farm workers on charter flights to pick fruit and vegetable crops. The shortage of farm workers has led to warnings by farmers elsewhere in Europe that crops will have to be left to rot in fields unless workers can be found. Meanwhile the closure of restaurants and other food businesses across the world means that many farmers supplying them have lost one of their crucial markets, which cannot be totally offset by selling the same produce to supermarkets. This has actually led to a glut of certain produce such as avocados and milk, which will spoil before they can be sold. Moreover, while many countries have imposed some restrictions and increased their food stock-piles, this has not been significant.


So we are okay for now, it seems. But there are potentially catastrophic consequences for our global health and food supply if we ignore science and continue business as usual.


In particular, the rising consumption of meat globally is putting enormous strain on the environment and leading to continuous outbreaks of disease.


As an article in the Guardian notes, there is a simple causal relationship between China’s consumption of wild animals and the coronavirus pandemic now ravaging the globe. While China’s wet markets have been singled out as the culprit for the pandemic, science and political economy, tell a more complex story. The principal driver of zoonotic diseases (such as the virus Sars-Cov-2, which spread from animals to humans) is industrial animal agriculture. When food production encroaches on wild habitats, it creates opportunities for pathogens to jump to livestock and humans. Industrial agriculture, where thousands of animals are crammed into tiny spaces in factory farms, also breeds its own diseases, like swine flu and avian flu. And, it contributes to antibiotic resistance and climate change, both of which exacerbate the problem.


The coronavirus pandemic appears to have peaked in many countries although there is still a risk of a second or third wave. But scientists are warning that Covid-19 is not the big one. It is nothing like the Spanish flu 100 years ago, which decimated population all across Europe, and we should all be prepared for a pathogen that spreads more easily and is much more lethal. Zoonotic threats are multiplying and combating them is becoming harder. Antibiotics are increasingly ineffective in part because commercial livestock farmers abuse them, hoping to speed up growth rates or as a prophylactic measure against the spread of disease on overcrowded factory farms. Overuse of antibiotics spurs the evolution of “super-bugs”. Hardly a week goes by when there is not a report of thousands of animals being slaughtered in order to contain an outbreak of avian flu, swine flu or some other pathogen somewhere in the world.

Yet, meat consumption continues to rise as more of the world’s population emerges from poverty and adopts the eating habits of other middle class societies. A 2019 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that emissions from livestock farming for meat and dairy products accounted for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide, similar to level of the entire transportation sector, including planes, trains and automobiles.


The main reason why meat has such a large environmental footprint is that raising animals for food is an extremely inefficient way to produce protein. According to the FAO, feed production and processing (which includes land use change) and enteric fermentation from ruminants are the two main sources of emissions, representing 45% and 39% of total emissions. Factory farm animals consume far more protein, like soy beans and corn, on kilogram for kilogram basis than they produce while pasture-fed animals require large tracts of land to be converted from its natural state to pastures, thereby destroying eco-systems.


Animals require huge amounts of food, which in turn requires water and energy to produce. The conversion ratio of input in terms of food, water and energy and output in terms of nutritional value of meat is very low. In addition, the digestive process of ruminant animals like cows and sheep produces methane, a greenhouse gas much more powerful than CO2. Animal farming takes up 70% of the world’s agricultural land but produces only 18% of our calories. 40% of the land that is used to grow grain is used to feed animals.


Animal agriculture also accelerates mass extinctions. The world is currently experiencing the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years. Experts estimate that up to 137 plant, animal, and insect species are lost every day due to rainforest destruction, and, without concerted action, we could see fishless oceans by 2048. It is estimated that 25% of the world’s total greenhouse gas production comes from deforestation alone. When areas are deforested, the carbon dioxide stored in those trees is released into the atmosphere.


While people in developing countries cannot be blamed for wanting a better life, adopting the same consumption habits as developed countries is putting enormous additional strain on the planet. Many people who would never challenge the reality of climate change refuse to acknowledge the role meat-eating plays in endangering public health and the environment. As Guardian writer George Monbiot puts it “Eating meat, it seems, is a socially acceptable form of science denial.”


Continuing current food trends is unsustainable. Global meat production has risen almost five-fold since the 1960s and continues to rise. According to the FAO, based on the trajectory if current trends continue, the global production and consumption of beef, pork and chicken, will rise from about 300 million tonnes in 2020 to around 430 million tonnes by 2050. If energy, transport and other sectors successfully cut emissions in line with the Paris objectives while meat and dairy companies continue to increase production, the livestock sector will account for a larger and larger portion of the world's available greenhouse gas emissions budget of 13 gigatons. Under a business-as-usual scenario, the livestock sector could eat up over 80% of the emissions budget, making it virtually impossible to keep temperatures from rising to dangerous levels past 1.5°C.


To address this, environmentalists have argued for a transformation of the global food system and work toward ending animal agriculture and rewilding much of the world. A significant plank of the transformation they argue, would be a large-scale, public-directed investment in both plant-based meat alternatives and cellular agriculture (ie, growing animal tissue from stem cells, or more commonly referred to as “lab-grown meat”).


Contrary to popular belief, humans do not need meat and dairy. A recent documentary, The Game Changers, now streaming on Netflix, showed how athletes on a purely vegan diet actually outperformed their meat-eating counterparts in terms of both strength and endurance. If top-performing athletes can live without animal products, obviously the rest of us can as well. Of course convincing the world to give up meat is an entirely different matter given that meat and dairy consumption is so much a part of most global cultures. But culture is not a static thing. It evolves with time and food culture has been shown to be one of most adaptable and malleable aspects. Moreover, the risks to human health and the enormous damage being inflicted by the meat industry on the environment is starting to shift public opinion.


Great advances have been made in making plant-based meat substitutes in the past few years that look and taste like meat, most notably Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. But even if we allow that some people will still insist on eating animal proteins, it is possible to do this sustainably by substituting animal factory farms with laboratories that grow meat. Taking animals out of the food chain would drastically reduce the environmental footprint of the food industry since both plant-based and lab-grown meat have significantly lower impacts on the environment.   


To give an idea of the environmental impact of plant-based meat compared to conventional cattle farming, the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan did a comparative assessment of the system that produces Beyond Meat burgers. They found that the Beyond Burger generates 90% lower greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, uses 99% less water and 93% less land use than a quarter pound of US beef.


While the lab-grown meat industry is still in its infancy and very expensive given a lack of economies of scale, early pioneers have shown that by taking live animals out of the process (except for the purpose of extracting a few of their cells without harming them), the process of growing meat in clinical conditions has a very low environmental impact, mainly because of the feed input required to raise animals.    


Based on studies from researchers at Oxford University and a paper published in May 2018 in Science, while some kinds of meat and dairy production are more damaging than others, all are more harmful to the living world than growing plant protein. A plant-based diet produces at least 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th of the oil, 1/13th of the water, and 1/18th of the land, compared to a meat-heavy diet.


Taking animals out of the food production process would be much more efficient. Fewer farm animals would result in a huge reduction in agricultural emissions. Taiwan’s agricultural footprint is only small on the surface. It is huge if you take into account the almost five million tonnes of grains fed to animals annually that has to be grown and processed elsewhere and imported into Taiwan. The amount of corn imported for feed annually is roughly equivalent to double Taiwan’s annual consumption of soy beans and higher by weight than Taiwan’s entire annual rice and wheat consumption combined. Halting land development for farming would cut agricultural land use and preserve forests and sensitive ecosystems.


But even if we reduced our consumption of meat, population growth and rising incomes are increasing the overall global demand for food, including grains, fruits and vegetables. To date, agricultural innovation has been dynamic enough to meet rising demand. But climate change is adding another challenge to ensuring global food security.


As temperatures rise, they make some of today’s best agricultural areas too hot and dry for many crops and dangerously hot for agricultural workers to work. While some agricultural activity may be able to shift further north as tropical regions warm, it may not be enough to offset the agricultural areas lost due to desertification. Moreover, there may be unintended consequences from the melting permafrost and the disruption of hitherto undisturbed frozen ecosystems in the arctic region.


As we have found from cutting down rainforests in the Amazon and Indonesia to grow palm oil, animal feed and cattle pastures, the destruction and degrading of natural environments and eco-systems will ultimate threaten our own survival.


Science already offers sustainable alternatives to current practices and more are being developed all the time. Taking animals out of the food chain would make us safer by eliminating the petri dishes of future pandemics as well as the inefficient and unnecessary conversion of plant to animal protein, thereby stretching the available supply of grains much further. The question we humans have to answer is: are we ready to acknowledge our own culpability and change the way we consume and eat?

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