In this section we share opinion pieces from scientists, experts and livestock farmers, as well as letters of interest.
Opinion Piece by Joe Healy
A European tax on meat: a proposal that could be as simplistic as counterproductive!
Brussels, 19 May 2020 – Last February in Brussels, the Dutch TAPP coalition (True Animal Protein Price) launched a new report from within the European Parliament proposing to introduce a tax on meat products. On paper the idea may seem simple at a first glance. Indeed, according to the proponents, with one single tax we would be able to resolve three ‘problems’: limit meat consumption in Europe, reduce European livestock and redirect specific sectors towards practices that have a lesser impact. In two words: a silver bullet!
This “silver bullet” has now reached the head of the European Commission. Tomorrow, the European Commission is planning to unveil an important part of its flagship vision on the European Green Deal – the Farm to Fork Strategy. Amongst the many things that this strategy will address are consumption patterns and consumer dietary choices, targeting more specifically the consumption of meat. As far as we are aware of, the approach considered by the Commission suggests that we stop the promotion of meat products, stop stimulating their production and impose a more targeted use of tax rules on meat.
Had livestock farmers had their say, had we taken a step back to think about this question in the context of trade agreements or European treaties, ultimately, had we taken the time to analyse this, this proposal would have seemed a lot more problematic and quite simply counterproductive. It has to be said time and time again, there is no such thing as a quick fix in farming!
This opinion piece is authored by Joe Healy, Vice President of Copa and dairy and livestock farmer from Athenry, Co. Galway (IE).
Opinion: The European Livestock Sector’s views on the recent push for synthetic meat
Debates around livestock and meat consumption are on the rise in Europe as well as in other western countries. As European professionals of the livestock sector, we acknowledge this fact and are doing our best to take action on societal demands and environmental concerns. More progress can – and will – be achieved.
As the UN Food Systems Summit approaches, we notice a push for synthetic, lab-grown meat from different opinion leaders outside of the farming community. Perceived by them as a true solution to our environmental challenges, synthetic meat production is strongly promoted by tech tycoons among others, who have made powerful statements in favour of synthetic meat and are actively investing in the sector. This high-tech vision, for meat production which has been gaining traction in recent years is, paradoxically, quite poorly explained in the public arena.
For us, European livestock professionals, this point of view and the model it supports, must be debated in public fora so that all social, environmental, economic, and public health impacts are publicly known. To say that a diet free of “real meat” and a Europe without livestock are answers to the challenges posed by climate change is inaccurate and could prove catastrophic for our nutrition, our territories, our environment, diversity and our culture.
Opinion leaders who promote synthetic meat unanimously purport that the science is set when it comes to the future of livestock. They seem to think that the debate within the scientific community would unequivocally support an end to livestock breeding. This vision may be promoted by some media too, but the broader corpus of academic research clearly contradicts these allegations . The same opinion leaders often overlook the fact that livestock farmers, especially in Europe, are long-term adopters of innovation and are taking action, using technology and other solutions, to improve the sustainability of their operations and the welfare of their animals. The European livestock sector has achieved a reduction of CO2 emissions from production every year through a wide range of measures and initiatives, despite low incomes accorded to farmers. In fact European agriculture has successfully increased its overall production by 25% since 1990 while at the same time reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% over the same period .
We must consider, in terms of health, the complex nutrients naturally found in meat (vitamins, oligo-elements…) which would be hard to replicate. Let’s also consider the food security concerns that a shift to synthetic meat could generate in countries relying on our livestock and meat exports, not to mention the growing imbalance it could create between the different players of the supply chain or the impact it could have on meat protein affordability for consumers.
Furthermore, assessing all the social, environmental and economic aspects related to an abandonment of the European livestock sector is an extremely complex process, even for agricultural and animal scientists. In all scenarios, however, there are at least three definite consequences to a shift towards 100% synthetic meat:
Europe will lose a circular bio-economy champion. Livestock plays many valuable roles that would otherwise disappear. By valorising food-chain by-products, livestock contributes to a more efficient agriculture. The recycling or some say ‘upcycling’ of biomass from resources such as grass, straw and bran that are inedible for people is an important process. If not consumed by livestock, these residues and by-products could quickly become an environmental burden in themselves, as human demand for processed foods increases. The livestock sector not only produces food but also a wide range of by-products, starting with manures and other effluents. Today, 40% of the world’s cultivated areas use organic fertilisers from livestock production . A Europe without livestock will therefore lead to a significant increase in the use of synthetic fertiliser. Many other lesser-known by-products will be hard to replace without high environmental, economic and social cost – think of leather (replaced by fossil fuels-based products), pharmaceutical ingredients (replaced by synthetic ones), etc. Is this the model of society envisioned by the Green Deal?
Rural Europe will be depleted and food production will be concentrated in the hands of a few food tech companies. Today livestock is a key component of rural Europe. Livestock is present in almost all regions across Europe in a wide diversity of production systems according to local economic, geographical and sociological contexts. The livestock sector contributes substantially to the European economy (€168 billion annually, 45% of the total agricultural activity), to the trade balance and creates employment for almost 30 million people. Without livestock, the rural exodus will accelerate, putting additional population pressure on our cities, and fuelling a greater disconnection with nature and our cultural heritage. The synthetic meat revolution that is envisioned will not be an open-source system. Synthetic food will be highly engineered, ultra-processed and developed through patents. It is therefore certain that a “100% synthetic meat” society would be a society in which production would be concentrated, relocatable and disconnected from nature and rurality. If philanthropy guides the idea of a livestock-free society, then it must also share patents and technologies with everyone, especially developing countries.
The carbon footprint of our meals will not see the substantial decrease promised by synthetic replacements. From a climate change perspective, a world without livestock would likely not be the world we are aiming for. Without ruminants, the maintenance of our pastoral meadow and hedgerow landscapes would become extremely difficult in Europe. Livestock regulate the ecological cycles, close the nutrient cycle, and improve soil fertility and carbon sequestration by recycling and using manure as a bio resource and using grasslands not suitable for crops. In mixed crop and livestock areas, grasslands rotations also have the function of cutting off the cycle of crop pests, allowing farmers to reduce the use of pesticides. In addition, there has been little evaluation of the carbon footprint of synthetic meat alternatives, which may not be as good as first expected. From where would the serum to produce cultured tissues come? How much energy would be needed to make those tissues grow? What antibiotics, fungicides, or hormones would be needed to control the production?
If we truly want to make a difference in terms of the climate impact of meat protein production, then we need to invest in innovation for livestock farming. Our sector itself is keen to further innovate and committed to continuous efforts to further reduce its impact. The ability to reduce emissions and impacts within our sector dwarfs any impact an alternative meat can achieve.
To conclude, allow us to quote Jean-Louis Peyraud, French agronomist from INRAE, who said in 2017 “A world without livestock farming is just a short, medium and long-term utopia. It is time for us to come back to more realistic positions based on facts. Removing livestock farming would be absolute nonsense for humanity. But it does not mean that we do not need to improve our way of rearing animals, to respect them, to offer them a decent life and make sure that their slaughter is done without pain or stress. We have to continue to research and innovate in order to reduce the negative impacts of livestock farming and increase the services it provides to our societies. ”
About us: European Livestock Voice (www.meatthefacts.eu) is a multi-stakeholder group of like-minded EU partners united to bring back a balanced debate around a sector that is playing such an essential role in Europe’s rich heritage and future. The associations represent sectors ranging from animal health to feed, to breeding and animal farming and farmers; together they aim to inform the public about the social value of livestock production and its contribution to global challenges, offering another perspective in the ongoing debates.
An animal health scientist’s point of view on the alleged connection between food production and COVID-19
Brussels, 14 May 2020 – The crisis is a fact, the way out uncertain. We see the deadly virus as the very real and almost only truth and act accordingly. Almost every social, commercial and political act today starts from the COVID-perspective. The European Commission reprioritises its major research funding instrument Horizon 2020, the publication of the Commission’s Green Deal Farm to Fork Strategy is delayed and “should reflect the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to food security”.
In the meantime, pressure groups use the global crisis to push their own ideological agenda. Animal right movements, but also some scientists and politicians claim (industrial) livestock farming to have a direct link with an increased probability of disease outbreaks impacting on public health.
So the explicit question follows: “Is there a link between the way we rear livestock in Europe and infectious disease outbreaks in humans?”. The short answer is “no”.
This opinion piece is authored by Johannes Charlier, Project manager of DISCONTOOLS, a database with research gaps for infectious disease control in animals and founding manager of the animal health research & consulting agency Kreavet.
Brussels, 20 April 2020 – Long queues at supermarkets and food shops. Half-empty shelves. Only a few products in refrigerators. When re-stocked, the items in much demand at our supermarkets are regularly seen to be the now infamous toilet paper, followed by essential foods such as meat, milk, eggs, bread, canned goods and pasta.
Open Letter – European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy needs to take the specificities and assets of the EU livestock value chain that we represent into account
Dear Commissioners, Dear decision and policy makers,
11 March 2020 – Representing a group of 11 Brussels-based organisations, the European organisations of the livestock chain welcome the European Commission’s ambition to transform our current agri-food system through the Green Deal and more specifically the Farm to Fork strategy. As responsible actors linked to livestock farming, the whole system is willing to drive changes towards greater sustainability. The livestock sector is hotly debated when it comes to sustainable food systems, therefore our voice needs to be heard. We have both a duty and the means to contribute to the European Commission’s objectives.
Freshly released NutriRECS consortium dietary advice updates on red and processed meats: a turning point in a longstanding controversy?
Brussels, 16 October 2019 – Although we are surrounded by an overwhelming abundance and variety of foods, the simple daily act of eating remains a problematic struggle. In a highly normative society, we are continuously being reminded of our poor eating habits. The animal/plant divide in dietary preconceptions seems to be an important part of the mindset, suggesting a cultural rather than a factual perspective on eating right. Whilst the Western diet is clearly causing havoc and undermining public health, even the dietary guidelines usually put a disproportionate emphasis on the need to reduce the consumption of red meat and the products derived thereof. This is remarkable, to say the least, as red meat is a valuable nutrient-dense food and a key component of our evolutionary diets. It has been consumed since the origin of our genus, sometimes in formidable amounts. By 1.5 million years ago, we became largely adapted to meat eating, both anatomically and physiologically, and could not have survived without it.
The received wisdom nonetheless states that we eat ‘too much red meat’ per capita and that we are indulging in it as never before. This may be true when compared to the rural and often underfed generations that spanned the time between the Neolithic and modernity, but many healthy hunter gatherer communities worldwide have done so in even larger quantities. One can only guess how much red meat was eaten during the Palaeolithic era, but it certainly was higher than the mere 0-14 grams per day that is now being recommended by the very restrictive Planetary Health Diet. The latter has been designed by the EAT-Lancet Commission and is symptomatic for the current existential crisis within the scientific discipline of nutritional epidemiology of chronic diseases. Stanford University’s professor John Ioannidis, for instance, has dismissed the health claims of the diet as ‘science fiction’. Nevertheless, fourteen cities belonging to the so-called C40 Cities network, including London, Paris, Barcelona, and Milano, have declared that they will commit to adopting the EAT-Lancet Diet by 2030 to make their diets healthy and sustainable. Even if it is mostly presented as a dietary solution to limit environmental harm, EAT’s science director has admitted that its design has been based on health considerations only. Which brings us to the primordial issue: how strong is the evidence for such a drastic change in dietary behaviour based on nutritional argumentation?
Although the levels of red meat intake have been steadily decreasing over the last decades in many Western countries, possibly as a result of dietary advice, no improvement can be seen with respect to the incidence of diseases of modernity. Well on the contrary, as diabetes and obesity are on the rise. The dietary recommendations have thus failed in their mission, whether or not they are correct in their assumptions. We can either blame this failure on the behavioural weaknesses of the general public or start asking some fundamental questions about the very nature of this approach. As a matter of fact, the dietary guidelines have faced serious criticism since their inception during the late 1970s. Although they were able to ignore the pushback for decades, they did not overcome the inner tension this has created. Today, a decade-old problem is reaching its boiling point.
Authorities that advocate a reduction of the intake of red and processed meats generally claim that this is an evidence-based measure that is unambiguously supported by scientific literature. A closer look at the data, however, demonstrates that most of this literature consists of observational studies, which show weak associations between consumption levels on the one hand and incidence of mortality and certain chronic diseases on the other hand. The consumption data feeding these studies are, however, far from being robust. They are generally selfreported and derived from food frequency questionnaires that have difficulties capturing actual eating behaviour. Moreover, the reported associations are not only weak but also heavily confounded. A main problem is the ‘healthy user bias’, which is due to the fact that health-conscious people are usually eating less meat because they tend to follow the dietary advice encouraging them to do so. Or, in some cases, report as if they would be following that advice. However, such people also tend to be less overweight, more physically active, smoke less, consume less alcohol, have better medical guidance, and just lead healthier lives in general.
Enter the old adagio: association is not necessarily equal to causation; it should not be treated as such until sufficient proof has been accumulated. One would assume that this would by now have been installed as a widespread principle of good scientific practice. What observational studies are capturing is to be considered as health ‘beliefs’ within a society, rather than specific health ‘effects’ of actual foods. In a non-Westernized context, for instance, positive associations sometimes turn into negative ones. This is also confirmed when looking worldwide: the global PURE studies found that the consumption of meat parallels lower mortality and less heart disease. And when arguing nonetheless for a causal detrimental relationship, researchers should not ignore the fact that the administration of red meat in randomized controlled trials does not lead to worsened risk marker profile for inflammation, oxidative stress, or cardiovascular performed a rigorous quality check of the evidence, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. They clearly state that, when using the highest scientific standards, the certainty of evidence arguing for meat reduction is low to very low. They therefore recommend that adults continue current consumption, at least as far as health effects are concerned. Such authoritative intervention within the peer-reviewed scientific literature was urgently needed. Time will tell if it is able to move the needle, so that we can finally start focussing on what is truly needed: adequate essential nutrition within planetary boundaries.disease.
Taken together, the conflicting ‘body of evidence’ has generated a lot of confusion. To set the record straight, the NutriRECS consortium has recently
Brussels, 10 October 2019 – Recently, we kicked off the European Meatthefacts campaign, which aims to dispel false information or myths about animal husbandry and meat. The aim is to refute, with scientific arguments and objective data, the countless accusations experienced by the livestock sector and to be able to show society the potential consequences for society if livestock production would end.
This opinion piece is authored by Ramón Armengol, Vice President of Cogeca and Pig farmer (ES)
‘Climate Change’ and ‘Animal Welfare’ cannot be reduced to simple slogans
25 September 2019 – There has never been a shortage of polarisation in the debate over farm animals, but when the livestock production debate was connected to climate change the polarisation turned into stigmatisation. All of a sudden a strong discourse arose directing people to feel guilty, not only for producing meat, but even for eating it, and of course demands like ‘sin taxes’ on animal products were quick to follow.
This self-penned opinion piece published on Euractiv.com gives some insight into why this wide range of sectoral associations have joined together as one European Livestock Voice to speak out against disinformation on livestock at EU level.