The UNFCCC and the animal agriculture entanglement

Núria Almiron's picture

Thanks to IECA, I had the opportunity to attend the first week of the Bonn climate change conference (SB50) held from 17 to 27 June. I was interested in experiencing first-hand the move the UNFCCC secretariat is apparently making towards an acceptance of the role that animal agriculture plays in global warming. Though not incorporated in any way in the political talks so far, the impact of food on the climate, and especially of animal-based food, has been acknowledged by the IPCC, the FAO and the UNEP for some time now, besides many papers published by independent researchers and organizations.

The facts are undeniable: according to the IPCC, 24% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, forestry and land use and, in all three cases, the main cause is related to the animal-based diet. It was only a matter of time that the UNFCCC secretariat also recognized human diet as an issue and took courage to slowly but clearly address the topic. Indeed, the UNFCCC has been cautiously taking a position towards the meat issue in the last years and it seems that eventually they have come to publicly acknowledge that animal agriculture can no longer be omitted from the climate solution equation. See, for instance, the Three ways to cut meat eating impact on climate or the Go easy on the beef for the climate, both articles from 2014.

In Bonn this June, the UNFCCC secretariat organized a widely publicized side event under the title “Making food compatible with the Paris Agreement goals”, which was a perfect opportunity to see how the UN is tackling this issue. For the event, a team of panelists were invited to provide their solutions to the food problem. The session was announced with a rather vague abstract: “The event explores food systems transformation via approaches aligned with the Paris goals. It coincides with the UN Sustainable Gastronomy Day emphasizing the role that food plays in the SDGs and will be followed by a tasting of innovative food solutions e.g. plant-based meat, micro-algae, insects”. In spite of the elusive meat mention, it was clear that this was the event addressing the “meat issue” by the UNFCCC.

The event was fully attended, and a sort of excitement filled the medium-size room, which contained a number of members of the secretariat staff, panelists’ companions and the public, most of them crammed in their seats, some standing up. I asked a member of the secretariat sitting beside me why the room was so crowded and animated. This man turned out to be the organizer of the event, and his answer was that the topic was fresh, some of the panelists very relevant and there was food served at the end. I tried to interview him later, but after accepting by email, he vanished.

The event did indeed have some star speakers. The conductor was Marc Buckley (Global Food Reformist) and the panel included Brent Loke (Eat Foundation), Rebekah Moses (Impossible Foods), Ingo Puhl (Whapow), Sarah Nischalke (University of Bonn), Yaw Sasu-Boakye (Ikea) and Kim Arazi, (Innosensi). It was closed by Ovais Sarmad (UNFCCC Deputy Executive Secretary) and Martin Frick (Senior Director, UNFCCC secretariat). The enthusiasm of the UNFCCC representatives made it clear that this was not just any side topic. For their part, the panel talked about how important it is to increase plant-based ingredients in the diet, how good a plant-based hamburger can taste, how algae or insects can become the center of our diet, how taste and gastronomy are actually a creation of our mind and how big corporations can join in this movement, with the example of Ikea’s meatless meatballs. The UNFCCC speakers stressed the cutting-edge innovation and technological progress of all their moves. The invited speakers were also very careful to not diminish animal-based food and some even suggested that we will have to continue eating meat, and that we must experiment with changing the diet of animals, like trying to feed them with algae so that they pollute less and we can therefore continue eating them. Overall, all of the messages were actually totally aligned with what the UN has already expressed so far regarding animal agriculture, which can be summarized as follows:

1. We are not against the animal agriculture business but are instead just supporting new types of food.

2. We are not radicals and animal-based food must be kept on the menu, though with a reduction in intake. We have no problem with eating meat, dairy or fish.

3. There is not a single way to make our diet more sustainable: you can do it by moving to plant-based food, insects or algae diet, for instance. It all is about the consumer’s choice.

4. Technology is the future for food for humans and for the animals used for food alike.

I could say that the whole experience was very disappointing, but I would be lying; this message should be expected given the massive influence of politics and economics in any of the decisions taken about climate change mitigation and adaption.

However, to my view such a strategy is just bizarre. Instead of going straight for a radical impact, which all evidence shows can be immediately achieved by removing animal-based food from the diet, it seems as if the priority is making as many detours as possible in order to avoid irritating the animal industrial complex and the major agriculture emitting countries.

My daily visit to the canteen at the UNFCCC facilities in Boon pointed, however, at something else. The menus for the two-week conference included beef on six days, chicken on another six days, fish (including salmon) every day, and daily vegetarian options that almost always contained dairy. Is the UNFCCC serving such an unsustainable menu only because it fears the animal industry and the countries that support it? Couldn’t they do a bit better? It is so easy to replace beef with pasta and the milk cream for a plant-based cream. But it seems to me that fear is not only what is going on; there must be something else that makes the UNFCCC menus score so high on the emissions ratio. Maybe a plain addiction is at play. We already know about the opiate molecules of dairy protein and of the stimulant ones in meat that produce a “high” similar to that of conventional drugs.

Beyond this, of course, considering the plant-based diet as a mere choice and technology as the solution that enables us to go on with business as usual seems to me a paradigmatic expression of moral relativism and massive self-deception. We are complicating things so much because we are caught in a net of interests and attachment that don’t allow us to honestly consider the ethics involved in it. Those ethics, of course, are first related to the consequences on nonhuman animals of becoming part of our diet; in other words, to the fact that sentient beings are treated as resources, regardless of their capacity for feeling pain and their interest in not suffering and living a life which is worth living. But those ethics also refer to the high costs animal-based diets have on humans, including the costs on human health, the inefficient use of arable land promoted by animal agriculture, the profound inequalities it causes in the distribution of global wealth given the loss of food sovereignty in regions which have invested their agricultural resources in producing food for livestock (which eventually ends up on the plates of the Western or westernized middle classes and elites) and others.

My feeling in that room in Bonn was that the attempt is to address the animal agriculture issue devoid of any reference to ethics and to focus on positive messages for business and consumers, including the idea that there is no need to make any taste sacrifice to go for more plants in the menu thanks to technology (the UN actually awarded its highest environmental honor to two vegan food producers in 2018: Possible Food and Beyond meat, considered to be plant-based meat revolutionaries because of their technology). The message, however, is only half true.

Of course, the move to a plant-based diet doesn’t need to mean any sacrifice for taste – actually plant-only eaters will tell you it is quite the opposite – what should be seen as a sacrifice is to continue eating dead animal muscles, fat, blood and viscera. And, of course, there is plenty of business to be done for anyone wanting to work in the plant-based food sector, both with and without a technology-oriented business. As a member of the audience in Bonn commented during the Q&A session, you can eat delicious plant-based food with traditional meals.

However, the message is missing the two big barriers that prevent this move from becoming massive and that, if not remedied, will only produce a new strong plant-based tech-oriented sector living together with the strong, unethical and polluting animal agriculture sector. These two barriers are the above-mentioned addiction society has to animal-based food and the need to dismantle the animal agriculture sector and turn it into a sustainable one that does not exploit animals.

Of course, these two barriers are very important and require a huge effort and investment to be accomplished. But we are already devoting so much effort and money to all sorts of detours and deviations to keep addiction and polluting business going on, and the cost of climate change is so high, that it seems to me these two barriers are actually perfectly affordable. Helping people to come off their animal food craving and reconverting the animal-based industry can’t be more complicated that the current mess we have created to avoid doing both things.


About the Author: 

Núria Almiron is an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication of Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain, where she teaches in the areas of communication ethics, critical animal and media studies, and advocacy and public affairs.