How we can support those most affected by the transition to a plant-based future?
Leaked documents reviewed by BBC found that Brazil and Argentina are calling for authors of a UN climate solutions report to de-emphasise the link between meat consumption and climate change. Although the countries making these submissions undeniably have their own political or economic agenda, their submissions still give us food for thought.
Brazil and Argentina are two of the biggest meat exporters, with its exports totalling 3495 thousand metric tonnes this year. Argentina also pushed to delete references to red meat taxes and campaigns to reduce meat consumption. Argentina argues we should not think that only meatless diets can provide ‘low carbon options’ and instead, consider that meat-based diets can also reduce carbon emissions. Similarly, Brazil points out that ‘plant-based diets do not for themselves guarantee the reduction or control of related emissions’, recommending we should instead steer the focus on the emissions levels from different production systems.
While the plant-based trend has created many opportunities for companies to innovate or expand their portfolios, we must also remember those companies or individuals who may be negatively impacted by this transition, whether due to lack of resources, education, governmental support or factors out of their control.
As two of the largest meat producers, it is easy to be critical of Brazil and Argentina’s actions to de-emphasise the link between meat production and climate change. However, have we considered that perhaps behind this lobbying is an underlying fear and panic that their economies, and livelihoods of their people will be adversely affected by the global plant-based trend?
Instead of finger pointing, it is important to collaborate and find ways to best support these stakeholders to transition to a future that emphasises sustainable consumption, animal welfare and the environment.
Focusing on opportunities that can be leveraged, and empowering stakeholders through policy and resources is a much more effective way mobilise heavy meat producing countries.
This is a three-part article which explores:
(1) Opportunities for the livestock industry as we move to a plant-based future
(2) Why agricultural production methods and systems are also essential part in the reduction GHG emissions
(3) Sustainable production and consumption initiatives in Brazil and Argentina
*Note: Remaining articles will be published next week!
Part 1: Opportunities for the livestock industry as we move to a plant-based future
As the world moves towards a plant-based diet, crop growing farmers (farmers growing crop for animal feed), meat and dairy farmers and meat packing employees are amongst those whose livelihoods will be most significantly affected.
It is crucial to support the affected groups and ensure their livelihoods are not adversely affected, especially considering agriculture and meatpacking may be the only income stream for many of these individuals. Luckily, there are a growing number of initiatives launched by governments, corporates and NGOs which help affected groups with this transition.
 Note that these categories are based a report published by Frontiers (‘Social and Economic Opportunities and Challenges of Plant -Based and Cultured Meat for Rural Producers in the US’, by Peter Newton and Daniel Blaustein-Rejto)
Working with Plant-based Protein Companies
As the plant-based protein sector scales, there will be increasing demand for raw materials used in plant-based proteins, such as soy, lentils, mung beans and peas. Growing crops for plant proteins is good way for farmers to diversify their income, since leguminous crops can be farmed using rotational methods, offering an additional, instead of alternative income for crop growing farmers.
For example, soy farmers in the US can choose to sell their soy to plant protein companies such as Impossible Foods, as well as in traditional commodity markets. Though it is important to note that this depends agricultural regulatory frameworks and individual farmer’s agreements with suppliers, meaning not all farmers have the option to easily rotate between selling different crops.
The scaling up of plant-based protein production plants also create opportunities for meat packing workers to pack plant-based proteins; the added benefit here is the lower occupational safety hazard due to less exposure to raw meat, which has been linked to higher rates of disease contraction.
Transitioning into New Sectors
Some meat and dairy farmers have opted to completely transform their farmland for other purposes. For example, plant milk and cheese producers including Oatly and Miyoko’s Creamery have launched initiatives to help dairy farmers transition to growing crops such as oats and cashews for plant milk production. UK plant-based milk subscription platform Refarm’d works with farmers to transition them to the production of plant milks and transform their former farms into animal sanctuaries.
Similar initiatives exist in the livestock production sector. ‘Mercy for Animals’ (MFA), an animal rights’ advocacy group, launched ‘Transfarmation Project’, a project that supports livestock farmers’ repurposing of farms to grow crops such as mushroom and hemp.
As part of the Transfarmation Project, former poultry farmer Mike Weaver repurposed his chicken houses to raise industrial hemp. Weaver believes this transition also offers a much economic better outlook. Compared to the maximum of USD 7000 per year he earned from raising chicken, hemp farming can potentially earn him USD 2 million a year if he meets his goal of harvesting 1000 cannabis plants monthly.
Encouraging Sustainable Forms of Livestock Farming
Despite the plant-based trend, global meat consumption rates are still predicted to rise. Since meat is still considered a staple in Brazil, Argentina and many countries worldwide, it is important to also consider more sustainable forms of livestock farming.
Regenerative farming is gaining traction due its ability sequester carbon and reverse climate change. One of the methods of regenerative farming involves pasture grazing. Allowing animals to roam and graze freely increases their wellbeing and ultimately, improves the quality of the meat.
Sussex based farmer Isabella Tree is an advocate of this form of regenerative meat and dairy production. In 2000, Tree converted her 1,400-hectare farm to grazing land for free roaming herds of cattle, pigs, ponies and deer. Originally struggling to make their dairy business profitable, Tree claimed this decision, “turned her business around”, with eco-tourism and 75 tonnes of organic, pasture fed meat contributing to a profitable business.
Welfare based animal agriculture
Although whether welfare based animal agriculture is possible is an ethical debate in itself, it is still worth highlighting positive steps that organisations and farmers have taken to prioritise animal welfare.
Recognising that the plant-based trend may undercut the livelihood of millions of farmers, 50 by 40, a coalition dedicated to cutting global production and consumption of animal productions, launched their ‘Just Transition’ initiative. The initiative convenes global dialogues and events, working with policymakers to design solutions that support the millions of farmers, families and communities affected by this transition.
The Netherland’s Ten Have Farm focuses on long term sustainability and welfare by prioritising the animal’s needs. The farm offers open pens and outdoor access for its pigs, while an automatic straw distribution system keeps pens constantly refreshed. Instead of using soy as feed, Ten Haves’ pigs are fed sustainable, locally grown sources (Lupine and Wheat). Applying circular economy principles, the farm also uses pig manure as input in their biogas facility, which delivers more than five million kilowatt hours each year to the local grid.
These global initiatives highlight that the shift to sustainable consumption and plant-based diets can also provide a myriad of opportunities for those in the livestock production sector. Working closely with affected groups to streamline this transition is a responsibility for that heavy meat exporting countries should not need to take on alone. This transitionary phase requires the global policymakers, scientists, entrepreneurs and many others to come together to design empowering solutions.