Today is not only the 2023 World Environment Day but also marks the start of the Bonn Climate Change Conference. SB58 will see the technical bodies of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) prepare for COP28 this November in Dubai.
With the European Green Deal and within international negotiations, the EU has positioned itself as one of the frontrunners in the global action to protect the environment and to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis. During COP27, EU representatives encouraged major emitters to be more ambitious and urged Parties to recognise the need to transition to more sustainable consumption and production patterns. The EU’s role in pushing for international commitment has resulted in some positive steps such as the Global Methane Pledge which now sees 150 countries compromised with reducing at least 30% of their methane emissions, a gas 28 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.
Today, and for the next two weeks, EU representatives will have the opportunity to push for ambitious climate action. Nevertheless, in Brussels, support for environmental efforts seems to dwindle every day. EU lawmakers are in the midst of a battle on delivering several key initiatives of the EU Green Deal, including the Nature Restoration Law and the revision of the Industrial Emissions. This opposition is not only hindering the potential of these initiatives to address in a timely manner polluting activities that endanger human and animal health, but has also threatened much-needed measures that have yet to be proposed by the European Commission, such as the now-delayed Sustainable Food Systems Framework and the EU Soil Health Law.
Resistance to change
At the centre of this conflict we find a puzzling resistance to tackle the excesses of agriculture and the food system, which are identified by the SB58 agenda as “cross-cutting” issues that need to be addressed in a holistic way. Throughout the three major institutions of the EU (European Commission, European Parliament and Council), growing voices reject any changes to the current broken system. These voices portray themselves as guardians of food security and economic sustainability of the agricultural sector.
Undeniably, the transition to more sustainable practices in the agricultural sector will not come without compromises. But contrary to misleading claims, the transition would not hinder food security nor farmers’ incomes. Rather, these compromises would include initial costs for the intensive farming sector, in its transition to more sustainable farming models closer to agroecological approaches. But these initial costs are small compared to the long-term costs if we do nothing: without environmental protection and climate mitigation and adaptation, animals will be more prone to illness and disease, there will be no healthy soils for crops to grow, and by extension, no food for humans.
What are the costs of intensive livestock farming?
The costs of factory farming are already being paid every day in human and animal health, biodiversity loss, soil deterioration and ecosystem destruction. Intensive livestock farming is particularly harmful, being responsible for at least 16.5% of total Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Focusing on GHGs more dangerous than carbon dioxide, the impact of livestock farming becomes even more significant, accounting for 32% of total man-made methane emissions and contributing substantially to the 60% of total man-made nitrous oxide emissions (300 times more harmful than CO2) that comes from agriculture. Therefore, a serious path towards climate mitigation cannot happen without a reduction of these emissions and a transition to more extensive species-appropriate farming models.
A big part of these emissions is directly linked to enteric fermentation from ruminants and manure management, but intensive livestock farming also damages the environment through its constant demand for more feed. 45% of livestock-related emissions are caused by the production and processing of animal feed, while 77% of agricultural land is allocated for this purpose. Because of this demand, synthetic mineral fertilizers (nitrates) have become an essential yet harmful element of our current food system.
Runoffs of fertilizers contaminate water sources, causing oxygen depletion and destroying aquatic ecosystems. Nitrate pollution also affects soil by creating a nutrient imbalance which leads to soil acidification and reducing soil fertility. Soil health is therefore the perfect example that illustrates agriculture's dependency on a healthy environment. No food security nor economic sustainability can be safeguarded if our soils are not kept healthy.
Human, animal and environmental health at risk
The examples of the Netherlands, with its nitrogen surplus twice that of the EU average, and Belgium, experiencing a 30% decline in groundwater quality in some regions, highlight the higher costs associated with government inaction compared to implementing a well-defined roadmap for the environmentally responsible transformation of the agricultural sector.
The environmental impacts extend beyond what has been mentioned thus far. Global deforestation is predominantly driven by agricultural expansion, accounting for 88% of the total. The widespread use of antibiotics in livestock farming contributes to the development of antimicrobial resistance, posing a significant risk to disease prevention and treatment in both humans and animals. Additionally, overgrazing can lead to soil erosion, depletion of fertility, and diminished water retention capacity, ultimately resulting in desertification.
Factory farming cannot continue to operate as usual. Concerns about food security must not deter from change, but motivate decision-makers to take swift action to secure a future for humans, animals and the planet.
With the European Green Deal, the European Commission has presented the opportunity to restore the health of our environment. Now the European Parliament and EU Member States need to commit themselves to the changes required. Only by leading by example can the EU bring a strong voice to the international community to talk about a sustainable future.