Stockholm (NordSIP) – The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report states that even if fossil fuel use was eliminated overnight, the remaining greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the food industry would cause the 1.5-degree Paris Agreement warming limit to be breached. Figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) show that livestock farming alone in responsible for 14.5% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions, including particularly potent methane. A shift away from traditional cattle, pig or poultry farming would bring vast environmental benefits beyond emissions reduction. For instance, a UK government sponsored Climateworks study estimates that a 12% drop in global average crop prices could be achieved thanks to the greatly reduced and more efficient land use associated with alternative protein sources. However, a new study published on August 18, 2023 reveals that the US and EU meat and dairy industries wield immense power to resist the proposed changes.
The study, titled Public policies and vested interests preserve the animal farming status quo at the expense of animal product analogs and produced under the auspices of Stanford University, compared EU and US regulations, subsidies, and lobbying practices relating to incumbent animal farming and the greener alternatives. The latter products include meat and milk substitutes derived from plants, biomass, and precision fermentation. The researchers found a highly skewed playing field in terms of government subsidies. For the period between 2014 and 2020 the amount of public money spent on incumbent livestock farming was more than USD 44 billion across the EU and US. In contrast, alternative protein producers received just USD 42 million over the same period. Alternative products also benefited from a meagre 3% share of total grants for research and innovation.
The study also explored the approach to animal and alternative proteins within national dietary guidelines, which heavily influence food procurement in state-run institutions. Although both EU and US guidelines touch on the benefits of milk substitutes and greater consumption of vegetables, the researchers found little or no focus on the environmental aspect of meat and dairy products. There was also scant attention to newly introduced alternative protein or plant-based products. Moreover, the study highlights the successful efforts by incumbent producers to prevent the use of terms such as “milk” or “cheese” to describe plant-based alternatives. These barriers to entry represent the disproportionately larger lobbying power of the livestock sector. One area of notable progress is in the per capita sales of milk and dairy alternatives in the US, which are almost double the equivalent EU figures. Nevertheless, over the two regions, plant-based meat, milk and diary products only account for 1.5% of total retail sales.
Powerful lobbying to protect business-as-usual
As illustrated in the report’s graphical abstract below, US non-governmental organisations (NGOs) representing mainly dairy and pork producers spent USD 30 million lobbying Congress over the 2014 – 2020 period, with sustainable alternative protein representatives spending 150 times less. Although slightly better balanced, EU figures also demonstrate the greater spending power of incumbent livestock industry lobbyists. As a result, public finances continue to favour traditional livestock farming, and environmental constraints on the sector remain weak given its impact on climate change and biodiversity loss. This despite the study highlighting strong public support for sustainability and health-related innovation in this area.
Change requires stronger political will
The Stanford study criticises EU and US governments for being slow to act decisively in the face of strong scientific evidence of the environmental damage caused by incumbent animal-based food production systems. In a pattern replicated by the fossil fuel industry, legacy industries appear to be using their vastly superior spending power to stifle innovation that might jeopardise their longstanding market dominance. Alternative protein innovation is mainly led by much smaller private sector companies. The study’s authors Simona Vallone and Eric F. Lambin urge the US and EU governments to seize the opportunity to make rapid and substantial gains towards climate and biodiversity goals by levelling the playing field and allowing alternative technologies to compete fairly on the food market. They see the current situation as symptomatic of a sociotechnical system that is resistant to fundamental systemic change and are calling for a significant shift in governmental food policies to allow these alternative products to flourish and lead the way towards sustainable food systems.