Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (UK Office)


· Sustainability involves ecological, economic and ethical responsibility.

· Humane treatment of animals fosters sustainability and vice versa. Sustainability cannot be achieved without proper, humane management and care of farm animals.

· Livestock management has impacts on animal welfare, food security, disease control and environmental protection.

· Livestock production contributes significantly to environmental problems and is inefficient for feeding people compared to crops, in use of energy, water, land and other resources.

· For the UK, reduced production and consumption of animal products is needed.

· For most UK consumers, a healthy, humane, sustainable diet will include a smaller proportion of animal products, some of them substituted by non-animal protein.

· Meat and other animal products should be sourced more locally and more humanely. There should be less emphasis on cheapness and a change in attitude to regard these products as more ‘special.’ This will reduce both waste and overeating.

· The retail sector needs to establish shorter supply chains, more regional and seasonal variation in its sales, and more long-term contracts for farmers (increasing security, re-investment and improvement of farms).

· The UK needs to support smaller farms, integrating crop and animal production to recycle nutrients, with humane, ‘animal centred’ management of livestock.

· Increased food self-sufficiency is necessary for both sustainability and food security, not only for the UK and its constituent regions, but also for all other nations, especially developing countries currently reliant on food imports.


1. The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has offices in 13 countries and works with a network of more than 1,000 animal welfare organizations in over 150 countries. WSPA holds consultative status with the United Nations and observer status with the Council of Europe. This submission is from the WSPA UK office.

2. WSPA welcomes the opportunity to comment on the environmental and social consequences of the way the food we eat in the UK is produced and sold. Our concern is primarily with livestock (including poultry and fish).

3. Achieving sustainability involves ecological, economic and ethical responsibility. Ethical considerations (of both people and animals) have sometimes received less attention than ecology and economics, but are an essential part of the acceptability and applicability of policies. And all three of the Three Es lead us to consider animals, because animal management has impacts on vital issues such as food security, disease control and environmental protection.

4. The Foresight report on Global Food and Farming Futures addresses requirements for food sustainability. However, it does not clarify the distinction between actions that can and should be made at a national level (by the UK and other countries) and those at an international level (for which mechanisms need to be sought such as coordination by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation). The report too readily "rejects food self-sufficiency as a viable option for nations to contribute to global food security" (p13). In fact self-sufficiency is not all-or-none, and the impacts of livestock production on the degree of self-sufficiency and other aspects of sustainability are important considerations for every nation.

5. The Foresight report also suggests implicitly what was explicit in the Food 2030 report published by the UK Government in 2010: that the UK should increase production greatly to help ‘feed the world.’ Secretary of State Caroline Spelman has said:

"We need to start building into our whole supply chain the capacity, the resilience and the sustainability we will need to feed a projected world population of over 9 billion people by 2050." [1]  

However, whether exporting helps or hinders food security of other countries including developing countries is a matter that needs considerable analysis. Secretary Spelman has also suggested another motivation in saying that there is "significant scope for us to grow our (UK) industry in the years ahead." Profit is a reasonable motivation, but it is insufficient justification for increased production if that increase causes major problems. Neither Food 2030 nor the Foresight report call specifically for increased animal production, but both will doubtless be taken as encouragement for expansion by the livestock industry. In fact, while there is undoubtedly a global need for increased protein, that does not necessarily have to come from animals, and there is no demonstrated need for increased animal production in the UK. On the contrary, we argue below for reduced production and consumption of food from animals.

6. We are not suggesting that complete self-sufficiency is possible. We support the proposal from Oxfam and others (cited by Foresight) that, rather than exporting to low-income countries, we should import some food from such countries to support their agricultural and economic development – although this will have to be balanced against other policies favouring local and environmentally-sensitive sourcing, and might be more appropriate for crops than animal products.

7. Food security both in the UK and other countries is strongly affected not only by the total volume of agricultural production but also by the type of enterprises involved in that production. In many countries smallholder agriculture plays a crucial role in this, and we argue below that smaller farms also need support in the UK, both for food security and for other benefits such as rural employment and rural economies.

8. We shall now address your specific questions, with regard to UK livestock.

How can the environmental and climate change impacts of the food we choose to eat best be reduced? What are the land-use trade-offs that affect food production and supply and how should these be managed?

9. Livestock production contributes significantly to environmental problems [2] , [3] :

· Production of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide)

· Production of gases (ammonia, sulphur dioxide) that cause acid rain and acidification of groundwater

· Other forms of water pollution (by nitrogen and phosphorus), and water shortages

· Biodiversity loss and ecosystem change (which are driven by habitat change, climate change, invasive alien species, overexploitation and pollution)

10. Animal products are inefficient for feeding people, in respect of:

· Energy: The IPCC has said "A shift from meat towards plant production for human food purposes, where feasible, could increase energy efficiency" [4]

· Water: It takes 990 litres of water to produce one litre of milk [5]

· Protein: The FAO has said that "Livestock now consume more human edible protein than they produce … This is a result of the recent trend towards more concentrate diets for pigs and poultry, with nutritional requirements more s imilar to humans than ruminants" 2

· Land and other primary resources ( although livestock may be a good use for marginal land as discussed below ) .

11. While some increase in efficiency of livestock production is possible, this will not be enough to reduce these problems significantly, particularly if production continues to increase. For the UK, reduced production and consumption of animal products is needed.

12. The Foresight report promotes "sustainable intensification." Unfortunately this does not distinguish between:

· Intensification ‘at the bottom end of the scale,’ which may be beneficial: for example, improved management of cattle browsing on poor-quality vegetation in developing countries; and

· Intensification ‘at the top end of the scale,’ which is harmful in both developing and developed countries for the reasons outlined in paragraphs 9 and 10, and is usually associated with increased production.

Most intensification in the current UK context would be ‘at the top end of the scale’ and would not be sustainable. Intensification of livestock production in the UK has occurred in parallel with concentration (for example, management of more animals within certain watersheds), which has placed a burden on both the environment and the welfare of animals, with wider implications for competitiveness of local farmers. The Nocton proposal for a huge dairy farm in Lincolnshire would have been grossly damaging on all these criteria, and was rightly rejected for a combination of these reasons.

13. Intensive livestock systems are also associated with animal welfare problems such as high stocking densities and barren housing conditions that are unacceptable to most UK citizens. For this and the preceding reasons, a shift from one type of production (ruminants, predominantly extensively reared) to another (pork and chicken, predominantly intensively reared) – which is sometimes proposed – is not an effective solution, involving unacceptable trade-offs in terms of land use, emissions and animal welfare.

14. Reduction is particularly needed in (a) ruminants, (b) grain feeding and (c) use of land for livestock that could instead be used for arable crops. However, reduction in (c) must be balanced against the fact that use of pasture for livestock may benefit the environment, because pasture can contribute to carbon sequestration [6] . Much of the UK has good conditions to keep livestock on pasture, which can be seen as a competitive advantage. Livestock can also be kept on marginal land that is less useful for other types of agriculture.

15. We conclude that the UK needs to support mixed, less intensive farms, integrating crop and animal production to recycle nutrients, with humane, ‘animal centred’ management of livestock. Support for such farms – which will tend to be smaller rather than larger enterprises – will also benefit policy priorities mentioned below such as localism and short supply chains.

16. Aquaculture causes particular problems for animal welfare, water pollution and the catching of wild fish as feed. Production of carnivorous species (including salmon and trout) should be restricted.

How can the Government help to deliver healthy food sustainably, whilst also delivering affordable food for all?

17. Government needs to work with the livestock industry to manage reduction and create a smaller sector making higher quality produce (more sustainable, with more humane production).

18. Government should promote a humane, sustainable diet (including non-animal protein). The Foresight report recommends that demand for the most resource intensive types of food must be contained, including animal products. Measures to reduce production and consumption in the UK are needed simultaneously. This should avoid putting UK producers at a disadvantage against international competitors.

19. Such changes, reducing meat consumption and increasing healthy diets will require a concerted effort. Government should collaborate with other appropriate stakeholders, investing in a programme of Human Behaviour Change to achieve this increasingly important outcome [7] .

20. As the UK does have to work in the international context, Government should also lead or join international initiatives to reduce production and consumption of animal products. In 2007 environment minister Ben Bradshaw suggested [8] that climate change may necessitate rationing of meat, cheese and milk. That is unlikely to be acceptable, but robust discussion of this sort is needed, leading to policies and real change.

21. Affordability of food is important, but that cannot be an excuse for across-the-board cheapness, including of meat. However cheap meat is, there will always be some food-poor people, so social policies to address that issue will continue to be needed. Most people can afford to pay more for food, including animal products.

22. Government should support research into artificial culturing of meat, which would be much less problematic environmentally.

23. Government also needs to work with other stakeholders in the food chain, as follows.

How can consumers best be helped to make more sustainable choices about food?

24. If rationing is unacceptable, much stronger public education is needed to explain the ‘next best alternative’ of animal products being more expensive, consumed in smaller quantities and sourced more locally and more humanely. Meat and other animal products need to be viewed as more ‘special,’ helped by attention-raising initiatives such as ‘Meat-free Mondays.’

25. Many consumers already have preferences for humane, local, sustainable livestock agriculture. They can be helped to express these by clearer labelling and by retailers providing information on their sourcing including the identity of individual suppliers.

26. Education and increased cost will also contribute to reducing waste of food. Cheapness of meat and other animal products must be a major contributor to both waste and to overeating, which is a factor in obesity and other health problems.

27. Education on diet is also important for health. In 2008 a government report [9] said "Evidence on health and the balance of environmental analysis suggests that a healthy, low-impact diet would contain less meat and fewer dairy products than we typically eat today." Such evidence continues to accumulate (e.g. an association between consumption of red meat and bowel cancer reported in February 2011 [10] ) and needs better coordination and publicity.

28. However, we cannot expect consumers to sort out all the problems of achieving humane, sustainable agriculture. Consumers/citizens rightly expect others to take responsibility for matters such as environmental and animal protection, including government, farmers and retailers as appropriate.

Which aspects of the food production and supply chain are presenting the biggest problems for the sustainability of the food industry?

29. The retail sector has excessive expectations of high volume, unified sourcing, for uniform supplies across regions and seasons. It also exerts too much pressure on livestock farmers to cut their production costs. There need to be shorter supply chains, more acceptance of regional and seasonal variation, and more long-term contracts for farmers (enabling them to plan for the future, re-invest and improve their farms). Many such changes could be positive for retailers: for example, regional and seasonal specialities could be promoted. Some retailers are already making positive moves involving such contracts, for example working with dairy farmers to improve health and welfare of dairy cows, and hence longevity and sustainability.

30. Some retailers have such a large market share that it amounts to a monopoly of a significant sector of the market. Monopolies undermine the bargaining power of smallholder farmers with retailers. Avoiding monopolies is important in maintaining the viability of smaller, family farms.

31. Promotions of cheap meat and other animal products to shoppers foster unreasonable expectations in consumers. Some such promotions contribute to waste: for example, ‘Buy One Get One Free’ offers will lead to consumers taking more product than they need.

32. In the UK and other developed countries, retailers and food companies are, with consumers, responsible for the majority of waste. (Total waste is 30-40%, similar to that in developing countries, but in the latter it is concentrated at the beginning of the supply chain due to poor infrastructure for transport and conservation [11] .) Again this is influenced by undue emphasis in the retail sector on uniform supplies: insistence that no product line is exhausted means that some product lines are stocked in excess. Measures to curb and avoid waste by retailers and food companies should be considered.

33. Some supermarket chains have considerably improved their policies on humane and sustainable sourcing in recent years. Mechanisms should be found to persuade the remainder to follow suit.

34. Retailers sourcing from abroad should use consistent criteria, so that imports have the same requirements for welfare and environmental provenance as UK-produced goods.

How might the changing powers of local authorities and the localism agenda hinder, or be used to encourage, more sustainable production and supply of food?

35. Increased autonomy of Scotland and Wales within the UK, and the powers of local authorities and regions within countries, are positive for sustainable production and supply of food. They can be used to encourage many of the trends recommended above, including more local sourcing (thereby supporting local jobs and economies), shorter supply chains and increased regional and national self-sufficiency. As discussed in paragraph 4, the Foresight report’s dismissal of self-sufficiency as a goal appears to be on a misleading all-or-none basis. We urge recognition that increasing the degree of food self-sufficiency is necessary for both sustainability and food security – not only for the UK and its constituent regions, but also for all other nations, especially developing countries currently reliant on food imports.

36. Localism also favours use of local breeds and breeds adapted to local conditions, which is a valuable element in environmental sustainability, the resilience of farming systems and the welfare of animals.

How could Government procurement practices be improved to promote better practice across the food sector?

37. Purchasing policies for all those areas for which Government is in charge of or has influence over procurement (including local authorities, schools, hospitals, armed forces and prisons) should be consistent with and set an example for wider policies. Through these buying choices and through enforced standards for public purchasing, Government could drive an important change in food consumption: reducing food service reliance on meat and dairy products, promoting sustainable, local and welfare-friendly meat and dairy, ensuring ‘better but less’ on the menu and enhancing the market for sustainable producers. This would also provide a concrete and long term opportunity for raising public awareness of the benefits of a more sustainable diet, as it will be possible to target many of these consumers – such as school children and military personnel – over a number of years. This change will only happen with central government standards, adequate advice, budgets and enforcement. It is well documented that a voluntary approach has failed to make long term positive changes in the procurement of sustainable food.


38. For all three aspects of sustainability – ecological, economic and ethical – livestock management needs to take into account their biology and natural behaviour.

Humane treatment of animals fosters sustainability and vice versa. What is more, sustainability cannot be achieved without proper, humane management and care of farm animals.

24 March 2011

[1] Anon 2010 Caroline Spelman on food security .

[1] y -and-cap-reforms/caroline-spelman-on-food-security.html

[2] Steinfeld H et al 2006 Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome .

[3] Leip A et al 2010 Evaluation of the livestock sector's contribution to the EU greenhouse gas emissions (GGELS) - final report. European Commission, Joint Research Centre.

[4] Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change 2001 Climate change 2001: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. IPCC third assessment report. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge .

[5] Chapagain AK & Hoekstra AY 2004 Water footprints of nations. Volume 1: Main Report. Value of Water Research Report Series No. 16. UNESCO-IHE p76

[6] Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change 2000 Land use, land use change and forestry. A special report of the IPCC. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge .

[7] WSPA undated Changing human behaviour, improving animal welfare.

[8] Anon 2007 Britain could go back to rationing. www.thisislondon.c o .uk/news/

[9] Strategy Unit 2008 Food matters: Towards a strategy for the 21st Century .

[10] BBC 2011 Ho w much red meat should you eat? y /hi/today/newsid_9407000/9407204.stm

[11] UN Environment Programme 2011 Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication .