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M-4: Improving the Sustainability of Animal Agriculture


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Mr. Speaker,

I humbly submit the following motion to the House for consideration:

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That this House acknowledges the impact that animal agriculture has on important environmental and humanitarian areas of concern, including the climate crisis and biodiversity loss; commits to efforts to reduce the environmental intensity and improve the productivity of animal agriculture worldwide; applauds the development of synthetic meat and other meat alternatives, including for their potential advantages in terms of resource efficiency, supply chain durability, and environmental sustainability; pledges to support this industry by research and development, particularly open-access and multilateral research, and financial support and job training schemes; and promises to continue and ramp up efforts to toughen and export animal welfare standards and to work internationally against negative consequences of animal agriculture such as the rise of antibiotic resistance, ground and water pollution, and biodiversity and habitat loss.

I will start this speech by confessing to what some might call a hypocrisy. I am not a vegetarian. Goodness knows I've tried, but my family is Greek, and the temptations at family get-togethers are just too great. I don't know if you've seen the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mr Speaker, but there's a line in it that I can imagine any of my older relatives saying: “he don't eat no meat? Oh, that's okay. I make lamb.” And veganism? Oh, no chance. I do love halloumi. 

But I acknowledge that as a species we need to cut our animal agriculture usage and our meat consumption. Our planet's ecosystem cannot survive current trends. The stakes of this topic are high. Incredibly high.

Yet, Mr Speaker, I wish to start my remarks on a positive note. The global middle class is growing. It is set to continue growing. This is something to be celebrated. Opportunities, choices, and most importantly the liberating freedom from poverty and misery are being extended to countless millions, in places where previous generations could never have imagined such wealth. But we need to acknowledge that, as more and more people find themselves able to enjoy the luxuries and conveniences of modern life, we must do more and more to decouple those things from greenhouse gas emissions. 

Now, we increasingly are understanding that this can be done. That we can make a net profit out of net zero is increasingly recognised. The government’s plan for net zero takes some great and necessary steps here. But we need to apply this logic everywhere. That includes food. As the global middle class expands, meat demand is set to increase by around 70%. 

This is not sustainable. Already about a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to animal agriculture, including around a third of methane emissions, a superpollutant that is 28 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide in terms of long-term warming of the planet. 

Animal agriculture takes up about three-quarters of animal agriculture land use. This drives deforestation - 75% of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to this, as is a third of global biodiversity loss. Again, a major contributor to climate change. We’re losing crucial carbon sinks.

If meat and dairy demand continues at its current pace, by 2050, that’s 70% of our allowable greenhouse gas “budget” gone. Used up. 

The environmental costs do not end there. Erosion. Nitrogen pollution. Air and groundwater pollution. Antibiotic resistance. Just a few examples. There are broader humanitarian and political consequences. It increases the price for staple crops as they lose the competition or their outputs are diverted to animal feed. A third of worldwide grain is used for feeding livestock. Around 15% of global freshwater goes towards this industry. There is a food security angle to this as well, and a geopolitical risk that comes from, quite bluntly, an inefficient means of food production. 

There are, of course, long-documented health costs and ethical concerns too. 

Mr Speaker, I say all this to emphasise the degree of the problem that we face. But I am no pessimist. I believe that Britain in particular can play a leading role in helping humanity adapt. 

Firstly, there are important regulatory steps we can take, yes. Higher animal welfare standards and working to export them abroad - a place where we already have had great success - is an obvious starting point. We can do the same with issues such as antibiotic resistance and ending the medically unnecessary use of antibiotics in agriculture. I think we can do much more, on the international sphere, to address this issue. 

Secondly, there are techniques that can be used. An article in the Nature journal, “Greenhouse gas mitigation potentials in the livestock sector”, highlighted just some of the ways we can reduce emissions by improving the efficiency of agricultural practices. Use of feed additives, improved feed digestibility, manure management, soil carbon sequestration, animal productivity and health, intensifying certain practices to reduce demand for deforestation. Perhaps we can also explore alternative ways of producing animal feed too, less intensive ways. I bring these measures up because we need to begin exploring not just their scientific validity but also the policy implications. 

Thirdly, however, we do need to address demand. Now, Mr Speaker, people like meat. People will not stop eating meat. I do not think you can tax or legislate that desire away. No sane or just government can think that’s a viable strategy or something even worth attempting. So one very positive way of addressing this is via alternative proteins. Lab-grown meat. Synthetic meat. The recent headlines here are positive. This has potential. It is a growth industry.

We can use renewable energy as an encouraging point of reference here. As a global community, we've achieved good breakthroughs with renewable energy using some policy innovations that are now tried-and-tested. We can do the same, and help deliver a more hopeful future, by applying these same innovations to synthetic foods. 

First, investment in research and development, namely public, open-access research and multilateral research projects. Secondly, the same strategic investments that we know can catalyse growth in a sector can be used here. I'm talking demonstration projects, tax breaks, loan guarantees, things that make the initial capital investment worthwhile, things that make the risks worth taking. Finally, making sure those communities currently involved in animal agriculture can, via programs such as job training, transition to those new sectors. 

I am a strong supporter of the actions on climate change and biodiversity that this government has announced. I am proud of them. But, Mr Speaker, we can do more. And that is why I humbly submit this motion to the House.

Christos Demetriou, Labour MP for Enfield North 

MP from 1997 to 2010, 2015 to present; Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Disabled People (2001-2003); Minister of State for Arts (2003-2004); Minister of State for Climate Change and the Environment (2004-2007); Secretary of State for International Development (2007-2010)

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