Feeding Our Food; the important issues

Subjects: Environmental impacts, Rural economies & communities

The analogy of farms as factories goes beyond the sheer volume of meat produced and the efficiency and relentless pace at which it is churned out; just as computers assembled in a production line are built out of other parts produced in other factories, animals raised in factory farms bring together inputs from distant corners of the globe, outsourcing processes that would have previously all been carried out on the farm to different companies and people. Animal feed is one such, now often outsourced, input. Indeed, it was not used in livestock agriculture at all until relatively recently – in the past livestock would have been raised on grass or in the case of pigs, on waste produced in households and on farms.

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Grass and waste fed livestock make sense because the livestock take something that we cannot eat, grass or waste, and turn it into meat, which we can. Now however, animals are kept inside in factory farms at huge concentrations and are fed with animal feed, which most problematically contains soy. The soy is often grown on deforested land, typically in Latin America, using land that would otherwise be used to grow food for human consumption, causing land degradation and environmental destruction. According to the FAO, an estimated 33-40% of the world’s entire cereal harvest is used as livestock feed. The production of livestock feed consumes nearly 43% of the world’s food energy and returns only 29% of it, due to the inefficiency of meat production.  

The expansion of industrial soya farms has also displaced countless small farmers in Latin America, destroying previously sustainable farming systems that worked in harmony with the existing ecosystem, and provided for families and local communities. With the food sovereignty of these regions now threatened, food security has become an issue, with productive land being used to produce crops that are all exported. The profitability of soya production for agribusiness, and the unclear land rights in Latin American countries has led to land grabbing by corporations, sometimes by violent means, to meet the demands of animal factories in Europe and elsewhere. There are alternatives.

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The Pig Idea are working to remove the EU wide ban on feeding waste to pigs. Humans and pigs living in this cyclical way is an ancient tradition and is very efficient, saving farmers money on expensive animal feed, reducing waste, protecting rainforests and freeing up land to grow foodstuffs for human consumption. The EU ban on feeding pigs waste arose out of the foot and mouth epidemic, but extensive research has shown heat treatment to be effective at rendering food waste safe for consumption by pigs. There has also been research looking into the possibility of legumes as an alternative to soy, and it has been found to be a good substitute – legumes could be grown locally in Europe, reducing the carbon footprint of animal feed and preserving the world’s precious rainforests.

The final issue associated with animal feed is that of the use of products containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Last year, British supermarkets quietly opted out of a long standing agreement to not use GM animal feed to feed pigs used for pork products. All of the major supermarkets are now selling pork that has been fed GM animal feed – this is an issue because the effects of GMO are still not well known, especially the associated herbicides and pesticides (such as Roundup), and because of the role of large corporations (such as Monsanto) in selling GM seeds. The move also flies directly in the fact of UK government surveys that show that an overwhelming majority of the British public do not want GM foods in any part of the food chain, as reported by GM Freeze.