Translate This Page

Proposition for reform/modification of the CAP

The other day I bumped into a young lady that I vaguely knew and stopped to chat. She told me that she had just finished her studies and was looking for work. So of course I asked her what she had studied. "Agriculture" was her reply. And then she added, "And I really want to work in the livestock sector." "Why livestock?" I enquired. "Because I love meat," she told me.

To my surprise, and I know that it will seem patronising at first sight, my reaction was to feel pity for her.

However, it wasn't anything to do with her eating habits even though eating meat is most likely to affect her health negatively and may even shorten her life. No, it was the fact that during all her years of education no-one had informed her of the environmental harm caused by the meat industry. Thus she had been lead to believe that she could make a life long career in that industry.

It's all the more surprising as it's no secret that the number of people employed in agriculture in France (the biggest recipient of funds from the CAP) has been falling for decades from about 3.85 million in 1970 to about 965,000 in 2010. 

That's on average about 200 jobs lost per day every day for forty years. Isn't it a waste of resources to continue to train young people for a career in a field that is slowly disappearing?

One question that the CAP does not seem to consider is whether or not there will be a significant livestock industry in thirty years time. This is all the more surprising as the public health and environmental consequences have been known for years.

Public health consequences

Over the last few decades we have seen what happens to countries when cheap meat becomes available. In the major OECD countries, lifestyle diseases have now become the biggest killers. Long term cohort studies of tens of thousands of people over a number of decades, such as the Seventh Day Adventists study, the EPIC study, the Nurses' Health Study and the Oxford Health studies all seem to show that eating animal products is a major contributor to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and obesity. Other countries are, unfortunately trying to catch up: from China to Japan to India to Tunisia a change in diet that incorporates more animal products has lead to worse health.

Another major health risk is that caused by transmission of animal diseases to humans. The 1918 flu pandemic that killed over 50 million people in 1918/19 was a form of swine flu that crossed the species barrier to infect humans. Former Director-General of the WHO Dr Lee Jong-wook said in a speech in 2005, “...It is only a matter of time before an avian flu virus - most likely H5N1 - acquires the ability to be transmitted from human to human, sparking the outbreak of human pandemic influenza. We don't know when this will happen. But we do know that it will happen...”

He was soon proved right: a pandemic in 2009/10 that claimed around 19,000 lives was found to be made up from four different flu viruses: North American swine influenza, North American avian influenza, human influenza and an Asian/European swine influenza virus. As I write this, avian flu with human casualties is being reported in many countries around the world:

Environmental Impact

The negative environmental aspects of raising livestock are also well known. There is some difficulty in attributing exact figures for the climate change effects caused by raising livestock because there are so many factors that need to be taken into account: production of fodder, transport, processing, packaging, fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides, CO2 emissions from respiration, CH4 from manure, fertiliser and enteric fermentation, and nitrous oxide from manure and fertiliser.

In addition, land use change caused by converting untouched land to farms is also a contributor to climate change. (see Table 1 page 7, Depending on what elements are included estimates for the contribution that the livestock sector makes to discharges of greenhouse gases range from less than 15% to more than 30%. However, no one seems to dispute that livestock production is the second largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions, second only to the energy sector.

As well as contributing to climate change, raising livestock can also contribute to increased pollution of water sources via run off from manure and waste. Antibiotic resistance in bacteria may develop because of their systematic preventive use in intensive livestock farms. Biodiversity suffers from the cultivation of mono-crops, which also deplete the land of micro-nutrients.

It's clear that if consumption of animal products continues as projected by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, 70% more in 2050 compared to 2005, then it will become an environmental disaster. Already more than 40% of the dry land on the planet is used to produce crops for animals or is used as pasture land for them. It is estimated that about half of the world's crops along with 30% of fish caught are used to feed animals.

Why do people eat so much meat?

In developing countries, it may be seen as a sign of prosperity, especially if it used to be scarce. It may also be an attempt to emulate western culture. In the USA and Europe meat had been hard to find or rationed during the Second World War. This gave it the perception of being a luxury item which made it into a status symbol.

There is also a wide spread idea that animal products are necessary for proteins. Nothing could be further from the truth. A recommended daily intake (RDI) of 0.8 grams per kilo of body weight seems to be generally accepted. This means 46 grams per day for the average woman and 54 for the average man, so 50 grams on average for an adult.

According to the FAO, the average American consumes 110 grams of protein per day of which 70 grams is animal proteins. That means 40 grams comes from vegetables: that's 80% of the RDI. See page 64 of the FAO Report

The average Canadian actually gets 48.9 grams of protein (that's almost 100% of his/her RDI) from vegetables. The average European has a total intake of 102 grams of protein per day of which 57.8 is from animals, 44.2 from vegetables. It won't take much of a change in eating habits to be able to supply 100% of the RDI in proteins from plant sources. These generally come with less saturated fats and more fibre, which are good for a healthy diet.

In addition, nowadays there are large lobby groups and producers' associations that ask for subsidies and special treatment and spend enormous amounts of money on advertising to stimulate demand. There is some research that supports the idea that consumption of animal products is not driven by demand but pushed by supply. As well as direct advertising, the consumer is surrounded by media which reinforce the idea that eating meat or eggs or drinking milk is a normal and desirable thing to do.

It is clear that the animal products industry speaks with a louder voice than the environmental and health lobbies. Even so, the per capita meat consumption is falling in the richer countries.

What does the EU need from the CAP?

IMO the CAP needs to stop striving for increased productivity and efficiency for two main reasons. In the first place, it's destroying jobs: it's pretty obvious that a 1,000 head pig farm employing 4 people requires less staff than ten 100 head pig farms employing 2 or 3 people each. Secondly, it's perpetuating the myth that there is a technical solution to the pollution problems and environmental harm associated with raising livestock.

Even if you reduce emissions and waste by 1% per year per unit of production for the foreseeable future, it won't do anything to reduce total emissions, because the production is going up faster than efficiency. We already need to make cuts in absolute emissions today. Business as usual with some efficiency improvements is practically a guarantee that the world will overshoot greenhouse gas emissions targets.

We have seen a similar effect in vehicles’ emissions: the EU has been successful in decreasing the fuel consumption of fossil fuel powered vehicles. This happened in spite of much resistance from the manufacturers. However, although this is a laudable achievement, as long as fossil fuels are used to power vehicles, it won’t stop climate change. “Road transport contributes about one-fifth of the EU's total emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas. While these emissions fell by 3.3% in 2012, they are still 20.5% higher than in 1990. Transport is the only major sector in the EU where greenhouse gas emissions are still rising.”

Unfortunately, there is a lot of money tied up in polluting vehicles, that may still be driving around for another decade or more, so the prospect of any significant reductions under current policies is unlikely.

With hindsight it appears that it might have been a better investment in that sector to have encourage the production of so-called zero emission vehicles rather than reduce emissions.

Learning from that example, I think that it is time for the EU authorities to face reality and tell people the truth. Eating meat is harmful for their health, for the health of the planet, for the welfare of animals and for the state of their wallets.

We are currently in a situation where the European taxpayer is subsidising the production of a commodity that is harmful for them. What is perhaps worse is that it appears that the EU is buying animal feed from third countries e.g. oil cake and soya beans from Brazil, so that we can then produce animal products which we sell to other third countries e.g. milk products and pork to China and Hong Kong, after subsidising the production with tax payers' money.

Today, in the EU, money is being invested in new, bigger farms with the expectation that they will have an economic life of twenty years or more. Domestic consumption is not rising and is even falling in some EU countries: the hope is that we can export more to third countries. However it probably won't be very long before such markets realise that they don't need the EU to convert animal feed from third countries into animal products: they can do it themselves.

Actions to be taken

Recently the Cap was modified to put more emphasis on environmental protection and improving efficiency. It's a good start but not enough. Improving productivity per unit emission of pollution will never solve the fundamental problem which is that we have to stop polluting.

To this end the EU needs to present a well reasoned strategy to the public and other stake holders explaining why and how the consumption of meat and other animal products should be phased out. It should then proceed with encouraging replacement of such products by plant based foods.

The first step requires acquiring the following information:

  1.  the direct health impacts of consuming animal products: hypertension, diabetes 2, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, obesity etc.
  2.  the indirect health problems: infection of humans by viruses originating from animals, antibiotic resistant bacteria, pollution
  3.  the impact on the environment: greenhouse gases, water pollution, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity etc.
  4.  animal welfare problems
  5.  cost of animal products compared to plant based products as a basis for a healthy diet.

Attempts should be made to quantify the monetary costs of the impacts, in order to show the savings in public health expenditure that could be made and the costs of climate damage that could be avoided.

Next the importance of the production of animal products should be closely examined and a cost/benefit analysis carried out. The agricultural sector contributes to only 1.6% of the EU's GDP .

Only a part of that total value comes from animal products: this needs to be calculated. However, it is necessary to keep a sense of perspective. People might talk about billions of Euros, but one should remember that a billion Euros is only about €2.50 per EU inhabitant. Another way of looking at the relative importance of the sector is to remember that even if it were the whole 1.6% that is roughly the equivalent of only one year's growth in GDP.

In terms of imports/exports the amount that the EU spends on importing animal feed for animal products that are exported should be compared with the amount earned form those exports to see if they are worth the extra costs to society. The products are exported, but the pollution isn't.

Once the information is assembled, all stakeholders should be informed of the results and invited to present ways of reducing the livestock sector.

Potential solutions

Once one has dug oneself into a hole, the first part of the solution is to stop digging. Some suggestions include:

  •  stopping research on improved breeds and improved “efficiency” on livestock. In the long run, whether stakeholders want it or not, livestock production will have to be phased out. So the return on investment of such research is likely to be minimal.
  •  discourage investment in bigger livestock farms. They cause job losses, reduce animal welfare, cause excessive pollution and will, sooner rather than later, become stranded assets.
  •  reduce and then remove subsidies from livestock production. This will encourage existing farms to scale back production, allow older farmers to retire and discourage young people from wanting to enter the profession.
  •  discourage training in livestock raising: it's a waste of money in the long term as today's young people will have difficulty making a life long career in the sector.

Now find a way out of the hole...

  •  direct research towards finding suitable replacements for animal products. Already many suitable alternatives are available: the supermarket shelves are now starting to have specialist sections of such products. However, they are often more expensive than the animal products that they replace.
  •  encourage investment in infrastructure for producing replacements for animal products: economies of scale and competition will bring down the price for the consumer.
  •  put an eco-tax on animal products or increase the VAT. It doesn't have to be much, maybe only one or two cents per kilo, but it will send the right message to consumers. It was possible for electrical goods and fuels so there are precedents.
  •  encourage reforestation of land unsuitable/unnecessary for growing crops. Because of the inefficiencies of live stock raising, less arable land will need to be farmed to supply enough plant based food for the human population. This will improve retention of water in the soil, sequester CO2, reduce soil erosion and increase biodiversity.

Any change is not going to be easy: vested interests have large budgets that they can throw at advertising and lobbying to slow down any change. However, it is necessary: people's health and the health of the environment depend on someone fully informing the public and making changes. It is also urgent: people are suffering and dying prematurely because of eating animal products. This leads to huge costs to health systems for treating avoidable “lifestyle diseases”. In addition, we are already above the safe limit of greenhouse gases in the biosphere. This means that we can expect increased losses due to climate change. Mitigation is a lot more cost effective than adaptation.

The EU has the chance to make a huge contribution. However one major criticism of the EU is that its deliberations are often swayed by corporate interests. This is not surprising, as they have the funds to lobby effectively. Unfortunately, they rarely look much further than their balance sheets.

It’s the duty of the governing bodies of the EU to take a long term approach and secure a safe and prosperous future for the citizens of the EU. This can only be achieved by looking beyond short term profits and, instead, taking the necessary decisions to keep people and the environment in good health.

I am sure that many people will be shocked when they are confronted with the idea of no longer consuming animal products. You can reassure them by saying that the suggestion is not from another planet: it’s from the future. Let’s try to make it the near future.