We are slow to accept that the human population, coupled with its non-sustainable industrial and primitive agricultural practices, dietary habits and other environmentally destructive activities, has become a planetary infestation for which the immediate solutions are in the realm of self-control especially of our breeding and feeding behaviors. If the forces of natural selection with attendant disease, starvation and suffering, as well as internecine strife and wars, regional and international, over access to and control of natural resources, are to be somewhat alleviated for the good of future generations, then this generation must begin to squarely address these interconnected issues and implement the necessary changes. Some of these are identified in this review to give grounds for hope of a viable future.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has completed the first-ever global assessment of the state of the planet’s land resources, finding that a quarter of all farmland is highly degraded and warning the trend must be reversed if the world’s growing population ,expected to reach nine billion by 2050, is to be fed. In my estimation, this is not possible, regardless of the promises of agricultural bioscience and other new technologies which are being promoted as panaceas by various governments, allied corporations and international banks. The projected need, according to this report, amounts to 1 billion tons more wheat, rice and other cereals and 200 million more tons of cattle and other livestock products above what is being currently produced annually.
However, as the report stresses, most available farmland is already being farmed, and in ways that actually decrease its productivity through practices that lead to soil erosion and wasting of water. This means that to meet the world’s future food needs, a major “sustainable intensification” of agricultural productivity on existing farmland will be necessary, according to this FAO report “State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture”.
This report emphasizes that climate change, coupled with poor farming practices, has contributed to a decrease in productivity of the world’s farmland. Some 25 per cent of the world’s farmland is now “highly degraded”, with soil erosion, water degradation and biodiversity loss. Another eight per cent is moderately degraded, while 36 per cent is stable or slightly degraded and 10 per cent is ranked as “improving.”
The academically impeccable, but not always objectively/impartially unaligned with business interests, Royal Society in the U.K. has recently addressed this issue of how a soon to be nine billion people are to be nourished without laying waste to its only home, planet Earth. (For details visit http:// rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/365/1554.toc) The bottom line of this report is that without political will—and a shared vision— the tragedy of the commons will not be averted. This tragedy, most eloquently articulated by the prescient ecologist the late Garret Hardin in his 1997 book ‘The Limits of Altruism; An Ecologists View of Survival (Indiana University Press) is not likely to be averted without a complete, conscious and conscientious re-programming of the human psyche or ethos, wherein survival is no longer equated with protecting one’s genetic investment ( in spouse, family, clan, tribe, culture, way of life, business etc) but in an evolving and arising planetary consciousness to conserve, preserve and restore the life and beauty of our one and only home, Planet Earth. This endeavor precludes the selective suffering of other sentient beings for our own consumption and other uses unless dictated by the highest principles, not of law and order but of ecological health and the greater good. (For further discussion see my book Healing Animals and the Vision of One Health).
This consciousness is in part based upon our non-dualistic mental state of empathizing, a capacity evident in other highly social species, recently demonstrated even in rats, and probably mimicked with chemical pheromones in ants and other super-adaptive species who, in helping others of their own kind, insure the survival of their species if not of themselves. In one sense our biological capacity to empathize has served us too well in motivating us to protect and preserve our genetic investment in kith and kin, and in putting our own species before others. But because of our numbers and global impact, this sense and sensibility must be re-calibrated for our own survival to become pan-empathic, having sympathy and respect for all sentient life. This is, I believe, an evolutionary step, and biologically, economically and ethically, it is now is a moral imperative for our species to adopt, or suffer the consequences: adapt or perish. Many are taking this step in making enlightened dietary choices and in changing their consumer habits and life-styles. These who bear, empathically, what Father Matthew Fox described as the “stigmata of an Earth crucified,” I see as fellow survivors and custodians of a more enlightened species and age to come. (It is telling that Fr. Matthew Fox was silenced by Pope Benedict when the pope was the German Cardinal Ratzinger, for promoting paganism!).
It is my conviction that if all responsible stakeholders in the global economy and in the agricultural and livestock industries in particular do not begin immediately to adopt the principles of economic triage—by adopting and supporting only the more progressive, humane and sustainable agricultural practices—the tragedy of enforced human triage will become epidemic as the divide between the haves and the have-nots increases, and the population of the latter begins to implode with internecine strife and suffer starvation, disease and otherwise avoidable death in the millions.
The opposition to organic, sustainable and socially just agriculture by multinational corporations such as Monsanto, touting their patented, genetically engineered seeds and pesticides under the false pretext of helping alleviate world hunger, is seen by many analysts as nothing short of criminal behavior. Such corporate hegemony and colonialism, aided and abetted by allied governments and aid and development institutions like the World Bank, has contributed significantly to the global food crisis that we face today, most especially harming the disenfranchised rural and urban poor.
This looming crisis raises serious public health and environmental as well as farmed animal welfare concerns as I documented in this letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association (published in Vol. 239, Oct 15, 2011, p.1051):
Re: Veterinary public health in the age of “one health”
In his insightful Commentary, Veterinary public health in the age of “one health,”
Dr. Primo Arambulo states that it is a challenge to the veterinary profession “to move the concept of one health forward.”(1). But how can this concept ever move forward and the praxis of one health be implemented when, as he observes, “larger and more concentrated units” of animal production are being established around the world to meet “the rising demand for foods from animal sources”? It would seem that the food animal sector of the veterinary profession, and the aligned pharmaceutical and animal vaccine industries, in seeking to help meet this rising public demand, are at odds with the very principles of the one health movement (2).
The principles and practice of veterinary public health, as articulated by the late Prof. Calvin W. Schwabe (3) surely cannot neglect or deny the environmental, ecological, economic and public health costs, (especially from food born illnesses and zoonoses) that the Western diet, high in animal fat and protein, has brought to those countries where CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) have brought ‘affordable’ foods from animal sources to the market place. CAFOs, coupled with extensive grazing and pastoralist farmed animal production systems, are a major factor in climate change and loss of biodiversity (4).
I am confident, beyond the service role of the veterinary profession to the animal industries, that we have sufficient collective wisdom and knowledge to enlighten and motivate legislators, government policy makers, consumers, health care providers and those involved in food animal production. Such a collective involvement in the realities of informed dietary choices and of how animals are raised and treated, and how these concerns relate to environmental and public health, as well as to wildlife and biodiversity protection and conservation, is long overdue. Then international efforts, so urgently needed to help steer the rising public demand for foods from animal sources toward those that are only from more humane, certified ecologically sound/sustainable, and ideally organic and healthful systems of animal production, may bear fruit. This is also an essential aspect of achieving sustainable agricultural systems to feed a rising populace (5). It is for our own health and for the good of the Earth, especially considering our numbers, that such produce can no longer be regarded as dietary staples (6).
The role of the veterinary profession in helping reduce tropical diseases and zoonoses in developing countries (7) especially through vaccinations, insecticides, parasiticides and improved monitoring and surveillance, could be counter-productive without supportive family planning and livestock improvements to prevent the harmful consequences of overpopulation and misguided altruism (8).
I look to the veterinary profession to take a leadership role in this revolution, or else, as Dr. Arambulo observes, it will ‘be marginalized’ as the one-health movement progresses, and “be stereotyped, tethered within their professional confines” (1). It will take courage indeed, to confront those political, cultural and economic forces that have shaped the profession for decades both in the U.S, Europe and now in developing countries, along with the public demand for foods of animal origin, but progress in the One Health (2) demands no less.
I feel that further documentation of the looming global crisis we all face as a species and as nation states, East and West, and the many solutions that could be implemented, is called for. For instance, Foley et al (9) combined information gathered from crop records and satellite images from around the world to create new models of agricultural systems and their environmental impacts that are global in scope. Agriculture now takes up 38% of planet Earth’s surface, 70% of the wild grasslands, 45% of deciduous forests and 27% of tropical forests having been converted to agriculture. A third of the world’s crop land is dedicated to growing feed for animals and to biofuels. An astounding 75% of the world’s entire agricultural land is devoted to growing feed for animals. While some one billion people are starving or malnourished, another billion are overweight or obese. With a rising population anticipated to reach 9-10 billion in the coming 4-5 decades, this rate of destruction cannot continue. Some of the key recommendations to double the world’s food production while reducing the environmental harms of agriculture in this challenging report by an international team of 20 scientists on how to feed people without ruining the planet include:
Halting farmland expansion and land clearing for agricultural purposes, particularly in the tropical rainforest. This can be achieved using incentives such as payment for ecosystem services, certification and ecotourism. This change will yield huge environmental benefits without dramatically cutting into agricultural production or economic well-being.
Shifting diets. Growing animal feed or biofuels on prime croplands, no matter how efficiently, is a drain on human food supply. Dedicating croplands to direct human food production could boost calories produced per person by nearly 50 per cent. Even shifting nonfood uses such as animal feed or biofuel production away from prime cropland could make a big difference.
Reducing waste. One-third of the food produced by farms ends up discarded, spoiled or eaten by pests. Eliminating waste in the path that food takes from farm to mouth could boost food available for consumption another 50 per cent.
“For the first time, we have shown that it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet,” said lead author Jonathan Foley, head of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “It will take serious work. But we can do it.”
An earlier report by the FAO ( Food and Agriculture Organization,(4) ), documents the global impact of our collective appetite for meat and other farmed animal products as the most damaging of all human industries on Earth. Some of the figures from this report are indeed stunning: Livestock account for 20% of the total terrestrial animal biomass; 26% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface is used for livestock grazing; 70% of grazing land in dry regions is degraded; one third of all arable land is used to grow livestock feed; 8% of the world’s potable water is consumed by livestock; 18% of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock; two-thirds of all anthropogenic ammonia, which acidifies rain, comes form the livestock industry; in the U.S., the livestock industry is responsible for one-third of all nitrogen and phosphorus loads into the environment, accounting for 37% of all pesticide use and 50% of all antibiotic use.
Regardless of concerted efforts to reduce antibiotic usage in food animals because of the evolution of bacterial resistance, now a world-wide public and animal health problem, the sales of antibiotics intended for domestic food animals increased from 2009 to 2010, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Pew Health Group analyzed the numbers in the report, which showed a boost of 6.7 percent, from 28.8 million pounds in 2009 to 30.6 million pounds in 2010. If ionophores, used exclusively on animals, are excluded from the analysis, the increase is 8.6 percent. The increase in antimicrobial sales was greater than the 1.3 percent increase in meat production, which was up by 1.2 billion pounds to 92.1 billion pounds. (See Food Safety News, Nov 1st 2011). This is attributable, in part, to increased exports of pork to China. A new study by a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) economist estimates the total economic impact of foodborne illness across the nation to be a combined $152 billion annually. (To obtain a copy of the report, Health-Related Costs from Foodborne Illness in the United States, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, visit www.MakeOurFoodSafe.org.). It should also be noted that vegetables fertilized with manure from farmed animals fed antibiotics absorb some of these drugs, the risk to consumers currently being evaluated (See JAVMA 236: 236: 500-501, 2011).The recent call by the European Union to ban antibiotics in animal feed is likely to evoke resistance from the industry, and concerted efforts in the U.S. to promote this enlightened initiative as another fabricated trade barrier as per the earlier European refusal to accept imported beef from hormone-implanted and anabolic-steroid injected cattle, and dairy products from genetically engineered growth hormone stimulated American dairy cows.
This FAO report (4) recommends a range of measures to mitigate livestock’s threats to the environment:
This report notes that removal of livestock production subsidies is also likely to improve technical efficiency - in New Zealand, a drastic reduction in agricultural subsidies during the 1980s helped create one of the world’s most efficient and environmentally friendly ruminant livestock industries.
According to a new Worldwatch Institute report, as part of their on-going Nourishing The Planet project for Vital Signs Online, global meat consumption and production continue to rise. The Institute posted the following summary of their global assessment of meat consumption.
“Large-scale meat production also has serious implications for the world’s climate. Animal waste releases methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gases that are 25 and 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, respectively.
Dirty, crowded conditions on factory farms can propagate sickness and disease among the animals, including swine influenza (H1N1), avian influenza (H5N1), foot-and-mouth disease, and mad-cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). These diseases not only translate into enormous economic losses each year—the United Kingdom alone spent 18 to 25 billion dollars in a three-year period to combat foot-and-mouth disease—but they also lead to human infections.
Mass quantities of antibiotics are used on livestock to reduce the impact of disease, contributing to antibiotic resistance in animals and humans alike. Worldwide, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in 2009 were used on livestock and poultry, compared to only 20 percent used for human illnesses. Antibiotics that are present in animal waste leach into the environment and contaminate water and food crops, posing a serious threat to public health.
The amount of meat in people’s diets has an impact on human health as well. Eaten in moderation, meat is a good source of protein and of important vitamins and nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamins B3, B6, and B12. But a diet high in red and processed meats can lead to a host of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
Eating organic, pasture-raised livestock can alleviate chronic health problems and improve the environment. Grass-fed beef contains less fat and more nutrients than its factory-farmed counterpart and reduces the risk of disease and exposure to toxic chemicals. Well-managed pasture systems can improve carbon sequestration, reducing the impact of livestock on the planet. And the use of fewer energy-intensive inputs conserves soil, reduces pollution and erosion, and preserves biodiversity.
I am disturbed by the little attention given in any of the above reports on agricultural reform and food security to the issue of how farmed animals are transported, handled and slaughtered. The combination of animal stress and unsanitary conditions increase consumer risk of bacterial food poisoning. As I have witnessed in East Africa and India, improvements in slaughtering operations are urgently needed in developing countries. In industrial countries such as the U.S., decentralization to reduce animal transportation distances is a critical animal welfare and public health issue, and the transportation of live animals by sea, as from Australia to Arab states for ritual slaughter, should be prohibited.
The need to adopt organic farming, perennial grains, and humane, sustainable livestock production methods especially grass-fed and mixed-crop and livestock systems have been underscored by the U.S. National Research Council (12) addressing what is needed to transform U.S. agriculture. Economic triage calls for an end to price supports and subsidies currently going to the livestock industry and allied animal feed industry promote non-sustainable commodity crop production (particularly genetically engineered corn and soy bean) with harmful consequences for consumers and the environment, especially from agrichemical pollution and soil run-off causing sedimentation of lakes and rivers and the growing ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico.
The massive assault by the livestock industry on now globally threatened marine ecosystems must also be addressed, and not only from nutrient waste runoff and agrichemicals in eroded soils from arable land used to produce livestock feed. The vast tonnage of krill and fish ‘bycatch’ that encourages indiscriminate over-fishing when profits come from their incorporation into livestock feed is yet another hidden cost of the animal farming industry that includes farmed salmon.
I feel somewhat vindicated by these science-based reports documenting the problems created by industrial agriculture after being a relatively lone voice over two decades ago (13) on this complex issue, and more recently over the ethics and consequences of genetic engineering agribiotechnology (14). It is now clearly documented that genetically engineered crops have helped promote the evolution of herbicide-resistant ‘superweeds’, helped undermine food security in developing countries, resulted in increased pesticide use and have failed to increase the yield of any human food crop (15). But scientific documentation and economic evidence alone will not stop this global food industry juggernaut and bring the long overdue changes to improve consumer safety, food security, environmental protection, production efficiencies and farmed animal health and welfare—and make the entire agricultural enterprise sustainable and socially just. In the face of political inertia, multinational corporate collusion and corruption, and a monopolistic monolith of agribusiness with its pharmaceutical and petrochemical industry allies and lobbyists, a food revolution is none the less possible. It is beginning now as informed consumers vote with their dollars and for food labeling, purchasing locally grown produce, learning how to prepare nutritious meals from basic ingredients, and favoring organically certified and non-GMO verified produce.
Biologist Prof. Rene Dubos (16) forewarned that “A relationship to the earth based only on its use for economic enrichment is bound to result not only in its degradation but also in the devaluation of human life. This is a perversion which, if not corrected, will become a fatal disease of technological societies.” Millions of people today are suffering the consequences of what Prof. Dubos predicted, as others suffer the burdens of empathy for others, and for animals wild and domestic that are caught up in the current down-spiral of the global economy and an uncertain future for all. The cold realities of human triage are in process now more through default than by ethical decision, a fact some see as a conspiracy of the rich over the poor and which Mahatma Gandhi encapsulated in his quip that “The cattle of the rich steal the bread of the poor.”
One of America’s first environmentalists, Aldo Leopold (17) Wrote: “The cowman who clears the range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dust bowls and rivers washing the future into the sea.” The continuing government subsidies provided to cattle ranchers grazing public lands and for indiscriminate and cruel predator control speak to the power of the livestock lobby for whom triage and sustainability are anathema. If the world population of carnivorous wolves or omnivorous black bears was anything close to our own 7 billion, we would say that there was an infestation that called for population controls because an ecological disaster would be immanent, if not already irreversible. The destruction of the Amazon and other rain forests and ecosystems, coupled with the disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples, continues unabated. Millions of deforested acres and drained wetlands are used to raise cattle and to grow soybeans for export to the U.S. and Europe for livestock and poultry feed. Even with the most sophisticated advances in veterinary and farm animal production science, the Earth cannot feed a population of 7 billion people aspiring to be carnivores, relying on meat and other animal-derived food products as dietary staples, without causing irreplaceable loss of biodiversity, species extinction and climate change.
Since 1985 under the Conservation Reserve Program (CPR) farmers in the U.S. were paid with public tax dollars by the federal government not to farm fragile, marginal and highly erodible lands, which helped bring back natural biodiversity and wildlife. Now with government subsidies for corn-ethanol paying more to farmers than the CRP offers, coupled with federal crop price insurance guarantees (tax payers covering 60% of the costs which amounted to $7.1 billion in 2011), many farmers are ploughing up these millions of formerly protected acres, also draining wetlands and tilling prairie grasslands to raise commodity crops, primarily corn. The predictable lower market prices with over-production would be rectified by the crop insurance scheme, thus indirectly supporting the ravaging of the last of the shortgrass and mixed- grass prairies of the Great Northern Plains. Since the USDA approved Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide resistant and drought-withstanding genetically engineered corn (MON 87460) in December 2011 designed to be planted in low rainfall and drought-prone regions like these prairies, and in similar ecosystems around the world), the loss of natural prairie habitat for the Kit fox and other threatened and endangered wildlife and wild plant species is likely to escalate. The public may only notice when their lungs and homes are choked and cities darkened by the next dust bowl.
Now it is time for governments to break from the yolk of corporate hegemony and acknowledge the new economic reality the world faces today (18) and to exercise this principle of triage by withdrawing support with public taxes and subsidies, along with informed consumers voting with their dollars, to expedite the transformation of all industries and their products and services into ethical and sustainable human activities. This should begin in the agriculture/ food and fuel/energy sectors, where the public still has considerable influence, along with allied banks, lending institutions, universities and transnational aid and development agencies.
The World Trade Organization, which has undermined the sovereignty of nation states’ environmental and human rights laws under the mammonist banner of ‘free trade,’ has played a major role in causing the current global economic crisis. “America the free” has become “America the duty free”, where corporate and individual duties of responsibility for the environment, the economy and the life community have been supplanted by values and actions that are detrimental to all, and endorsed by many political demagogues and the life-styles of the rich and famous whose mincing morality, ethical ambiguities and sanctimonious religiosity mirror a degenerate culture and the end of this kind of consumerist civilization. Economic triage is called for along with international trade conventions to transform free trade in natural resources, raw materials, agricultural commodities and manufactured goods into fair trade that is governed by the global bioethics (19) of social and eco-justice and sustainability.
A full accounting of the externalities or hidden costs of conventional industrial agriculture, and in particular its commodity crop and livestock sectors, would soon put an end to the largess of government price supports and subsidies, and discourage banks and international aid and development agencies from providing loans to non-sustainable and environmentally harmful farming and other enterprises. The externalities of public health costs of the modern Western diet with its associated cancers, obesity epidemic/metabolic syndrome and other diet-related diseases and food-born illnesses must also be considered, and the benefits of organic farming practices, vegetarianism, veganism and “conscientious omnivorism” (consuming less and only humanely and organically produced foods of animal origin) more widely appreciated as ethical imperatives and enlightened self-interest.
Industrialized nations also need to provide more in-field veterinary services to help improve livestock health and to prevent the spread of ‘transboundary’ diseases in developing countries since, according to veterinarian Dr. Peter Roeder (20) “There is an intimate relationship between ‘homeland security’ and international health and development issues. Dr. Roeder played a key role in the final stages of eliminating Rinderpest (cattle plague) from the world that has devastated livestock and wildlife for centuries .He cautions and documents how more intensive, industrial-scale livestock and poultry production systems, currently expanding in developing countries to meet the increasing demand for meat, milk and other animal foods are contributing to the emergence and spread of epidemic diseases at an increasing rate, noting that: Infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, once a sexually transmitted infection, evolved in feedlot beef cattle in the U.S. to become a severe respiratory disease: Intensification of goat production in the Netherlands helped make Q fever a major health issue: Intensification of duck production in China and S.E. Asia set the conditions for the avian flu virus H5N1HPAI to become a global pandemic: Intensification of dairy production in Saudi Arabia created difficulties in controlling Foot and mouth disease. He also documents how multiple factors associated with intensive production systems contribute to immune system impairment and increased susceptibility to disease in poultry, beef and dairy cattle and pigs—and we can also add fish in aquaculture.
Waste is sinful, even in times of plenty. Food waste in developed countries (21)) from marketing and personal household practices is indeed scandalous. The amount exceeds 8 million tons in the U.K. and 40 million tons in the U.S. annually. Much of this waste, still suitable for human consumption, could, with appropriate management and processing, be profitably processed into feed for poultry and pigs along the lines of model legislation in Japan which directs local authorities to recycle a portion of waste food into animal feed.