CO2 crisis shows it's time we rethink our throwaway meat consumption

CO2 crisis shows it's time we rethink our throwaway meat consumption

A guest blog by Chris Sherwood, our Chief Executive.

Last week saw the UK narrowly avert a catastrophic welfare crisis as shortages of CO2 could have left farmers facing horrific mass culls of their animals. We could have seen tens of thousands of pigs shot on farm, without the necessary resources to ensure welfare. As well as hundreds of thousands of chickens left to die excruciating deaths by shutting off shed ventilation - the only way to carry out the culling of these animals on such a scale without access to gases.

A stark wake-up call about unsustainable farming

This crisis was thankfully avoided due to government action but it's not time to breathe a sigh of relief. The public has seen how our intensive farming systems exist on a knife edge where the sheer volume of animals we are farming and the increasingly intensive methods of husbandry and slaughter as well as the intense genetic selection of animals mean there is no safety net for welfare.

If this isn't a stark wake-up call about how unsustainable our current farming systems are, what will it take for us to reconsider our reliance on intensive meat production?

What has the petrol crisis got to do with animal welfare?

Despite health warnings from distinguished bodies like the WHO and the environmental impact of intensive farming, we, as a nation, are still too reliant on cheap meat. Take chicken, for example. Poultry now accounts for over 50% of meat consumption. Around a billion birds are consumed every year, of which 95% are fast-growing breeds, reared in intensive indoor units.

Such farming systems are extremely vulnerable to emergencies such as the CO2 shortage. The reason for this is that fast growing birds are crammed together in systems that leave them very little space to move, especially when they reach slaughter weight.

Their rapid growth rates mean that they already suffer poor health and welfare, so the slightest delay in them going to slaughter will see the birds' welfare deteriorate extremely rapidly. Crises like those seen this week mean that farmers have to resort to extreme measures because the system quickly falls apart.

The UK sees 3.6million tonnes of on-farm food waste every year

The arguments for re-evaluating the way we farm are clear. Meat production is fuelling climate change and habitats are destroyed to grow feed. In the UK, it is estimated there is around 3.6 million tonnes of on-farm food waste in the UK every year. Plus, overuse of antibiotics in the farming industry, to counteract the increased risk of disease from animals in packed systems, poses a potentially deadly risk to animal and human health.

As Covid continues to impact our lives, we cannot forget the lessons of the pandemic. Intensive farming practices could lead to more, potentially more dangerous, pandemics if diseases spread through farm animals to the human population. And this week teaches us that there is another compelling reason: we are reliant on a farming situation where there is no margin for error at all - the system is already working beyond its capacity to ensure good welfare.

Despite these clear warning signs, it seems the Government is unwilling to commit to a strategy to reduce the number of animals being farmed and the amount of intensively farmed meat being consumed. Henry Dimbleby, author of the National Food Strategy, has called for meat intake in this country to be reduced by a third and this week cautioned against trade deals which 'export cruelty and carbon emissions' - we are awaiting Government's response to his report.

It's time to stand up for animal welfare and the planet

Agricultural impacts on climate change do not even appear on the UK's COP26 presidency agenda. Meat has become cheap and disposable and the welfare of the sentient animals at the heart of the 'machine' is increasingly absent. Taking action on this would be a real leadership opportunity for the UK, allowing us to focus on fewer animals raised to world-leading welfare standards.

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