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Saturday, April 13, 2024

The business of staying in business

Our children’s future relies on brands embracing big change for animal welfare and the environment, writes Philip Lymbery

I’m often asked what the role of business should be in creating a sustainable future?

I see business as a critical change maker, whether it be on climate, nature, health, or animal welfare. And here we have a paradox: Business is often blamed for driving environmental and animal welfare concerns. The focus of the corporate community has long been seen as making a profit over ethical issues, putting it at odds with animal welfare and environmentalists. For business to be effective at creating change, it must do so in ways that keep it in business, which often weighs toward inherent caution on ethical issues and a slowness to adopt radical new ideas.

Yet, the bottom line is that without big, ambitious change in these areas, business will be out of business, along with the rest of us.

And here’s why.

Existential threat

The world is reaching a tipping point where planetary emergencies around climate, the collapse of nature and rising health risks are threatening life on this lonely planet. The way we treat farmed animals has a big bearing on all our futures.

Factory farming – the grain-feeding of confined animals – lies at the centre of what is wrong with our food system. Factory farming is the biggest cause of animal suffering on the planet and a key driver in the climate, nature and health catastrophes facing humanity. More than two-thirds of the 80 billion animals farmed for food every year are caged, crammed and confined in ways that cause immense suffering as well as drive greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and the destruction of wildlife habitats.

Photo: Compassion in World Farming

This industrialisation of the countryside, be it animals in confinement or crops from chemical-soaked prairie monocultures, also threatens the very thing that our civilisation depends on: soil. Soils are now ebbing away so fast that they could be useless or gone in a lifetime. According to the UN, if we carry on as we are, there could be just sixty harvests left in the world’s soils. And then what? No soil, no food, game over.

Ending this damaging industrialisation has never been more urgent to create the conditions for a livable future. Never has what we do next, mattered more. And that includes Business.

Corporate change

Thankfully, things are starting to change, with business increasingly seen as a leading light in creating a more humane and sustainable future, which is good news for all of us.

As the CEO of Compassion in World Farming, the leading international farmed animal welfare environmental organisation, I’m pleased to say that we work with over a thousand businesses worldwide to create change. Amongst this list are companies as diverse as Waitrose, Walmart, Unilever, Tesco, McDonalds, Nestle, Costco (US), Compass Group and Carrefour. We work with companies to achieve changes that enhance brand value, meet customer aspirations and improves the lives of many millions of animals every year.

Photo: Kingsclere Estate

The changes we have worked on together over the past two decades have included introducing game-changing commitments – selling or using only cage-free eggs, higher welfare chicken, or pasture-based dairy. This has been driven by the fact that customers care about animal welfare. As leading companies understand, it’s not nearly enough to simply leave animal welfare up to consumer choice.

Committing to policies that improve animal welfare across entire supply chains has become an increasingly common part of responding to societal concerns, as has been charted by the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (https://www.bbfaw.com/).

Ambition & opportunity

However, the next stage is to move to bigger, more ambitious change that combines animal welfare and environmentalism by transforming food systems, rather than simply tweaking them.

There is a real and growing concern that our current way of life poses an existential threat to society as we know it.

And that in turn brings about an urgent need for business to respond.

For business, planetary boundaries – operating within the Earth’s finite resources – provide a solid and quantifiable risk measure. Corporations could and should in my view, be doing everything possible to ensure that economic activities stay within these boundaries, thereby becoming a positive force in regenerating the planet.

High on the list of things to tackle if we are to stave off an impending existential threat has to be factory farming and associated diets heavy in animal products.

Photo: Compassion in World Farming

Parallel

The need for transformation of the food system has recently started to be widely recognised, not least thanks to last year’s UN Food Systems Summit in New York, for which I was proud to have been appointed an ambassadorial ‘Champion’.

The changes necessary have a parallel in the energy sector, where the challenge of climate change has led business leaders and governments to come together to drive the ‘global energy transition’ towards net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. Without such a drive, emissions targets set by the Paris Agreement will be unobtainable. Energy accounts for two-thirds of global emissions. The year 2020 was supposed to be a turning point in the transition, until Covid-19 threatened to put gains on the backburner. However, the pandemic also showed how the world can do things differently in the face of an existential threat. With travel subject to pandemic-induced restrictions, the skies in some of the most polluted areas of the world cleared, and so too did the links between a successful energy transition and long-term economic prosperity.

Photo: G_s Fresh

Without major reform, food alone, which is responsible for more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, could put achieving globally agreed climate targets out of reach. Industrial meat and dairy do the most damage to climate, nature and human health, which is why global action is so necessary to transition away from meat-heavy diets and the industrialisation of agriculture.

As a global society, we are waking up to the fact that our economy has to work within planetary boundaries; the illusion of infinite growth in a world of finite resources is starting to wear thin.

If business is to stay in business, it will need to adapt to survive.

Adapt to thrive

So, what is this adaption likely to look like?

Successful businesses will be those who provide goods and services that consumers want, whilst demonstrating that their goods and services have positive impacts on people, animals and the planet.

To survive in increasingly unstable times, business will need to shift quickly towards climate-positive, regenerative food production and encourage diets much less dependent on animal products.

Tomorrow’s sustainable food menu will need a veritable ‘three Rs’ approach – Regenerative farming, Reduction of animal-sourced foods and Rewilding of the soil.

Regenerative

Nature-friendly or regenerative farming involves restoring animals to the land as rotational grazers or foragers where they can express their natural behaviours – running, flapping, grazing – making for happier animals with better health too. Regenerative farming cuts reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, reducing costs to farmers and creating a varied landscape bursting with wildflowers that lure back pollinating insects like bumblebees, as well as providing seeds and insects for birds and other wildlife.

Photo: Compassion in World Farming

Reduction

This, combined with a serious reduction in the number of farmed animals can create food systems that are genuinely sustainable. Based on scientific assessments within the EAT-Lancet Planetary Health Diet, we can see that saving the planet will require drastic reductions in consumption of animal-sourced foods.

Evidence shows that by the middle of the century, our consumption of animal products worldwide must be reduced by more than half. In high-consuming regions such as the West, deeper cuts will be needed. For example, the UK and EU would need reductions of about 70 per cent.

By rethinking protein, meat from farmed animals would come only from higher welfare, nature-friendly regenerative farms.

Consumption of animal-sourced foods would be reduced through replacement with plant-based and other alternative proteins, including cell-based or ‘cultivated’ meat and precision fermentation, together with eating more fruit, vegetables, and legumes.

Rewilding the soil

With far fewer farmed animals, all kept regeneratively, soil fertility can be turbo-boosted by that rotational symphony of plants and animals working in harmony with underground ecosystems involving worms, bugs and bacteria, thereby rewilding the soil. Huge amounts of carbon could be locked up in healthy soil. Much more water would be conserved for crops. And a vast array of biodiversity would be restored to thriving farmland.

Photo: Kingsclere Estate

Greening food

It is hard to overstate the planetary benefits of greening food and farming.

In this growing age of planetary crisis therefore, there is a pressing need for bigger, bolder, more urgent solutions, ones that join the dots between our human-induced predicaments, making for game-changing solutions that bring multiple benefits.

As senior economist at the International Monetary Fund, Nicoletta Batini says, “If we can muster the will before it is too late, we can have our nutritious food, thriving economies and a habitable planet, too.”

Photo: Ben Reynaldo

Moving beyond industrial animal production and thereby large-scale animal suffering is both a huge ethical issue and a global imperative for a sustainable future, thereby offering a must-have opportunity for business.

Embracing ethics and planetary imperative together opens a richness of beautiful, visionary opportunities for business – creating landscapes bursting with life, providing healthy, nutritious food in ways that allow animals to experience the joy of life, exceeding customer aspirations and saving the future for our children.

Now that to me makes good business sense.

Philip Lymbery is Global CEO of Compassion in Farming International and a former United Nations Food Systems Champion. His new book Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature‑Friendly Future is out now and available from all leading bookstores.

Philip Lymbery
Philip Lymbery
Philip Lymbery is Global CEO of Compassion in Farming International and a former United Nations Food Systems Champion. His new book Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature Friendly Future is out now and available from all leading bookstores.

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