Current EU food policies encourage intensive animal production. Instead of being respected as sentient beings, farmed animals are often treated simply as tools to maximise production and profit.
A trend towards industrialised farming methods that prioritise quantity has led to the use of increasingly productive breeds in systems where animals are confined for their entire lives or prolonged periods of time. Animals are selected for traits that are desirable for meat, egg or milk production, to the detriment of their health and welfare. This negative impact goes beyond farmed animals, also impacting the environment, public health and is a main contributor to climate change.
There is an urgent need to change the food system to more plant-based production and consumption, and 'less and better' animal products. A shift from intensive animal farming to extensive farming based on agroecology with high animal welfare standards is therefore needed. A reduction in meat, dairy, fish and egg consumption, combined with the development and introduction of alternatives and the uptake of higher welfare animal products, can contribute greatly to this.
Innovations in food technology, plant-based substitutes and cellular agriculture, or cultivated meat, provide viable alternatives to the consumption of animal-based food from intensive animal production. Cellular agriculture creates meat from cells rather than from slaughtered animals.Because cultivated meat is grown outside the body of an animal, fewer animals are needed compared to the tens of billions of animals currently used in conventional animal agriculture. Moreover, the few animals used in cellular agriculture are less likely to undergo transportation. Healthier and more robust traditional breeds can be raised and they can fulfil an ecological role by grazing without the need for slaughter.
WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?
The public’s understanding of intensive versus extensive farming is indicated by their propensity for buying foods with animal welfare-friendly labels. 2016’s Eurobarometer survey found that “an absolute majority (52%) of Europeans look for [...] animal welfare-friendly identifying labels when buying products”. It also found that “overall, Europeans currently do not think there is sufficient choice of animal welfare-friendly food products in shops and supermarkets (47%). This represents an increase of 9 percentage points from the 2006 Special Eurobarometer survey”.
The sale of plant-based food is skyrocketing, according to the European Commission’s EU Protein Plan: “Particularly promising is the market for meat and dairy alternatives, with annual growth rates of 14% and 11% respectively. [...] Around 90 % of meat alternatives are consumed by flexitarians”, i.e. consumers who seek to reduce their meat and dairy intake.
Cell-based agriculture is still in its infancy, so public opinion is based on surveys. One such poll carried out in 2018 found that most consumers were willing to try cellular agriculture products, but few would prefer them to conventional meat or plant-based alternatives. Respondents felt that cellular meat products were unnatural, less healthy, poor-tasting, had an unpleasant texture or appearance, or were too expensive. Common positive responses did mention the benefits to animal welfare, however, as well as the environment, food security and public health.
FRAMEWORK FOR SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS
The European Commission has launched a new legislative initiative for a Sustainable Food Systems Framework to ensure all agricultural and food policy is in line with the EU’s sustainability and climate change objectives.
We are calling for the new framework law to incorporate animal welfare in the definition of sustainability. We are also working for the law to foster food environments that make it easier for people to choose plant-based food in grocery shops, supermarkets and public canteens.
This will require the law setting minimum product standards to push low animal welfare products out of the market, set rules to reduce advertising and promotion of low animal welfare products, introduce compulsory animal welfare labelling and ensure public procurement promotes plant-based and high animal welfare products.
It is important that the law contributes to systemic change in how food is produced by increasingly incentivising a shift towards plant-based production and cellular agriculture. Ultimately the SFS should transform the Common Agricultural Policy into a Common Food Policy with high animal welfare as a core principle.