Reduction of the number of produced animals and replacement of slaughtered animal products

Current EU food policies encourage intensive livestock production. Instead of being respected as sentient beings that provide important products, farmed animals are often treated simply as tools to maximise production and profit. 

A trend towards industrialised farming methods that prioritise quantity over quality of production 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, eggs or milk production, to the detriment of their health and welfare. This negative impact goes beyond farmed animals, impacting also the environment and public health.

The way forward for the farming sector is to produce “fewer and better” animal products. A shift from intensive livestock farming to extensive, animal-friendly farming is therefore needed, and a reduction of 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 cultured meat, could provide a viable alternative to the consumption of animal-based food from intensive livestock production. Plant-based meat substitutes include Quorn and Tofurky, which were launched as far back as the 1980s and 1990s, as well as more recent innovations including Impossible Foods and the Beyond Burger. 

Cellular agriculture, on the other hand, is still a developing technology. It creates food from cells rather than from slaughtered animals, producing ‘cell-based”, “clean” or “cultured” meat. Because cultured meat is grown outside the animal, the industry would rely on fewer animals 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, and will not need to be slaughtered. 

Another benefit of cultured meat would be a shift from high-yield breeds, the physical features of which have almost always been selected to the detriment of the individual animal’s welfare, to heritage breeds.

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. 

POLICY - CURRENT STATE OF PLAY

In 2018, the European Commission released a report defining the scope of its forthcoming EU Protein Plan, which will aim to promote the increase of protein crops for both animal and human consumption. A section of this report was dedicated to plant-based protein for human consumption, laying out existing and prospective policy instruments to further encourage the production and consumption of plant-based alternatives over animal-based products. 

In an attempt to curb the increasing demand for plant-based – and, potentially, cell-based – alternatives, the industrial livestock farming industry has pushed for a restriction on the commercial labelling of such alternatives. In short, they want certain terms such as burger, steak and even butter and cream reserved for animal-based products. Their goal is to hinder understanding among consumers who are trying to choose alternatives to conventional products. Secondly, although the impact of labelling of vegan or vegetarian products on shifting diets is yet unproven, clearer labelling makes them more visible, and thus helps consumers who are seeking to transition to vegetarianism or simply just reduce their meat, dairy and egg consumption.

EU policymakers and legislators have already envisioned the advent of cell-based agriculture. The most recent Regulation (EU) 2015/2283 on novel foods lays down a detailed regulatory pathway to commercialising cell-based agriculture products in ways that ensure public health, as well as allowing commercial food innovators to thrive. This rather visionary law makes the EU the only jurisdiction in the world to have a clear, set regulation for cell-based agriculture producers.