As last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai drew to a close, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its report on how climate action can transform agriculture and ensure nutritional security. In D.C., the report highlights a contentious issue with a common-sense conclusion.
Here’s the problem. The FAO called for countries like the United States to reduce meat consumption to combat global warming. Meanwhile, the U.S. Farm Bill spends billions to make high-emissions meat cheap for consumers and profitable for factory farms. The policy implications are clear: For the U.S. to live up to its climate commitments, it must stop subsidizing factory farming.
Factory farming extends far beyond the burgers and steaks on dinner plates nationwide. It’s a systemic problem, funded by the federal government, that requires policy solutions.
Factory farming is a significant emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly methane and nitrous oxide. Animal agriculture emissions in the U.S. exceed emissions from the entire transportation sector. Moreover, these emissions are faster-acting and more environmentally disastrous than traditional carbon emissions. Lowering factory farming emissions gives us a much longer runway to a clean energy future.
Enter the Farm Bill: a national framework driving substantial resources into livestock feed crop production — primarily corn and soy. When you cross a beautiful Midwestern landscape, those fields (or nine out of 10) don’t feed people. They support factory farming or unnecessary, environmentally unsustainable biofuels. These subsidies prop up intensive animal farming and deepen our climate crisis.
But the impacts of animal agribusiness don’t stop at greenhouse gas emissions. This farming model demands vast amounts of land and water. The resulting deforestation, biodiversity and habitat loss lead to regional water scarcity and conflict over resources. The damage also extends to air and water pollution. Animal waste, along with excessive antibiotics and hormones, seep from manure lagoons and contaminate surrounding waterways, posing severe public health risks.
The FAO’s call to rethink meat consumption aligns with the pressing need to address industrial animal agriculture’s devastating environmental impact. And yet, Farm Bill subsidies maintain this unsustainable system. Seven in 10 direct-to-farmer subsidies go to the top seven percent of recipients. Instead of prioritizing universal nutritional security and sustainable farmer opportunities, the Farm Bill invests in scarcity and consolidation across the supply chain.
At COP28, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack claimed he “doesn’t hear much” about addressing meat reduction as a climate strategy. In response, more than 250 organizations and experts, representing tens of millions of people across the country, signed a Center for Biological Diversity letter to Vilsack, arguing that:
“The United States [must] take a leading role in reducing food system emissions with strategies that address both production and consumption of animal-based foods.”
The letter also raised an often-overlooked reality of climate change strategy: “Even if the energy sector immediately became climate-neutral, we still would not be able to achieve the reductions necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change without reducing meat and dairy consumption.”
Today’s solutions must meet the scale of our challenges. The global and local environmental crises we face demand immediate and comprehensive policy reform. Shifting subsidies to sustainable agriculture practices, diversifying food production to support fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, and promoting plant-based, alternative protein production would set us on a more sustainable path that nourishes more people.
Aligning domestic agricultural policies with global sustainability goals could pave the way for a resilient and eco-conscious food system. We need action to address the U.N.’s goals, and we need it now.
But this year’s Farm Bill negotiations have hit a standstill. Instead of passing a new bill in 2023, Congress pushed through an extension of the 2018 Farm Bill. Now, in 2024, renewed energy and advocacy are necessary to reinvigorate Farm Bill discussions on Capitol Hill. This is a moment for policymakers to step up, drive change and steer policy decisions toward a healthier planet, an equitable food system, and a sustainable future for all.
Alexandra Bookis is senior manager of U.S. Government Affairs at Farm Sanctuary.
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