Until a few months ago, the animal protein sector looked destined to share the fate of the tobacco industry. Meat and dairy were the new global pariah and, like a tired boxer, the sector was backed into a corner being pummelled by successive claims that if consuming animal protein wasn’t killing you, then farming animals was destroying the planet.
But in recent weeks science and reality have challenged that narrative.
A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation study shows that, globally, more than a billion people depend on livestock for their livelihoods, nutrition and health.
Another international study, published in the science magazine Animal Frontiers, concludes that “regular consumption of meat appears to bestow multiple and important nutritional benefits”, and that expanding animal production is the most readily available way to nourish the world.
Earlier this year more than 900 scientists at a conference in Dublin called for an end to the “zealotry” in the promotion of veganism.
The resulting Dublin Declaration called for an acknowledgment that livestock systems are too precious to fall victim to “simplification reductionism”.
On another level, farmers in the Netherlands are fighting plans by their government to buy out 3000 farms to meet European Union nitrogen and greenhouse gas emission targets.
The protesters also spawned a new farmers political party with representation in the Dutch parliament.
The second-largest exporter in the world of agricultural products by value, the Netherland was headlined in a 2017 National Geographic article as “This tiny country [that] feeds the world”.
On the other side, some plant-based protein companies are posting huge financial losses as consumers are turned off by the taste and texture of their product, while Food Navigator reports investor resistance to firms in the sector trying to raise capital.
A report in New Scientist magazine cites research analysing the cradle-to-grave life cycle of lab-grown meat as 25 times worse for the climate than regular beef production, due to the energy intensity required for its manufacturing
Alternative protein production methods will become more efficient and taste and texture will improve, making these fillips for animal products little more than an interlude in the constant attacks.
But they show that it is not all one-way traffic – that science, reality and common sense offer constructive counter arguments.
The biggest challenge for governments introducing greenhouse gas reduction policies was always going to be public resistance to the ensuing economic and lifestyle impacts, as is playing out in the Netherlands.
That has been accentuated by global food shortages and rampant inflation, hardly conducive to policies that, given current technology and limitations, restrict food production.
For some time now the animal protein sector has been seen as a soft target for policy and decision-makers seeking quick gains and populist plaudits for addressing climate change.
For example, multiple schools, universities and councils in the United Kingdom have decreed that only vegan meals will be served.
Certainly greenhouse gas emissions from livestock need to be reduced and the environmental impact lessened, and that is happening – a factor critics often overlook or ignore.
But as scientists are proving, ceasing livestock farming would come with nutritional, economic and socio-cultural consequences that cannot be ignored.
Finally the fight back is underway.