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The Global Food System

The Problem

The Link

The novel coronavirus pandemic has shed a light on the connections between human and animal rights, health, and wellbeing, and it has also created opportunities to reenvision our relationships with each other, other beings, and our life-sustaining planet.

Worldwide, more than 72 billion land animals, and more than 1.2 trillion aquatic animals, are killed to become food each year. Most of these animals are forcibly bred, separated from their families, confined in cruel conditions, and suffer immeasurably before they are killed—usually in ways that cause enormous pain and distress.

Industrialized farms and factories often rely on workers recruited from communities of color, migrant communities, and economically and environmentally impoverished areas worldwide. As a result of the violence inherent to the industry, workers are subjected to excessive physical and psychological injuries.

Despite existing laws, women and children who labor in meatpacking in the US and abroad are also at increased risk for sexual harassment and violence.

Undocumented slaughterhouse workers recruited from immigrant communities are sometimes subjected to terrifying raids, arrest, and deportation—particularly after they raise concerns about work conditions or animal welfare.

Disease Risk

Approximately 75% of new and emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. These diseases originate in live animal markets, factory farms, or other environments that compromise the rights, health, and wellbeing of animals and workers. Diseases can spread rapidly, and they can become deadly, as seen in the case of COVID-19, SARS, and other viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases.

People living with malnutrition and chronic diseases are at greatest risk for severe illness associated with new and emerging infectious diseases.

Current trends in production and consumption also contribute to the chronic disease pandemic associated with a global transition from historically plant-based fare to meat-based economies. People living in economically and environmentally impoverished areas are disproportionately vulnerable to these diseases, which include heart disease, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer, among other chronic illnesses.

The Climate Crisis and Environmental Injustice

The production and consumption of meat and dairy products is a major contributor to climate change, which disproportionately affects people living in poverty around the world.

In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that the meat and dairy sector was one of the top contributors to serious environmental problems, including climate change.

Factory farms, in particular, are responsible for environmental injustices against vulnerable human communities, including polluting their air, water, and soil. Industry is commonly exempted from regulations that would otherwise protect these communities.

Using animals for food production also fuels global hunger, both because of the link between climate change and food insecurity and because land, water, and soil are more efficiently used to grow grains, beans, and many other plant-based foods. Large corporate production systems commonly violate the sovereignty of local communities committed to sustainable farming strategies.

We can create a food system in which everyone can be healthy and thrive.

The Promise

When the World Is a Phoenix Zone

Food is a basic need for humans and all other life on the planet. The current food production system, however, creates more problems than it solves. It does not need to be this way. We envision the world’s human population nourished primarily by plants, supported by governments that implement programs and policies that value social and environmental justice above corporate profits.

Food production systems, uniquely fashioned by and for communities based on their social and environmental ecologies, will promote health, wellbeing, and the opportunity to thrive at every step of the process. No food production worker will be subjected to physically or emotionally toxic conditions of employment, nor will they need to travel far from their loved ones for months at a time in order to help provide for them. Animals will be free from the harms of coerced labor and death at the hands of humans, and of the effects of human encroachment into their habitats.

By respecting the rights of all humans to nourishment and to nontoxic means of meeting their individual, family, and community needs, and by respecting the rights of animals to be free from human use and to live in environments conducive to their physical and psychological needs, we can also reduce the risk of disease and establish conditions for natural systems to rebalance. Humans can do this; with your help, this vision can become a reality.

Our Response Toward Effective Solutions

Research and Analysis

Although much of the conversation about the global food market has centered on demand, supply-side factors—including public-private partnerships—also drive meat and dairy production, particularly in regions that are ill-equipped to address a rise in infectious and chronic diseases.

Often, factory farms and slaughterhouses are introduced into communities despite public opposition. Many existing policies and partnerships between governments, industry, and some large foundations promote meat and dairy production rather than healthful and more sustainable fruit, vegetable, bean, and whole grain production that respects the rights and labor of farmworkers and the needs of communities.

At the same time, in many places around the world, people who have eaten meat-based diets are moving to plant-based diets. Norms and values are shifting, and international bodies like the United Nations have called for a global shift to a diet free of meat and dairy products. Some communities are beginning to push back against corporate greed.

There is general consensus within the medical community—as articulated by international health organizations, medical societies, and leaders and experts in the field—that humans benefit most from a plant-based diet, and that such a diet has been shown to reduce public health costs, lower risks of chronic diseases, and decrease the risk for infectious diseases and pandemics. These findings are of critical importance to vulnerable and marginalized communities disproportionately affected by these conditions.

Education, Advocacy, Coalition Building, and Policy and Practice Change

The importance of the interdependence between human, animal, and planetary health is gaining traction as a key principle of public health policy. One example is the One Health concept. Formally introduced around 2004, the One Health concept is an approach that advances an interdisciplinary, multi-sectoral strategy to optimize health for people, animals, and our shared planet.

However, the current iteration of the One Health approach does not adequately reflect the principle of interspecies justice or rights-based approaches, including respect for the intrinsic value of human and nonhuman beings. For example, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention merely frames the One Health approach as a strategy for preventing human populations from contracting and spreading animal-borne diseases.

One of our public policy priorities is to ensure that the principle of interspecies justice and rights-based approaches are formally part of the One Health concept and that a “Just One Health” approach is reflected in the policy recommendations of intergovernmental organizations such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Program. Additionally, we are working to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals include a One Health approach centered on rights, health, and wellbeing.

Through tactical research, direct outreach, coalition building, and advocacy-oriented scholarship, we are also working with leaders to ensure that Just One Health approach is incorporated in federal, state, and municipal policy. One example is US legislation that focuses on the prevention of future pandemics by banning certain forms of animal trafficking. The Preventing Future Pandemics Act would direct the State Department to work with international partners to close down wildlife markets and trade.

We inform and support these efforts and also call upon policymakers to go further by addressing the pandemic potential that is created in factory farms, slaughterhouses, and other food production industries that exploit people and animals. Additionally, we advocate for an end to public funding streams that maintain these exploitative systems through subsidies, export assistance, and regulatory exemptions.

Our research and analysis shows that there are clear pivot points that can be influenced by strategic outreach, diverse coalitions of stakeholders, and scalable, evidence-based interventions. Through the use of early metrics and key partnerships, and the engagement of policymakers and other leaders, we believe it is possible to achieve systems-level reforms within international, governmental, nongovernmental, and corporate entities. Join us.

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