The Global Food System
Globally, more than half a billion people still go hungry, and global hunger is rising. More than enough food is produced to feed every human being in the world, but much of it is wasted or unfairly distributed. Poverty, conflict, climate change, and other social and environmental injustices increase the risk for hunger.
At least two billion people lack access to healthy food.
The current food production system, which prioritizes meat and dairy and processed food production over sustainable and diverse fruit, vegetable, bean, and whole grain production, creates more problems than it solves.
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.
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 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.
There is general consensus within the medical community that people benefit most from a plant-based diet, and that a plant-based diet 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.
The Climate Crisis and Environmental Injustice
By emphasizing the production of meat and dairy products, the global food system is a major contributor to climate change, which disproportionately affects people living in poverty.
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 harms to 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 plant-based foods.
Often, factory farms and slaughterhouses are introduced into communities despite public opposition. Many existing policies and partnerships between governments, industry, and 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.
Fortunately, 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, and we are working to hold the United Nations to its word.
We can create a food system in which everyone can be healthy and thrive.
Toward Effective & Compassionate Solutions
Education, Advocacy, and Policy Change
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. No food production worker should be subjected to physically or emotionally toxic conditions of employment. Animals also deserve to be free of abuse and exploitation and of the effects of human encroachment into their habitats.
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.
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 One Health approach does not adequately reflect the principles of justice or primary prevention.
One of our public policy priorities is to ensure 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 work to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals include a Just One Health approach centered on rights, health, and wellbeing.
Through tactical research, direct outreach, coalition building, and advocacy-oriented scholarship, we also work with leaders to ensure that Just One Health approach is incorporated in federal 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 bolster 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.