Over 200 scientists, academics, and experts have penned an open letter to the next director general of the World Health Organization asking the WHO to prioritize reducing the scale of animal farming during their tenure. Signatories include Noam Chomsky, Suerie Moon, Frances Kissling, Peter Singer, and Mark Bittman. For me, as someone who researches the modern animal agriculture industry and its opposition, this marks a new and exciting stage in the animal-free food movement.
The first wave emerged roughly two decades ago, centered on grassroots advocacy by animal protection advocates focused on video footage from undercover investigations. Nonprofits have sent investigators to get hired by farms and slaughterhouses where they document the rampant cruelty and food safety issues. While many of these investigations have focused on factory farms, some expose the surprisingly commonplace cruelty at "humane" facilities, which has led to a strong opposition of the entire industry.
This has inspired millions of consumers to eat less or no meat, and it has sparked a huge number of reforms aimed at ending some of the industry’s most unethical practices. For example, we’ve seen food companies in North America and Europe — and now around the world — committing to end the use of cages for egg-laying hens, most of which are so small that the birds can’t even spread their wings. Now many businesses are switching to healthier chicken breeds less prone to the chronic pain common with the ultra-fast growth of modern chickens. These changes benefit animal welfare and human health directly, but they also set precedent for future changes such as corporate transitions away from animal-based protein sources.
The next wave came in just the past five to ten years with the success of companies like Hampton Creek, known for its eggless mayonnaise called Just Mayo. The product became so popular that the government-backed American Egg Board took illegal action against the company. Once those anti-competitive actions were exposed, the president of the AEB resigned. Since the controversy, food giant Unilever has launched its own eggless mayonnaise, and Hampton Creek has continued growing rapidly. Advocates have seen that for-profit corporations — with their huge scale and access to profit-driven investment — can effect change at a scale difficult for grassroots advocates to reach directly.
Two other companies, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have set their sights on the beef burger, which is recognized as a key contributor to climate change and disease. The new burgers are reconstructions of meat made from its constituents like fat, protein, and heme — the molecule that gives beef its bloody flavor — but with these ingredients harvested directly from plants. By cutting out the middleman of the animal’s body, the process not only avoids the ethical issues and many of the public health issues of animal farming, but it’s also much more efficient and curtails issues of global food waste.
Perhaps most exciting of all, a company called Memphis Meats is taking the cellular agriculture approach of growing real animal meat outside of an animal’s body. To do this, they can take a few cells painlessly from a live animal, place them in a suitable growth medium, and allow them to proliferate and form muscle fibers in the same way they would in an animal’s body. This food isn’t for sale yet, but it’s expected to hit shelves within the next ten years. It’s often called clean meat, in an homage to clean energy. A similar product, real dairy from milk proteins without the use of a cow, is expected to hit US shelves by the end of 2017.
The final pillar we’re beginning to see in the animal-free food movement — major institutions like the WHO — has its roots in a body of evidence that has been amassing for decades. As the letter to the WHO describes, studies have found that antibiotic use in livestock leads to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which are “closely associated” with resistant bacteria in humans. The majority of antibiotics are given to farmed animals, not humans, which facilitates the creation of superbugs that trigger global pandemics. Animal farming is also one of the main contributors to climate change, which is a significant health risk already recognized by the WHO. Moreover, meat consumption significantly increases rates of obesity and noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Getting institutions to take this evidence seriously is no small task, especially in countries like the US where the animal agriculture industry exerts significant control over government policy. For example, the 2015 USDA dietary guidelines failed to suggest reducing meat consumption, despite the recommendation from their scientific advisors. On the other hand, advocates have gotten governments on board in countries like China, which recommended its citizens cut meat consumption by up to 50%. We’ve also seen some major nonprofits outside animal protection take a stand, such as Greenpeace.
So it’s very exciting that the world’s largest health organization might soon acknowledge the costs of animal farming, joining one of the most important social movements of our time. I think grassroots activism will continue to be essential, but the advent of institutional change heralds an unprecedented scale of progress. Every year we wait to fix this issue, more animals suffer from cruelty, more resources are wasted by an inefficient food system, and the health of our planet and our bodies continue to deteriorate. We need global institutions to unite and take action now.
You can find the letter and a full list of signatories here.