Eating our Way to Extinction: Why COP28 Must Tackle Overconsumption

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Dr Tracey Jones, Global Director of Food Business at Compassion in World Farming, appeals to policymakers attending COP28 to address the impact of overconsumption on agriculture, biodiversity and the environment.

With summer 2023 likely to be remembered for reports of wildfires, intense heat, floods and even summer snow in Europe, there is an urgency to the climate crisis that surely can’t be ignored.  Action must be taken NOW and thinking about what food we produce and eat is an important, positive step we can all take, and which should be top of the agenda at COP28.

The climate, nature, and health emergency we face is undoubtedly caused by multiple factors, but globally, academics agree that a major contributor is intensive animal farming. The United Nations in 2016, reported that food production, when not sustainably managed, is a major driver of biodiversity loss and polluter of air, fresh water and oceans, as well as a leading source of soil degradation and greenhouse gas emissions.[1] The way we produce food also contributes to antimicrobial resistance[2] and non-communicable diseases, as well as emerging and foodborne diseases. It creates poor conditions for workers and a vulnerability to price squeezing for farmers and suppliers, but most importantly it means farm animals are kept in cruel, inhumane conditions.

The sheer scale of agriculture as it stands, with 92 billion animals being produced – and rising year on year – is continuing to have a devastating impact on animal welfare and the environment.  Collectively we cannot continue to do what we are doing and increase the numbers of animals raised in industrial systems if we want to have a humane, sustainable food system and a healthy planet.

The latest Eurobarometer poll, which is based on 26,376 interviews in all EU countries conducted between 2 and 26 March 2023, showed that 84% of Europeans surveyed want the welfare of farmed animals to be better protected in their country; a huge majority of Europeans (89%) supports a ban on individual cages for farmed animals and more than half of Europeans surveyed (60%) were also willing to be pay more for welfare-friendly products.

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In the recently published report More Money, More Meat, Compassion in World Farming showed for the first time which countries were overconsuming animal-sourced foods; it was largely, wealthy ones. It also stated by how much these countries should reduce consumption to meet the EAT-Lancet Planetary Health Diet target of 12% of calories in their diet from meat, fish, dairy, and eggs.  This aims to provide healthy diets from sustainable food systems by 2050. 

Unless we wake up and act now to reduce this calamitous overconsumption, it will simply be too late.

In the richest countries we are, quite literally, eating our way to our own extinction. Our insatiable appetite for cheap meat and other animal-sourced foods is damaging our health, causing immense animal cruelty and killing our planet. 

Unless we wake up and act now to reduce this calamitous overconsumption, it will simply be too late. Responsibility lies with these richer nations to take immediate action through national policies to help combat their impact in driving the climate, health and nature emergencies.  

The only way we can secure our future is to move away from factory farming and create a global food system that benefits animals, people and our planet – reducing our overconsumption of animal-sourced foods is a vital part of that.

The biggest single waste of food is feeding human-edible crops to industrial livestock.

The biggest single waste of food is feeding human-edible crops to industrial livestock. Cereals, soya and palm are fed to intensively reared livestock, who convert them inefficiently into meat, milk and eggs. Protein conversion ranges from as low as 4 percent for beef, to 25% for eggs.[3] In addition, almost a fifth of the world’s total catch of wild fish is processed into fishmeal and fish oil, the majority of which are used to feed farmed fish.[4] Through this process, enough food to feed four billion people is wasted. Enough to sustain more than half of humanity today.

At the same time two billion men, women and children are overweight or obese[5], with poor diets being responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor[6]. The overconsumption of meat, dairy and eggs in developed regions exceeds both dietary guidelines and new planetary diet guidelines.  The World Obesity Federation, a partner to the World Health Organisation, predicts over half the world’s population will be either overweight or have obesity by 2035, while the economic impact of a high BMI could reach US $4.32 trillion annually if current trends continue and policy inertia around the disease remains in place[7].  Obesity costs the NHS in the UK around £6.5 billion a year and is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer, according to the Department of Health and Social Care[8]. Similarly, according to Public Health England cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for 17.9 million deaths each year, 31% of all global deaths.  CVD is often triggered by obesity and treatments for it cost the NHS £7.4 billion a year in the UK alone.[9]  Only drastic changes to our food system and what we eat can improve this.

Food businesses have a key role to play in effecting change at scale.  Some have already made positive steps to transform their supply chains, realising the impact of intensive farming on animals and the environment. There is now a global trend for cage-free eggs and to date 600 businesses in the US and Europe have signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment which calls for better welfare standards for chickens reared for meat.

Taking this action aligns food businesses with what is expected of them by many consumers.  In YouGov research[10] commissioned by Compassion in World Farming, 14,147 adults aged 18+ across 12 markets expressed their views on the consumption of animal-sourced foods. Of UK respondents, nearly a third (31%) agreed that retailers/and or food providers need to help society to reduce its meat consumption by innovating, (including creating or improving the availability of plant-based alternatives), and 22% said that they needed to help by reducing the meat on offer through portion control or the quantity of meat put into products etc. 

The reasons given by those people in the survey who agreed that a reduction in meat consumption was necessary varied: 55% said it should be reduced for environmental considerations, 54% said it was for human health, but the largest number, at 59%, said it was necessary for animal welfare reasons.

Reducing the number of animals in the supply chain would definitely help. For example, Compassion has estimated that if 500 tonnes of chicken meat were removed from the supply chain (and 500 tonnes of chicken is a drop in the ocean when considering global chicken production) it would have the following impact:

  • Avoid the emission of 5,300 tonnes of CO2 eq. This is the same amount of CO2eq emissions as 880 airplanes flying from London to Paris.
  • Avoid the use of around 550 hectares of land. This is the same surface area as around 780 football pitches.
  • Avoid the use of around 700,000 m3 of water. This is the same amount as used in 278 Olympic swimming pools.
  • Remove around 300,000 chickens from the supply chain. (Based on Average Retail Product Weight of 1.676kg).

To achieve a reduction in meat consumption, individual choices include:

  • Eating less meat/dairy/eggs and ensuring that any consumed are from higher welfare systems, supported through better labelling to help consumers make informed choices.
  • Consuming a healthier diet incorporating more fruits, vegetables and legumes. (When the YouGov survey asked people how they could reduce their meat consumption, 37% of UK respondents said it could be achieved by eating more vegetables, pulses and lentils, followed by 36% who preferred to eat meat less frequently, and 32% who proposed introducing meat-free days into their week).
  • Eating balanced plant-based meals (blended products or replacements) remembering, whether you eat meat or plant-based alternatives, any processed products should be eaten in moderation for a healthy diet.
  • Supporting other solutions that meet the desires of meat eaters without harming animals – both of which should be supported by policy makers: 
  • Precision fermentation – a refined form of brewing, a means of multiplying microbes to create specific products. It has been used for many years to produce drugs and food additives but now, scientists are developing what would be a new generation of staple foods.
  • Cultured meats – now approved with two suppliers in the US, as well as in Singapore, these products will inevitably extend to other countries.
Compassion in World Farming


It is vital that society adopts a more sustainable diet; one that consumes less but higher welfare animal-sourced products, supplemented by more plant-based foods.

It is vital that society adopts a more sustainable diet; one that consumes less but higher welfare animal-sourced products, supplemented by more plant-based foods. Another necessary step in successfully reducing the prominence of intensive farming is an active move towards a more regenerative food system – true nature-friendly farming that grows food and agricultural products in a way that mimics nature, increasing the biology in the field and building soils by putting animals back on the land. This would mean animals, people and planet working in harmony together – with nature and not against it. 

Chicken is one of the most commonly eaten protein sources in the world, with many birds living in unsustainable and cruel conditions on intensive farms. The vast majority are fast-growing breeds with inherent health problems, reared in overcrowded sheds and unable to express natural behaviours. That is why Compassion is calling on all companies to join the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) to improve the lives of billions of chickens raised for meat each year. To date, over 600 companies across the US and Europe have signed up to the BCC to look at their supply chains and make positive changes to transform the market and make higher welfare the new baseline.

Balancing welfare improvements with the multitude of other priorities companies face, can be challenging – but it can be done – especially when companies adopt a positive attitude seeking mitigation and solution strategies. 

Norwegian producer, Norsk Kylling, is a prime example of a business that has achieved it; Norsk Kylling has converted 100% of its chicken production to the higher welfare criteria of the Better Chicken Commitment and has successfully combined this move with sustainability benefits. Its ‘Green value chain’ project has seen the company adopt a holistic approach to its production, switching from a faster growing Ross bird to the slower growing Hubbard chicken which led to a 1% decline in its carbon footprint. Norsk Kylling has also seen lower feed consumption in its rearing and layer farm production, reduced mortality and reduced transport needs. Its success demonstrates that animal welfare, sustainable food production and profitability can all be achieved simultaneously in broiler chicken production. 

Many food companies are moving in the right direction, taking their responsibility seriously and making active changes to their supply systems, for more nature-friendly, sustainable food.  But they can’t do it alone. Governments need to support the move towards healthier diets and regenerative farming practices to really drive the required level of change if the current climate and health crisis is to be stopped in its tracks.

Incontrovertibly the planet is at breaking point and our food system is failing. Addressing what we eat and how it is produced will help to alleviate the pressures our planet is under. Ending factory farming would make a huge difference. It is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, land use change, deforestation and biodiversity loss, not to mention the source of immense suffering to millions of sentient beings. 

It is the responsibility of governments, businesses and individuals to make this happen, but change must happen NOW, before it’s too late.

Incontrovertibly the planet is at breaking point and our food system is failing. Addressing what we eat and how it is produced will help to alleviate the pressures our planet is under.

Sources

[1] UNEP Global Environmental Outlook 2019 op.cit.

[2] World Health Organisation, 2011 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2011/whd 20110406/en/

[3] Alexander et al (2016) Protein efficiency of meat and dairy production. Human appropriation of land for food: the role of diet. Global Environmental Change. Taken from Our World in Data

[4] FAO (n.d.) Main ethical issues in fisheries. [ONLINE] Available at http://www.fao.org/3/y6634e/y6634e04.html

[5] Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. “More than 2 billion people overweight or obese, new study finds: Massive global research project reveals 30 percent of the world’s population affected by weight problems.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 June 2017.

[6] GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators, Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systemic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017, The Lancet 393(10184), April 2019. https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736(19)30041-8/fulltext

[7] https://www.statnews.com/2023/03/02/obesity-costs-4-trillion-2035/

[8] https://healthmedia.blog.gov.uk/2023/06/07/government-plans-to-tackle-obesity-in-england/

[9] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/health-matters-preventing-cardiovascular-disease/health-matters-preventing-cardiovascular-disease.

[10] All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 14147 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 12th – 28th April 2022.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all country adults (aged 18+).ReplyReply AllForward

Dr Tracey Jones has been the Director of Compassion in World Farming’s Food Business programme since 2013, overseeing its evolution and expansion, working with the world’s leading food companies across Europe, the US and Asia-Pacific. Compassion in World Farming aim is to achieve transformational change for farm animals and reduce the reliance on animal sourced foods, whilst encouraging a shift towards regenerative nature-friendly farming systems. To date over 2.5 billion animals are set to lead better lives each year through the commitments of our corporate partners. Tracey has 20 years applied animal welfare research experience and offers companies a high level of technical expertise. She is passionate about making a real, lasting difference, for the welfare of animals reared for food and believes in the power of big business to effect change at scale and speed when committed to do so. She also believes in the need to rebalance the food system to address the global climate, nature and health crisis and build a global system that is fit for future.

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