A new report has found that the most environmentally damaging type of farming – beef and dairy – receives the biggest subsidies, but says reforming the support system so it works for the planet, not against it, could be a “game-changer”.
The UN report says that almost 90 per cent of the financial support for agriculture is “harmful” and that it is high time wealthy countries started turning off the money taps on which the “outsized” meat and dairy industry relies.
Currently $540 billion is paid to farmers around the world every year – including large corporate operations – a figure expected to hit $1.8 trillion by 2030. That is an underestimate, however, given the report was based on the 88 countries for which reliable data was available. Since agriculture is responsible for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, 70 per cent of biodiversity loss and 80 per cent of deforestation, the cost to the natural world of these subsidies is immeasurably higher.
If the money were instead put towards funding more sustainable and environmentally friendly initiatives, such as supporting healthy plant-based foods and small farmers, then benefits could include lowering global temperatures, restoring nature and helping to end global poverty. As the title of the report makes clear, such a transformation presents a “multibillion-dollar opportunity”.
The report’s author, Marco Sanchez, deputy director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which published the report with the UN Development Programme and the UN Environment Programme, highlighted the extent to which dealing with the climate emergency hinged on tackling the vested interests that control what we eat.
“Current support to farms needs transforming for today’s realities,” he said. “For instance, the US is now aligning to the Paris climate agreement, which is very welcome, but there is no way they can achieve those climate goals if they don’t tackle the food industries.”
“Harmful” activities, which included the distortion of import tariffs and offering price incentives for certain livestock, had the result of encouraging people in richer countries to eat more meat and people in poorer countries to eat less well. “If you are not promoting fruits and vegetables, then in relative terms it is very expensive for the consumer to eat healthily,” he added. “That’s why two billion people in the world cannot afford a healthy diet.”
“This report is a wake-up call for governments around the world to rethink agricultural support schemes to make them fit for purpose to transform our agri-food systems and contribute to the four betters: better nutrition, better production, better environment and a better life,” said Qu Dongyu, the director-general of the FAO.