Open Letter to Member States of the United Nations

A Call for a Global Just Livestock Transition to Secure Livelihoods, Mitigate Climate Change, Improve Environment and Health

We, the undersigned, urge Member States engaged in the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) and Climate Change Conference (COP26):

1. To publicly recognise that reducing industrialised livestock* production and consumption is essential to meet the global targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Focusing on technological improvements cannot address the core problem and will only delay and deepen the engulfed climate, environmental,  health, food and nutrition security crises. 

2. To apply the principles of Just Transition** to enable a global equitable transformation within livestock production which could serve as a strong driver of job creation, social justice, poverty reduction and better public health. 

*Any animal, land or sea, raised for human consumption in large-scale industrial facilities.

**The guiding principles for Just Transition are listed in the Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all (Page 5). 2015. The International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Meeting international targets is unachievable without livestock sector transformation 

As regards land use, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, public health, livelihoods and food security, it is apparent that the business-as-usual approach of intensively raising animals for food is inconsistent with the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity and other critical international targets.1, 2 Reducing industrialised livestock production is imperative for human and planetary health.3 

Livestock production is the New Coal

Industrialised livestock production has become the most resource-intensive way to produce protein, just as coal is the most polluting way to produce energy. The livestock sector accounts for at least 14.5%4 of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is projected to account for up to 81% of the 1.5°C emissions budget by 2050 if production continues unabated.5 The recent IPCC report calls for ‘strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 [Methane] emissions’.6 Livestock production causes 32% of global anthropogenic methane emissions, almost as much as natural gas, oil and coal production (35%).7 Considering its tremendous environmental impact, industrialised livestock production has to be recognised as a major climate change contributor and addressed accordingly.

The industrialised livestock industry is one of the key contributors to climate change,8 and is linked to:

  1. Significant methane and ammonia emissions9
  2. Soil degradation, aquatic habitat destruction (both freshwater and oceanic ecosystems, via pollution and risks to wild aquatic species), air pollution, water contamination and biodiversity loss10 
  3. Tropical deforestation11
  4. Human rights violations12
  5. Loss of livelihoods and compromised food sovereignty, as well as reduced employment and poverty in rural areas 13 
  6. Global hunger14 
  7. Exacerbating a triple burden of malnutrition15 
  8. Poor working conditions in the meat processing industry16  
  9. High animal-based food consumption being detrimental to human health and increasing public health costs18, 19 
  10. Poor animal welfare standards20 
  11. Overuse of antibiotics in animals which increase the threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR)21, 22 
  12. Unsustainable agricultural expansion, land-use change, and industrial facilities (factory farming) as the main drivers of zoonotic diseases globally23  

Applying a Just Livestock Transition framework to enable an equitable transformation  

In July, a white paper on sustainable livestock was developed for the UNFSS Sustainable Livestock Cluster. Within the white paper, Sustainable Livestock Cluster Paper C: Aligning Production and Consumption was developed by some of the world’s renowned academics, civil society, health experts, small-holder farmers, investors and social justice groups. The paper highlights the necessity to resize the livestock industry, shift towards regenerative, agroecological farming systems, adopt good standards on farm animal welfare and, importantly, ensure that Just Transition principles are applied to enable this transformation. In addition, a special paper on Just Livestock Transition developed by 50by40 and its partners constitutes a cross-cutting, game-changing solution of the UN Food Systems Summit and paves the way for a fair transformation of the sector. 

Without a Just Transition, the sector will face significant losses

It is crucial to note that the failure to apply the Just Transition principles to livestock production is irrational and irresponsible.25 Climate change is a major stressor to livestock production. It will cause a negative impact by affecting the quality of feed crop and forage, water availability, animal and milk production, livestock diseases, animal reproduction, and biodiversity.26 Globally, a 7–10% decline in livestock is expected, with associated economic losses between $9.7 and $12.6 billion solely due to climate change.27 

Just Livestock Transition to generate manifold benefits for nature and people

If implemented as a priority, a Just Livestock Transition can prevent major losses and generate significant environmental, health and socio-economic benefits such as: 

  1. Implementing policy measures that facilitate a transition towards plant-rich diets could free up 75% of agricultural land28, which could be used for food production, conservation, reforestation, ecosystem restoration and other essential purposes to mitigate and adapt to climate change.29 The transition would also reduce pressure on ocean systems and species which are declining at alarming rates.
  2. Ending industrialised agricultural expansion of livestock and feed production would be incredibly beneficial to farmers, herders and other practitioners of traditional animal husbandry, who have overwhelmingly maintained sustainable, agroecological practices but whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change and sectoral intensification. It is also crucial to prevent further unsustainable animal agriculture intensification and expansion in the Global South, where increasing animal product consumption threatens the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers whom large-scale producers usually outcompete.30
  3. It is estimated that growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could increase available food calories by as much as 70%, feeding an additional four billion people.31 With around 800 million people experiencing hunger globally,32 animal products generally represent a highly inefficient use of resources when nutritious non-animal-based food options are available and accessible.
  4. Moving towards diets that rely less on animal products and more on fruits and vegetables–categorised as ‘healthy diets’ by WHO33 or ‘planetary health diets’ by the EAT-Lancet commission34–could avoid 5.1 million deaths per year by 2050,35, 36 and dramatically reduce health costs by $735 billion per year in 2050.37 If G20 countries followed the planetary health diet, the bloc’s food-related GHGs would decrease by 46% (1.7 gigatons).38
  5. A recent assessment by the International Labour Organisation and Inter-American Development Bank predicts that a transition to plant-based diets would create 15 million jobs net in Latin America and The Caribbean.39 Overall, the jobs in plant-based food production would be safer, more equitable, support gender parity and strengthen rural economies when coupled with increased public services. Also, public investments in alternative proteins and increasing their availability could help facilitate a transition and present major climate mitigation and economic opportunities with thousands of new jobs generated.40

Tailored approach to respect local realities

While Just Transition in livestock production is essential in every region and nation, the approaches must be tailored after thorough consideration of local realities and respect community rights and decision-making. As in energy production, the onus is on G20 countries to facilitate the transition in their own countries and assist others, including the countries that trade with them. Country-specific transition roadmaps developed in collaboration with farmers, workers, experts in nutrition, public health, environment, circular economy, gender,  human rights and animal welfare, as well as Indigenous Peoples and labour groups are necessary for more robust pathways to a fair transition. To enable a Just Livestock Transition, a set of global multidisciplinary policy measures have to be taken to incentivise the equitable reduction and redistribution of animal protein production and consumption. These must include a shift in public subsidies away from industrial feed and livestock production, a stronger regulatory framework to protect air, water, soil resources and track GHG emissions, along with better standards of farmed animal welfare. Changes in national dietary guidelines, public procurement rules, promotion campaigns, research & development, as well as the introduction of financial instruments to incentivize the production and consumption of more sustainable and healthy food should be considered too.

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) must address livestock

Most Paris Agreement signatory countries mention agriculture in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), with some including livestock.41 However, almost all of them urge increased production, intensification and technological ‘solutions’ while disregarding the severe implications for livelihoods, gender, public health, animal welfare and perhaps most glaringly, the realities of planetary boundaries.  Just Livestock Transition must become the cornerstone of the revised NDCs as a major climate change mitigation and adaptation strategy. Setting evidence-based targets, along with mandatory reporting, to reduce emissions from the livestock sector is critical to staying below 2°C.42 This is becoming increasingly important as we are getting closer to the next key moment of the Paris Agreement in 2025, where it is imperative that livestock production is given priority.

Just Livestock Transition must be part of the agenda of the UNFSS and COP26

As you come together for the UN Food Systems Summit in New York and Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, we, the undersigned, urge you to set the scene for a global Just Livestock Transition without which not only will the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the Convention of Biological Diversity be out of reach, but millions of farmers and supply-chain workers risk losing their livelihoods if the status quo is maintained.


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