On World Environment Day (June 5), the usual routine is to call for the protection of ‘Nature’ — but nature isn’t defenceless. The emerging concept of planetary health characterises impacts of human-caused disruptions of Earth’s ecological systems. COVID-19 is showing us that our lives and livelihoods are intricately intertwined with these systems — and when we inflict tremendous harms on the planet, the consequences can be catastrophic.
We don’t think of the pandemic as an ecological disaster, but COVID-19 didn’t happen in a vacuum. It is a direct consequence of anthropogenic impacts on the planet. In these anthropogenic impacts, pandemics and climate change find common causes. Nowhere is this link clearer than in the food system, and particularly in our reliance on animals for protein.
Hazards of factory farming
Large-scale, industrial animal agriculture for meat, eggs, and dairy — also called factory farming — creates and exacerbates planetary health risks at every scale. Scientists at the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization estimate that it is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems.” Our need for animal protein uses vast tracts of land and quantities of water to raise those animals, to graze them, and to grow crops to feed them. It contributes more to climate change than emissions from the entire transportation sector. Wild and farmed seafood production also causes significant environmental degradation, species loss, and habitat destruction. Of course, as the names suggest, animals are also the sources of viral outbreaks of swine flu and avian flu. With regular outbreaks of these zoonotic diseases, COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last planetary health crisis caused by the close contact between humans, animals and microbes.
Expert voices ranging from the Food and Land Use Coalition, to the World Health Organization, to the EAT-Lancet Commission have all identified that diversifying protein sources away from animals is a hugely neglected intervention for human and planetary health. But with rising demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, a chorus of ‘chickpeas over chicken’ may not be enough. All over the world, companies in the exciting ‘alternative protein’ sector are making upgraded versions of meat, eggs, and dairy from plant or crop ingredients, or directly from animal cells. These foods satisfy consumers and producers without taking away their choice, because they taste the same, are used in exactly the same way, but are vastly better for planetary health. Countries like Singapore and Canada are already making alternative protein a central piece of their food security story, with an emphasis on research, entrepreneurship, and self-sufficiency.
Factory farming in India is still a small industry compared to the U.S., Brazil, or China, though it is increasingly being seen as an employment and income generator in a country with water scarcity and diminishing land holdings. We think that’s a mistake — it is imposing a 20th century industrial model. Instead, we need to build upon our strengths in agriculture and in manufacturing to create a new food system that works for farmers and is robust to systemic shocks. COVID-19 has underscored that we can scarcely afford the consequences of an inefficient protein supply. Why not completely rethink our way of producing food, and create a 21st century economy delivering plentiful, safe, and nutritious protein?
Food security and agricultural income are among our nation’s major challenges in the coming years. We should turn this crisis into an opportunity by stimulating research and entrepreneurship in alternative proteins. India was never a leader in landlines — we leapfrogged that model and built a mobile telecommunications industry that is among the cheapest and most competitive on earth. We have a similar opportunity to set aside the liabilities of industrial animal agriculture and create a smarter alternative protein industry supplying us and the rest of the world.
Varun Deshpande is Managing Director, Good Food Institute India; Rajesh Kasturirangan is co-founder, Socratus