In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated that each year 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions as well as 25% of worldwide water consumption go to the account of the meat and dairy industry, calling for an urgent need to reconsider food sources to counter climate change more efficiently. However, this considerable driving factor of climate change is all too often overlooked in the manifold discussions about how to most effectively cut down climate-damaging emissions. Consequently, the CCT in its 48th session seeked to draw attention to the important and at the same time controversial issue of mass production and consumption with regards to the meat and dairy industry.
“For this special CCT taking place in Ramadan, a time when people share a lot of meals with their loved ones, we extend an invitation to pause for a moment and reflect about our food resources”, said Rauia Toama, Head of the Science Department at the German Embassy in Cairo, in her opening remarks, thereby setting the scene for the subsequent screening of Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. The documentary follows the journey of an environmentalist who discovers that his efforts in being an environmentally conscious individual have only little effect as long as his diet includes meat and dairy. He argues that on top of the already significant emissions of the livestock itself there come emissions caused by land reclamation, fodder production, meat and dairy processing, different transportation chains as well as the extensive use of fertilizers, water and energy all contributing to a high carbon footprint of meat and dairy products. Throughout his investigations he realizes that the industry along with environmental organizations seem to be withholding this information from the public.
While the documentary contained a strong message against a meat and dairy containing diet, the three invited experts drew a more nuanced picture afterwards during a lively discussion with the audience. Dr. Hassan Abou Bakr, Professor of Biological Control at Cairo University, exclaimed at the connection between mass agriculture and the fossil fuel industry that had also been raised in the documentary: “For every calorie of food, we consume five calories of energy. The two issues can and should not be separated from each other.” He stressed that a holistic solution demands a holistic view while separating the issue of meat and dairy consumption from other issues including fossil fuels, water and externalities is bound to lead to a short-sited result.
Addressing the effectiveness of individually-lead action, Dr. Hala Barakat, Food Rights Expert, pointed out that individual decisions and choices are the way forward: “The movie follows a journey of awareness. The move maker decides that there is no point in addressing the industry, but rather the consumers, which he considers more effective in the current context.” “However”, she continued, “I didn’t understand the movie’s message as to completely refrain from eating meat and dairy products. We should rather rethink our food consumption patterns and become more responsible in what we eat.” Being asked about the Egyptian context, Dr. Hala pointed out that Egyptians had long been vegetarians: “Meat consumption was limited to once a week or to special occasions, which made for a healthier and a more sustainable diet.” Yet she highlighted the importance of food quality rather than its mere quantity. According to her, a vegetarian diet could very well be as unhealthy and unsustainable as a meat intensive diet if it was unbalanced or depending on imported mass products with a high carbon footprint.
While the movie brought forth an American perspective, Dr. Mohamed Osman, Livestock Director at Dina Farms in Egypt, shed light on the local industry. “Dina Farms, along with many other agricultural enterprises operate on reclaimed desert land, which makes them more sustainable and eco-friendly. While mass farming is a huge threat, only 10% of all agricultural activities in Egypt are considered to be mass farming, the remaining 90% are regular farming, which does not pose a threat to the environment”, he explained. He further introduced the question of food security: “There is a food gap that can only be overcome by producing more animals. It is unrealistic to assume or promote for completely eliminating the meat and dairy industry.” ”However”, he conceded, “it is necessary to take into consideration the different technologies and systems that have proven effective in making the industry more sustainable.” According to him, one way to produce more sustainably would be to use manure in energy production, creating a closed system in which both waste and emissions are kept to a minimum.
Although agreeing that agricultural practices can be made more sustainable, Dr. Hassan argued that there is no food gap, explaining that the root cause of the apparent food gap is unjust distribution of food resources, rather than the lack of them. “The system in which the food is being manufactured, distributed and consumed is a part of a bigger economic system which favors people based on class. As long as this system exists, this so-called food gap will exist”, he expanded on the importance of holistic solutions.
During the discussion, the experts did not agree on a perfect diet. However, they agreed that a diet based on locally produced food would form a cornerstone of the solution. Dr. Osman added for consideration that 80% of all resources in the industry are imported and that solely depending on local resources would drastically change the shape of the industry. Consequently, he highlighted the importance of innovation in meat and dairy production in order to make the industry more sustainable and abundant.
Having established the link between climate change and meat and dairy production, an audience member asked for concrete recommendations he and other individuals could follow. “Besides being aware of food resources and their production chains, growing your own food could drastically change your carbon footprint as well as your diet and perspective on food”, Dr. Hala answered. According to her, growing one’s own food could – on a smaller scale – even be realized in cities as different examples of urban gardening have shown. “By growing your own food you create a new sense of appreciation for the food you grow and consume along with the process”, she further elaborated. “This is a life changing experience.”
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