Agriculture and health are intimately connected, but health remains the missing link in agricultural debates. Discussions around the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), agricultural trade and related topics rarely go beyond the well-accepted issue of food safety. In part, this may reflect a lack of awareness of the various, more profound, linkages that exist.
In a recent discussion paper, we attempted to give a snapshot view of the main impacts agriculture has on public health, in a way that should be even understandable to Brussels politicians. Livestock lurks big behind each of the impacts identified.
Antibiotics use in animal agriculture is one of the two main causes of antibiotic resistance, which may plunge the world into to a ‘post-antibiotic age’ with 100 million deaths per year globally by 2050. Livestock is behind much of the prevalent food safety concerns and ‘food scares’, and linked to directly transmissible zoonotic diseases, like Q-fever, which are not captured under food safety. Animal husbandry methods (e.g. grass-fed vs feedlot) impact on the nutritional quality of food. And last, but certainly not least, the excessive availability of animal products have skewed our food environments towards promoting saturated fat overconsumption, while processed meat and red meat are key contributors to unhealthy diets, the single largest risk factor for the entire burden of death and disease in Europe.
The main EU agricultural lobby organisation – Copa Cogeca – has realised that the livestock question will sooner or later be on the table. Instead of offering an honest reflection on this topic, it has started the meat-promoting #livestockcounts campaign, which bemoans the decline in European meat consumption, raises concerns about climate change policy (but not climate change) and worries about ostensibly prevalent misinformation on the benefits of meat in a balanced diet, glossing over problems related to overconsumption.
My guess is that this discussion will heat up further as time goes by. From our part, EPHA will be addressing the ‘livestock question’ from a public health angle in the near future.
Nikolai Pushkarev is Policy coordinator: food environments & sustainable diets at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), partner network of Eating Better.
Their discussion paper, Agriculture and Public Health: Impacts and pathways for better coherence, can be downloaded here.