Tuesday, May 5, 2020 - Experts have said we have to substantially reduce our meat production and consumption to avoid dangerous levels of climate change and improve population health. As people become increasingly aware of the environmental cost of raising livestock for food, plant-based diets are being embraced by the mainstream, and alternative milks have gone from fringe request to flying off the shelves. Meanwhile, livestock farmers fear a war on their very ways of life.
But a change in tides doesn't have to spell the end of meat and dairy farmers' livelihoods, Miyoko Schinner, owner of the plant-based dairy company, Miyoko’s Creamery, and others argue. She is among a wave of business owners intent on helping farmers transition to more environmentally friendly types of agriculture.
The Swedish oat-milk brand Oatly was one of the early corporate pioneers of this farmer transition movement when it began supporting a dairy farmer named Adam Arnesson to switch to growing more oats in 2017. Oatly used the oats to make a specially branded line of its milk and other animal-free dairy products. The company monitored the reduction in climate emissions from the farm as it completed the transition: Arnesson decreased his emissions and increased his profits.
He said his farm still had a small amount of livestock but a much greater diversity of crops now. "The challenge [for me] is to maintain a truly sustainable farm and of course include other important values like biodiversity, social and economic factors. I hope and believe more farmers will follow."
The project is changing perceptions of a company previously seen by some as "anti-farming," Oatly's sustainability director Carina Tollmar told HuffPost. "We've now got a new project helping 10 other farms diversify and had 100 farmers expressing an interest in being involved. It was a positive surprise that so many wanted to be involved with an Oatly project. We want to help farmers."
Similar initiatives are cropping up across the U.S. The Certified Transitional program developed in part by Kellogg's Kashi brand has been designed to support farmers to transition from conventional to organic methods of farming. Organic farmers are not allowed to use chemical pesticides, antibiotics or growth hormones on their farms, and no chemicals can be used on the land for three years before the farm can be certified organic. The program enables farmers to label their produce with a transitional mark in the meantime, which helps them claim a premium from the market to support their conversion.
The NGO is championing the success of former chicken farmer Mike Weaver in West Virginia, who is now using barns that formerly housed 45,000 chickens to grow industrial hemp. Weaver says, compared to raising chickens, his hemp plantation uses around half the water, employs five times as many people, and will be much more profitable once he's fully scaled up.
"The narrative is that we [animal rights and environmental campaigners] are coming in and taking away jobs and livelihoods," Leah Garcés, president of Mercy for Animals, told HuffPost. "It is a very negative view. We just want to create a better and more compassionate food and farming system."
It makes sense for farmers to get involved with changes in the food system, said Sanah Baig, chief of staff at The Good Food Institute, given concerns about the contribution of livestock farming to climate change, as well as the growth in sales of alternatives to animal products. The global plant-based meat sector is predicted to be worth $85 billion by 2030, a huge jump from sales of less than $5 billion in 2018.
"Diversification has always been a fact of life for farmers as markets and consumer preferences have evolved," Baig told HuffPost. "Now, they increasingly have to think about how they can maximize the land, resources, labor, and markets they have access to in order to keep their businesses thriving while also demonstrating that they can be a key part of the solution to climate change."
It's a lot for farmers to take on, which is why Miyoko Schinner wants to show both consumers and farmers that food companies can be friend, not foe, in making a transition to more planet and animal-friendly farming. "We want to help them take part in the new food economy," she said.
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