OXFORD: The global food system is in disarray. Animal agriculture is a major driver of global heating, and as many as 12 million deaths from heart disease, stroke, cancers and diabetes are each year connected to eating the wrong things, like too much red and processed meat and too few fruits and vegetables.
Unless the world can slash the amount of animal products in its food system and embrace more plant-based diets, there is little chance of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change and mounting public health problems.
Agricultural subsidies help prop up a food system that is neither healthy nor sustainable.
Worldwide, more than US$200 billion of public money (that is, money collected through taxes) is given to farmers every year in direct transfers, usually with the intention of supporting national food production and supply. This might not be a problem in itself – after all, we all need to eat.
But the way governments provide subsidies at the moment exacerbates the health and environmental issues of food production. That’s one of the findings of a new study published in Nature Communications by my colleague Florian Freund and me.
WHAT AGRICULTURAL SUBSIDIES ARE SPENT ON
According to our analysis, about two-thirds of all agricultural transfer payments worldwide come without any strings attached. Farmers can use them to grow what they like.
In practice, this means every fifth dollar is used to raise meat, and every tenth dollar to make dairy products – the kinds of foods farmers have grown used to producing but which emit disproportionate amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and which are also linked to dietary risks such as heart disease and certain cancers.
Farmers use another third of these payments to grow staple crops such as wheat and maize, and crops used for producing sugar and oil.