Hidden cost of feeding grain to farm animals to hit $1.32tn a year

Bibi van der Zee
For every 100 calories of human edible cereals fed to farm animals, just 17-30 calories enter the human food chain as milk or meat, say campaigners. Photograph: Diego Giudice/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Our habit of feeding human foods, such as grain and soya, to farm animals will cost us $1.32tn (£1tn) a year by 2050 globally, according to environmental campaigners.

The hidden costs of the industrial farming system are vast, and urgently need to be brought into clear focus, Peter Stevenson of Compassion in World Farming told the Extinction and Livestock conference in London. “There’s a worrying disconnect between the retail price of food and the true cost of production. As a result, food produced at great environmental cost can appear to be cheaper than more sustainably produced alternatives.”

“Cheap food is something we pay for three times, once at the checkout, again in tax subsidies and again in the enormous clean up cost to our health and environment,” his colleague Philip Lymbery pointed out.

We are paying for soil erosion, water pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, and a multitude of other impacts which are passed on to the public by farmers and the sector, the conference heard. For example, our current rate of soil loss costs £400bn a year globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has estimated that water pollution in six EU states alone costs €2bn-5bn a year; and according to the European Environment Agency the current rate of biodiversity loss is reducing global GDP by 3% every year.

Feeding grain to farm animals is a particularly egregious practice, argued Stevenson. It is inherently wasteful of calories: for every 100 calories of human edible cereals fed to farm animals, just 17-30 calories enter the human food chain as milk or meat. Using publicly available and peer-reviewed data Stevenson calculated that, in terms of wasted food and calories, this single practice will cost $1.32tn a year by 2050.

But there seems to be little appetite for radical change from governments. “With all the knowledge that we have, why can we still not get the right governance decisions? Why do we continuously do the wrong things?” asked Karl Falkenberg, ex-director general at the EC’s environment department. “We do need bloody noses before we collectively start modifying systems and that doesn’t seem a very intelligent system of governance.”

Governments are still in thrall to the argument from the giant agribusiness companies that “we need to feed the world”, argued Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute, who points out that actually we already produce enough food to feed the world’s population. “We produce twice as much as we need. Who says we need more? It is always the agribusinesses.”

The conference, attended by a broad mixture of scientists and campaigners, but also representatives from multinationals such as McDonalds, Tesco, Compass and Sodexo, would, many hoped, be the beginning of a new movement and voice to challenge the status quo.

“This is a time of opportunity in which broad alliances can be formed,” said Olivier de Schutter, ex-UN food special rapporteur and now head of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. “I am quite pessimistic about the current trend but I am hopeful that a meeting such as this one is the beginning of the end of what we’ve witnessed over the past 40 years.”

  • This article was corrected on 7 October 2017. Due to an editing error, the headline gave the incorrect figure of $1bn instead of $1.32tn, while the intro incorrectly converted $1,323bn into £1bn.
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