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Dietary Drawdown: Addressing the Leading Role of Animal Agriculture in Fueling the Climate Crisis by Enacting the Plant Based Treaty

Michael Swistara


  • Despite a leading cause of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions, animal agriculture receives little attention in Climate Change talks such as Conference of the Parties (“COP”) meetings.
  • Plant Based Treaty (“PBT”) places food systems at the forefront of Climate Change strategy, proposing amendments to the Paris Agreement negotiated by UN Climate Change Conference by calling for 1) halting new factory farms, slaughterhouses, and fish farms, (2) funding transitions to plant-based agriculture, and (3) restoring environments harmed by animal agriculture.
  • Climate-vulnerable nations, those who made advances in international animal welfare law (India, New Zealand) or spend smaller portions of their GDP on agriculture (Austria), or published stronger Nationally Determined Contributions reducing emissions under the Paris Agreement (Norway) provide a roadmap to collaboratively decreasing the impact of animal agriculture.
Dietary Drawdown: Addressing the Leading Role of Animal Agriculture in Fueling the Climate Crisis by Enacting the Plant Based Treaty

Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that animal agriculture is responsible for between 14.5 and 18 percent of anthropogenic GHG emissions. Animal agriculture depletes carbon sinks by cutting forests and tilling soil on a massive scale, fossil fuels are burned at all steps, from making mineral fertilizers to transporting live animals for slaughter, and the industry is a leading polluter of some of the most potent and dangerous GHGs such as methane and nitrous oxide. The industry is also the cause of tremendous animal suffering, local water and air pollution, and heightened pandemic risk.

Any attempt to truly drawdown GHG emissions and respond to the climate crisis must include a conversation about changes to our food system, and yet mentions of animal agriculture remain largely absent from Conference of the Parties (“COP”) meetings. World leaders have gone beyond mere ignorance to explicit denialism, as exemplified by Tom Vilsack—current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former President of the U.S. Dairy Export Council—saying at COP26 that Americans can continue to eat the same amount of meat. The United Kingdom similarly deleted research, prepared as part of its net zero emissions strategy, that recommended encouraging a reduction in the consumption of—or a tax on—high-carbon foods from animals. Other critics have pointed to the hypocrisy of serving highly carbon-intensive foods at COP meetings, as animal agriculture is left out of the conversation but not left off of the menu.

In April 2021, climate organizers came together in response to the lack of acknowledgement of animal agriculture’s role in the climate crisis, creating the Plant Based Treaty (“PBT”), a grassroots effort to put food systems at the forefront of the climate conversation. The PBT proposes a range of policies to supplement the Paris Agreement that would facilitate a global transition away from animal agriculture. This approach is grounded in three enumerated demand principles: (1) relinquish our current system by halting new factory farms, slaughterhouses, and fish farms, (2) redirect funding to assist transitions to plant-based agriculture, and (3) restore environments harmed by animal agriculture..

PBT organizers began by consulting with the Chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative (“FF-NPT”), another proposed supplement to the Paris Agreement that would impose supply-side restrictions on fossil fuel energy production. International relations scholars Peter Newell and Andrew Simms have charted a suggested course of action for the FF-NPT, beginning with support from sub-state and non-state actors before moving up to enlisting support from climate-vulnerable nation states to bring the FF-NPT to the global stage.

Newell and Simms’ suggestion mirrors the path that many prior international agreements have taken. For example, the Arms Trade Treaty was conceived of by NGOs like Oxfam and Amnesty International before being adopted by a majority of UN member states a decade later. Several of the climate pledges adopted at COP26 in Glasgow were first pushed by non-state actors and NGOs. Prior to the Global Methane Pledge, the need for action on methane emissions was brought to the fore by a coalition of scientists and activists. Climate scientists prepared the necessary data and analysis to sound the alarm on methane, while NGOs worked to push the issue at international meetings and played an active role in drafting early versions of the pledge. Likewise, the Deforestation Pledge, a commitment made by more than 100 countries at COP26 to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, came on the heels of years of scholars and advocates alike taking note of rising deforestation concerns and flagging failed promises by private industries.

In order to go from virtually no mention of animal agriculture at COP26 to international action on food system change, the PBT can draw lessons from prior international treaties and pledges. First, PBT organizers should continue building grassroots support. It will not be a quick or easy process—it took over two-and-a-half decades before adopted language at a COP meeting included explicit reference to the need to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels. Second, PBT organizers can partner with state and local governments as co-signers. Third, receptive nation states can raise the issue internationally.

Currently, the majority of organizations that have signed on to the PBT are animal protection NGOs. Expanding this with outreach to more traditional environmental NGOs with both clout in the climate movement as well as having the infrastructure and capacity to host booths at international climate meetings is an essential next step. Similarly, gaining support from key thought leaders like journalist, environmentalist, and author Bill McKibben, author, social activist, and filmmaker Naomi Klein, or academic, science broadcaster, and environmental activist David Suzuki (all of whom have signed on to the FF-NPT) will bolster the PBT’s message and credibility.

The next step will be to gain support at the local and regional level. Cities like Los Angeles, Barcelona, and Vancouver could be great places to start, as each has signed on to the FF-NPT. As urban communities with little-to-no animal agriculture sited within their limits, global cities can adopt new food procurement policies that support the goals of the PBT. Organizers could then scale up to states or provinces before partnering with national governments. Proposed legislation, ranging from the District of Columbia’s Healthy Hospitals Amendment Act to California’s moratorium on confined animal feeding operations, are promising entry points into conversations about various tenets of the PBT that could be introduced at the sub-state level.

There are several routes to consider in bringing the demands of the PBT to the international community. One involves working with the most climate-vulnerable nations, such as small island states like the Marshall Islands. A second involves seeking support from countries that have played a role in international animal welfare law, such as India or New Zealand, as the first countries to ban the live export of farmed animals (one such demand).

A third alternative could involve partnering with European countries that either spend a relatively small portion of their GDP on agriculture (e.g., Austria) or that have taken steps towards publishing renewed and stronger Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement (e.g., Norway). One noteworthy case of unilateral action is the Netherlands announcement in 2021 of a €25 billion plan to “radically reduce” the number of livestock in the country. As the country with the highest concentration of farmed animals in all of Europe, the Dutch government cited increasing concerns about animal waste and local pollution as the primary justification for this policy. While climate change was not the primary cited motivation for this action, successfully drawing the link between local and global pollution concerns of animal agriculture and replicating drawdown policies like that proposed by the Netherlands can go a long way in getting nations on board with food system change as a means of meeting their carbon emissions goals.

There is already exciting progress happening within the nonprofit sector to assist the transition away from animal agriculture. Mercy For Animals’ Transfarmation Project and Animal Outlook’s Farm Transitions Program are helping individual farmers make the shift from animal agriculture to plant-based crops. Success stories like Bo Halley of Halley Farms, who the Transfarmation Project assisted in shifting from personally and financially unsustainable contract chicken growing to successful hemp farming, are important in showing the power of transitioning away from animal agriculture on individual farmers and their communities. But scaling up to address the worst climate harms of the animal agriculture industry requires governmental and international action.