It is essential for governments and the UN system to improve their understanding of the key interlinkages between human, animal, and environmental well-being, and to translate this into policy.
The anticipated UNEP report on the nexus between animal welfare, the environment, and sustainable development has the potential to be an important step on this pathway.
Improving our understanding of the nexus may help to inform deliberations on a possible post-2030 Agenda, which are anticipated to kick off in a few years.
By Cleo Verkuijl and Jeff Sebo
2022 was an important milestone year for animals and sustainable development. Meeting in Montreal, Canada, in December, governments agreed to a new post-2020 biodiversity framework, including essential commitments to protect 30% of land and 30% of coastal and marine areas by 2030. A few months earlier several international organizations launched a new One Health Joint Plan of Action, reflecting the increasing recognition of the important interlinkages between human, animal, and environmental health.
And at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), governments requested the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to produce a report on the nexus between animal welfare, the environment, and sustainable development. This was notable since animal welfare is not included in any of the 17 SDGs or the 169 targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Yet, as the UN Global Sustainable Development Report recognizes – and as we have previously argued – this is an important omission.
If we do not transform our relationship with animals, it will be difficult – perhaps impossible – for the world to meet many of its sustainable development objectives, including on global health, climate change, and biodiversity. It is therefore essential for governments and the UN system to improve their understanding of the key interlinkages between human, animal, and environmental well-being, and to translate this into policy. The anticipated UNEP nexus report has the potential to be an important step on this pathway.
As preparations for the report get underway, we highlight five points that are key to understanding the interlinkages between animal welfare and sustainable development. While not comprehensive, these points form a starting point for policymakers and offer a potential frame to guide future research in this area. In the longer term, improving our understanding of these questions may also help to inform deliberations on a possible post-2030 Agenda, which are anticipated to kick off in a few years.
Why does animal welfare matter?
Many political systems, cultures, and belief systems, including Indigenous belief systems, recognize the importance of animal welfare. Similarly, many ethicists now recognize that all sentient beings – that is, all beings with the capacity for happiness, suffering, and other such states – merit moral consideration, and many scientists now recognize that all vertebrates and many invertebrates are sentient. In short, a wide range of experts now accept that all vertebrates and many invertebrates merit moral consideration.
Yet practices that negatively affect animal welfare remain widespread in human societies. In many legal systems, animals have the status of objects, property, and commodities. Anti-cruelty laws often exclude farmed animals and other animals. And even when such laws include animals, oversight and enforcement are limited. It will be important for the nexus report to acknowledge this tension, and highlight that our current treatment of animals often fails to reflect contemporary ethical and scientific views.
How does our treatment of animals affect sustainable development?
The nexus report can play a crucial role in improving our understanding of how our treatment of animals impacts our sustainable development aspirations. For instance, we raise around 80 billion land animals each year for meat. Farm animals make up 62% of the world’s mammal biomass; humans represent 34%; and wild mammals are just 4%. A wealth of research shows that raising many animals in close confinement not only harms animals but is also a key driver of infectious disease emergence, antimicrobial resistance, land use, water use, pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change.
Fortunately, switching from animal-based to plant-based diets could save trillions in climate change and health-related costs, reduce the number of animals being raised in confinement for food, and create millions of new jobs. However, many jobs will be lost as well. The nexus report should therefore examine how a transition to a more compassionate, resilient, and sustainable plant-based food systems will impact all relevant stakeholders, including farmers, workers, and consumers, and it should also investigate how a just transition approach can support these stakeholders as much as possible.
How do environmental and social challenges affect animal welfare?
Human-induced global health and environmental threats like climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and disease outbreaks can have devastating effects on humans and nonhumans alike. The ongoing avian flu crisis is a case in point. Factory farms are the perfect breeding ground for the emergence of new viruses that threaten the well-being of humans and animals. Already, tens of millions of birds and other animals have been killed to prevent further outbreaks, many through methods that cause severe suffering, such as overheating and suffocation. Many wild birds have also perished, while experts warn of the risks that such viruses could adapt and spread among people.
Yet the impacts of health and environmental crises on animal welfare are still too often ignored, limiting our ability to prevent these crises and to protect animals when these crises occur. The nexus report should empower policymakers and other stakeholders to better understand how sustainable development challenges affect humans as well as nonhumans, and to identify research priorities to enable us to further advance our understanding of this issue over time.
How do our sustainable development policies affect animal welfare?
Our sustainable development policies can impact animal welfare as well. For instance, some interventions to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from beef and dairy agriculture, such as increased intensification of farming methods, genetic engineering of beef or dairy cattle, or increased reliance on chicken, fish, or insect farming, harm many animals unnecessarily. Similarly, interventions to preserve biodiversity, such as hunting or captive breeding programmes may harm many animals unnecessarily as well.
It is essential that the UN system and governments pay attention to animal welfare as they pursue sustainable development interventions. Otherwise, policymakers may (unknowingly) continue to pursue policies that benefit some stakeholders while harming others. The nexus report can help spotlight where potential tensions between sustainable development interventions and animal welfare may occur, and highlight opportunities to avoid such harmful trade-offs while instead increasing co-benefits and improving policy coherence.
How can we improve our ability to address these issues over time?
Fortunately, there are a range of policy solutions available. For instance, shifting away from industrial animal agriculture would benefit humans, animals, and the environment at the same time. Similarly, building an infrastructure that accommodates humans as well as nonhumans can reduce conflicts such as building and vehicle collisions that harm us all. UNEP’s nexus report can help us to understand which policy solutions exist at international, national, and local levels to support such beneficial outcomes.
If we are to enhance co-benefits between animal welfare and sustainable development, we also need to better understand how to assess current levels of animal welfare, how to forecast future levels of animal welfare, and how to monitor progress towards improving animal welfare. UNEP’s nexus report can explore the development of specific, measurable, and relevant indicators towards this goal, in order to empower governments and the UN system to more effectively care for humans, animals, and the environment over time.
UNEP’s nexus report can serve as an important step in increasing awareness of how our treatment of animals affects sustainable development, and of how our sustainable development challenges and interventions impact animals. A significant body of evidence already exists to demonstrate the importance of these interlinkages for humans, animals, and the environment alike. UNEP’s report has a crucial role to play in synthesizing these insights, highlighting remaining gaps, and exploring potential policy solutions towards a more healthy, sustainable, and compassionate future for all.
Cleo Verkuijl is Research Fellow, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).
Jeff Sebo is Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Affiliated Professor of Bioethics, Medical Ethics, and Philosophy, and Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program, New York University (NYU).
They recently published an open letter on the need to mainstream animal welfare in sustainable development governance, which can be read and signed here.