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Why Some Farmers Are Ditching Livestock and Growing Plants Instead

Food
Janel Bodley tamps down soil around a freshly planted hemp clone at Wild Folk Farm in Benton. Ben McCanna / Portland Portland Press Herald / Getty Images

By Tom Levitt

The future of food doesn't have to include animals. At least that's what Miyoko Schinner believes. "A lot of farmers see us as a threat," Schinner said of her Californian plant-based dairy company, Miyoko's Creamery.


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, Schinner and others argue. She is among a wave of business owners intent on helping farmers transition to more environmentally friendly types of agriculture.

"We want to help bring farmers along with the change we think is necessary to tackle climate change and reduce the environmental footprint of farming," said Schinner. She's on the hunt for a dairy farm in California that will work with her company to ditch cows and grow plants for vegan products instead. Miyoko will provide financial support for the farm to convert to growing potatoes and legumes which the company will use to produce vegan cheese. The farm owner will also be paid for taking part in helping to research and development new plant-based products.

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.

"The big change is that we now can feed over 200 people with food on our farm compared to 60 when we started, and that our climate emissions have reduced to half per produced calorie," said Arnesson, who is now part of a bigger Sweden-wide project focused on transitioning farmers towards more plant-based food.

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."

Oatly said at the time it wanted to be a "catalyst" for helping farmers move away from animals to plant production, after having previously had a fractured relationship with the farming community in Sweden and around the world.

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."

Arnesson agreed: "Oatly is a very different food company, they are definitely interested in supporting the transition and they have been very important to me in sharing risks and offering long-term agreements," he said.

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.

Kick-starting their Transfarmation Project this May, the nonprofit Mercy for Animals will partner with a handful of companies (not yet named) to support factory-style chicken producers to shift away from animal farming. Half a dozen poultry farmers will be awarded money to convert the large barns in which they currently house thousands of birds so they can be used for growing hemp instead. The temperature-controlled chicken sheds present ideal growing conditions for hemp without the need for a costly change to the existing infrastructure.

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 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.

This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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