Why Some Farmers Are Ditching Livestock and Growing Plants Instead
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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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Teri Schultz
Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.
Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.
<div id="bfda0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c60b1a0dedbedbe5e0ce44284aff852f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1308390775328251906" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B. Dogs have been trained to detect… https://t.co/nw4mrw6eJM</div> — Helsinki Airport (@Helsinki Airport)<a href="https://twitter.com/HelsinkiAirport/statuses/1308390775328251906">1600779644.0</a></blockquote></div><p>If it were left to Kossi and his pals, crowds of potential virus carriers could be cleared in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost with none of the physical discomfort that accompanies the current nasal swab test based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.</p>
No Human Nose Needed<p>A dog can sniff a cloth wiped on a wrist or neck and immediately identify if it comes from someone who has contracted the virus as much as five days before any symptoms appear which would lead a person to go into isolation. "A dog could easily save so so, so many lives," University of Helsinki veterinary researcher Anna Hielm-Bjorkman told DW, who says their testing has shown an accuracy level of nearly 100%.</p><p>It was originally her idea to see whether Kossi, a talented disease-detection dog, could redirect his skills in sniffing out mold, bedbugs and cancer to detecting the new virus just as it started to spread in Europe. "It took him seven minutes to figure out 'okay, this is what you want me to look out for," Hielm-Bjorkman said. "So that totally blew our minds."</p><p>Susanna Paavilainen, the executive director of the Wise Nose scent-detection foundation and the woman who saved Kossi from euthanasia in a Spanish shelter eight years ago, immediately started retraining her dogs to find the coronavirus.</p><p>Miina, who used to track a young girl's blood sugar levels by scent, quickly came on board, along with two others already working in disease detection. In all, they hope to train 15 dogs in the first phase.</p><p>Hielm-Bjorkman said once they discovered the new capabilities, while the normal academic procedure would be to test, publish and get peer-reviewed, their first instinct was to get the dogs into service. "[Researchers] who are actually publishing," she noted wryly, "are not at the airports."</p>
Wags, Not Wages<p>But for that, they needed permission and ideally, some funding. Vantaa Deputy Mayor Timo Aronkyto, who is also responsible for airport security, saw the benefit straight away. "It took me two minutes," he told DW.</p><p>However, his funding options were limited to about $390,000 total for the four-month pilot project aiming to prove that results from the dog tests are at least as accurate as the PCR test. Anyone who tests positive at the voluntary canine site is requested to go to the medical unit for confirmation.</p><p>The interest of Aronkyto, a trained physician, is rooted in both health and wealth. "Our testing at the airport costs more than 1 million [euros] (USD $1.2 million) a month at the moment," he said, explaining he expects that to go up to €3 million (USD. $3.5 million) per month in winter. "These dogs would be much cheaper," he pointed out.</p><p>He's optimistic support will grow as data from the current pilot project accumulates, explaining there is already work underway to change Finnish legislation so eventually sniffer dogs would have the same "authority" as customs dogs.</p><p>Aronkyto anticipates one animal performing both functions in the near future. He plans to continue this level of funding from his city budget into next year but that doesn't train new dogs nor expand the capacity beyond the four that split shifts currently at the airport, even as infection rates rise.</p>
Helsinki Hesitates<p>Notably, however, the Finnish government has not signaled it would like to pick up the program itself, despite a huge surge in publicity and, as Hielm-Bjorkman and Paavilainen emphasize, interest from other countries. Travelers have been eager to participate, waiting in line more than an hour at times.</p><p>Finnish ambassador in Ramallah, Palestine, Paivi Peltokoski, praised the experience after a recent trip but, apparently, her enthusiasm is not overly contagious.</p>
<div id="d9823" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61d382f115fe66a44eb793d9ebee3d94"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318564228450615299" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">I was tested negative by two #coronadogs upon arrival at the #Helsinki airport in #Finland. Later a medical test ve… https://t.co/cGlWQn8DJb</div> — Päivi Peltokoski (@Päivi Peltokoski)<a href="https://twitter.com/PaiviPeltokoski/statuses/1318564228450615299">1603205184.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"If the government would see this already as something that they would believe in," Hielm-Bjorkman said, she could envision training hundreds of dogs, stationing sniffers at concert halls or sports matches or elderly care homes. She adds there's a need for a "paradigm shift" for both medical professionals and the public.</p><p>Usually it's doctors telling patients if they're sick, she explained, and "here it's a dog handler."</p>
Little Political Will on German Project<p>This situation is not limited to Finland. In Germany researchers also <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dogs-show-promise-at-detecting-coronavirus/a-54300863" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced promising results</a> with canines <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-military-training-sniffer-dogs/a-54062180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">detecting COVID-19</a>, but no dogs have been used anywhere so far. And then, says Professor Holger Volk of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, there has been insufficient political will or funding to move the project forward, something he called "very troubling" especially with a resurgent infection rate.</p><p>"When we started this whole project, we we did it because we wanted to help to stop the pandemic," Volk told DW. "It's really has been a very frustrating ride. I have had a lot of naysayers in the whole process. If I wasn't a very determined person, having done a lot of research, I would have probably stopped it."</p><p>He agrees with Hielm-Bjorkman's assessment that "it's just not in the perception of doctors that dogs are able to do this precise work." But he also echoes her faith in the vast potential of their discovery. "If you had a dog who could sniff every day quickly your cohort of workers, for example," he said, "think about the impact. You could continue having a workplace."</p><p>Speaking of workplaces, Susanna Paavilainen is starting to think if Finland doesn't want to unleash the dogs' potential at home, she and Kossi might accept one of the many requests from all over the world to provide training. "We can move because Kossi likes warm weather," she says, petting her star sniffer.</p>
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