Local governments must transition away from animal agriculture

Illustration of grazing cows
Aarthi Muthukumar/Staff

Related Posts

Tuesday evening marked the first time ever that a U.S. city set a plan to shift its food purchases to 100% plant-based. After 16 months of pressure from grassroots activists — and an insurgent campaign by an animal rights activist in the 2020 mayoral race — the Berkeley City Council passed a resolution adopting a goal of 100% plant-based food purchases for the city’s jail and government functions, beginning with a 50% shift by 2024.

As a Berkeley resident, I applaud the people of Berkeley for their activism and the City Council for passing this resolution. As a veterinarian, I want to stress the importance of this move for the benefit of all species, including humans, and our planet. It is vital that all local governments adopt this kind of policy to clear the path for a more sustainable, just and equitable food system.

I attended the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which teaches the importance of One Health — the idea that human, animal, plant and environmental health are all interconnected. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to look at what factors brought us here and how we can build a future with the One Health concept in mind, and it can all start with the city of Berkeley. 

An example of the importance of One Health can be drawn from my experience volunteering with fellow veterinarians in Fiji. The pandemic began during my third trip there, where I was spaying and neutering animals in rural villages that did not have access to medical care. The dog and cat overpopulation problem was leading to a great deal of animal suffering, abuse and neglect.

Seeing the delicately made dwellings of the villagers residing so close to the ocean, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of fear for these people and animals who live their lives in peril, so vulnerable to the effects of climate change from the destruction of coral reefs, deforestation, rising sea levels and cyclones. I flew back home to a changed world here in Berkeley, where we had to halt our own spay and neuter services in order to conserve personal protective equipment for critical patients and to protect our medical professionals.

While our compassionate group of veterinarians was donating knowledge and time to help the animals in Fiji, I was forced to come to terms with how my own profession has, historically, facilitated a derangement of our relationship with animals and the natural world, leading to the existential crises we face: climate change and pandemics of zoonotic origin. 

Veterinary organizations, influenced by the animal agriculture industry, have facilitated the expansion and growth of factory farming by legitimizing abusive practices such as gestation crates, painful beak trimming, surgical removal of body parts without anesthesia and ventilation shutdown. With the advent of antibiotics, genetic modification and other modern technologies, we have helped the animal agriculture industry pack more and more animals into tighter spaces and create beings that produce more meat, milk and eggs than nature could have ever envisioned.

But the younger generation of veterinarians cares about climate change, justice and science. Unfortunately, many young professionals fear backlash for pushing back against the animal agriculture industry, which wields influence over our profession and government. We must recognize that animal agriculture threatens our future in the form of avian and swine flu, greenhouse gas emissions, destruction of rainforests and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last month showing a 40% uptick in drug-resistant salmonella linked to chicken and egg production.

Entrenched corporate interests are fighting back against the systemic changes that are needed to create a more compassionate and healthy world. I have faced retaliation from the animal agriculture industry for criticizing corporate agribusiness. The industry also wields unjust influence over our political system, legal system and personal dietary habits and works side-by-side with the fossil fuel industry to sow doubt in climate science, lobby for government subsidies and block urgently needed government action.

But it is possible to build a more sustainable food system, where governments stop propping up animal agriculture via taxpayer subsidies and instead put funding toward a more sustainable food system — one where we don’t have to hurt animals.

Thank you, Berkeley, for taking this step forward in envisioning the future of our food system. Activists, however, need to stay motivated to ensure the City Council holds true to its promises. Similar legislation has been passed in Germany, Helsinki and London’s Enfield Council. Now, starting with progressive officials committed to changing government spending patterns, our generation must build a food system that feeds the growing world population, protects our rainforests, safeguards public health and doesn’t harm animals.

Crystal Heath is a Berkeley veterinarian, a co-founder of OurHonor.org and the president of Vet Harmony, Inc. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.