We must change what’s on our plates, not what’s on a cow’s face



It is beyond belief that a permanent face covering, fitted from the age of six months onwards, is a positive step for animal welfare. Cows need our help.

Move fast and break things. Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra, back in the early days of Facebook, was about unleashing the power of technology to disrupt and de-stabilise. In recent years, he’s distanced himself from the phrase, perhaps realising that as we look to more sustainable practices and our sense of social purpose grows, those five words start to carry a less positive meaning.  

Which brings us to the latest technology to hit the headlines - a face mask for cows, designed to capture methane and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, really. It’s brought to us by the industry backed Zero Emissions Livestock Project (Zelp) and a million-dollar marketing machine that has moved into overdrive. Forcing livestock to cover their faces is ‘For the planet. For the animals. For the future’ if the company’s bucolic web-site is to be believed. 

This ludicrous and inhumane idea is the culture of ‘move fast and break things,’ writ large. Only, we are not talking about things, we are talking about sentient, sensitive creatures. Worse still is the sense that its purpose is to distract us from a growing crisis driven by the world’s addiction to cheap meat and factory farming. This is a system hard-wired with dire environmental and ethical costs - demonstrably unsustainable for the planet, unforgivably cruel to animals and categorically not part of the healthy future we want for ourselves and our children.  

Factory farming and our planet

Factory farming depends on animal feed being produced on a vast, global scale.  As land is cleared to make way for these crops, our most valuable and vulnerable eco-systems are collateral damage. Across the Amazon, Cerrado, Congo, Mekong and Yangtze basins, demand for animal feed is causing deforestation and loss of habitat at an extraordinary rate.   

The sheer scale of the animal feed industry is heating our planet too.  Producing, processing, and transporting animal feed accounts for some 45% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Without rapid and systemic change, agriculture will consume the world's entire carbon budget necessary for keeping global temperature rises under 2°C by 2050. This is the broken system that Zelp’s technology will help sustain. 

Factory farming and animal welfare

It is beyond belief that a permanent face covering, fitted from the age of six months onwards, is being spun by Zelp as a natural and positive step for animal welfare. Sadly, the inevitable discomfort and stress these animals will endure can only add to a horrific list of abuses. Day after day, factory-farmed animals are treated as cogs in a machine - subject to indoor confinement, tethering, being kept in individual crates and suffering painful mutilation. These practices are integral to the profitability of a system that Zelp’s technology is designed to prolong, by making it appear more environmentally acceptable. The idea that this is in the interests of any animal, anywhere is risible. 

The future of factory farming

The most depressing aspect of this sorry story is to see the enormous potential of technology and innovation being so badly mis-directed.  It is no surprise that Zelp and its backers in the global meat industry are funnelling money into this project. Billons in profits depend on convincing consumers that factory farming can provide cheap, plentiful meat without unacceptable environmental and ethical consequences. It’s an empty promise. We need to change what’s on our plates, not what’s on a cow’s face. 

At an individual level, we can eat less meat and make our own choices about animal welfare. But achieving systemic change means investing in technologies that can play their part in a more humane and sustainable food industry, such as clean meat. Lab grown meat tastes like meat because it is meat, produced in a different way. It is healthier, produces far fewer greenhouse gases, protects our habitats and offers the promise of a great tasting product, without animal cruelty. Now that is better for the planet, for animals and the future. 

Moving the world to accept lab grown meat will require both attitudinal and financial barriers to be overcome, but in an era when rapid change is the default setting, with the right incentives in place, it will happen. That’s why we’re calling for a moratorium on new factory farms, to send the strongest signal possible that investment must flow to humane and sustainable food systems. If our political leaders have the will, this technology really can move fast and break something - our catastrophic dependence on factory farming and all the cruelty it entails. 

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Image credits: Blog listings page: World Animal Protection / Campaign Film Ltd; Blog posts: World Animal Protection

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