Tagged: consumption

Climate and health: the joint case for restricting animal antibiotics use

Climate change mitigation and the preservation of antibiotics effectiveness are two of today’s greatest public policy challenges. Each call for a similar measure, wherefore they should be considered in a joint perspective:

This friendly cow is sourced from Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CH_cow_2.jpg

First, the looming threat of climate change calls for concerted action. Among the vast array of different measures, reducing methane emissions from farm animals could make a great contribution. Also, the pressure to convert land to produce food for animals reduces the availability of carbon sinks. Thus, reducing demand for animal feedstock can contribute to climate change mitigation efforts.

Second, the routine use of antimicrobials/antibiotics for increasing animal growth or preserving animal health is likely to lead to the to the development of infections resistant to antibiotics treatment in humans. While the case for banning the use of antibiotics for maximising animal growth is particularly strong, there are also good arguments for further restricting its use even for preserving animal health. Antibiotics have been the „wonder drugs“ of the 20th century, saving immeasurable lives. Yet, today their effectiveness is becoming more and more diminished due to the development of resistant bacteria strains. Trading human health off for animal health is problematic. Even more, in today’s industrialised farming the living conditions of animals are often dismal, necessitating the standard use of antibiotics in the first place. If farm animals had more decent lives, the need for antibiotics would decline. This is reflected in the limitations on the use of antibiotics in organic agriculture.

By looking at the joint benefits of policy responses to these problems, the argument base for taking action to address any of them is broadened and the costs calculus changes:

If antimicrobials use on animals were rigorously restricted, it would have strong implications for the dairy and meat industry. Animals couldn’t be crowded together as extremely as they are today, thus reducing feedstock input and methane emissions output per land unit. Feedstock is often sourced from abroad, the demand for which is adding pressure to turn more biodiverse and CO2 storing land into agricultural land. Letting cows graze on grassland is associated with lower emission than intensive grain feeding. Thus, under the assumption that not simply more land will be used for putting animals on the pasture or in the barn, limiting animal antibiotics use can have a double climate policy benefit: less methane and less pressure to convert land for feedstock supply.

Happy cows, healthier humans, and a more stable climate: restricting the use of antibiotics on animals can support all of this.





Fisheries: voluntary self-regulation as a model for bold trade policy reform

Voluntary self-regulation by organisations such as the Marine Stewardship Council promises to make fishing more sustainable. While self-regulatory efforts are a great start, it is questionable whether they alone suffice to tackle the task of making the world’s fisheries sustainable again. But they have a great – as of yet underappreciated – potential: complementing and facilitating government action by providing orientation for bold trade policy reforms.

Overfishing has led to the depletion or even collapse of many fish stocks. States have found it difficult to respond to the challenge of overfishing. Even within the EU, with its extraordinary level of inter-state cooperation, until recently fishing reform had been an extremely sluggish process .

While state inaction left the seas free to overexploitation, in the 1990s a private initiative promised to provide the much-needed responsibility. It took the collapse of fishing stocks to alert Unilever, one of the world’s biggest buyers of frozen fish, to identify overfishing as a threat to its business. Unilever soon teamed up with the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) to initiate what would become the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC): a non-profit organisation which sets a standard for sustainable fishing and allocates the right to use its label to those found to behave in accordance with it .

According to the MSC its certification scheme now covers “over 10% of the annual global harvest of wild capture fisheries” . While there has been criticism levied at MSC standards and compliance with it, it is largely considered to be a successful scheme.

Personally, I always look out for the MSC label when I buy fish but I’m never quite certain whether this actually makes much of a difference or just has a feel-good effect. For while my individual purchase might come from more sustainable fisheries it would still add to the aggregate global demand for fish. When the MSC’s Chief Executive, Rupert Howes, gave a presentation at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources (20 Feb 2014) I raised the question if, instead of consciously limiting my fish consumption, he would actually encourage me to buy more (certified) fish. He replied along the lines that increased demand for MSC certified fish actually makes MSC certification and thus the adherence to sustainable fishing standards more attractive to fishing companies.

Feeding the world and maintaining the productive capacity and integrity of marine eco-systems Rupert Howes, Chief Executive, MSC

I think his point is a very good one. Yet some doubts persist. While buying MSC certified fish may help to raise incentives for fishing companies to comply with sustainability standards, its purchase still keeps alive what I would call “a culture of fish consumption“: people will praise the taste of fish dishes, put up photos of them on the internet and floods of saliva will pour forth from their friends mouths. Now the saliva is there, moral virtue is supposed to rein it in. More expensive, certified fish is deemed “good”, while the cheap, “dirty” and unsustainable fish is “bad”. Those who can afford or prioritise “sustainable” fish can feel good about themselves, at ease with the world, while the consumers of non-certified fish should — in order to boost the market for sustainable fish — at least feel some slight unease around their taste buds. While ecological economists don’t tire to preach that the environmental costs of products should be reflected in their prices, here — like so often — the reverse holds true: one has to pay a premium for sustainably sourced fish.

Will consumers shift to certified fish quickly enough to save fishing stocks from collapsing and maritime life from severe disruptions? Perhaps it’s going to work. But it’s a risky bet. And if it doesn’t work – who is to blame? Consumers, because they didn’t buy the right fish? Or not enough of the right fish?

The success of the MSC labelling scheme shows that consumers are not just interested in the mere physical qualities of fish but also in the process by which it landed upon their platter. It demonstrates that market pull in one place can change fishing practices in another. It’s a testing ground for standardisation and monitoring activities.

All this makes a good case for revisiting the possibility of applying trade measures against the import of fish which sourcing doesn’t qualify as sustainable. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is extremely wary of the introduction of “discriminatory” measures whose rationales can be interpreted as fig-leafs for protectionism. This translates into strong scrutiny towards restrictions on the basis of the process or the method by which a good is derived rather than by its mere physical qualities. Yet, the jurisdiction on the possibilities for enacting import restrictions based on “non-product-related processes and production methods (PPMs)” is far from exhaustive. Private standard setting and monitoring exercises such as those conducted by the MSC can help to demonstrate that “non-discriminatory” import restrictions on the basis of “non-product-related processes and production methods (PPMs)” can be designed and monitored .

What I suggest here is an appreciation of the pioneering role of private sector initiatives such as the MSC. Governments should draw on these foundations and insist on the adherence to similar standards as a precondition for market entry. The regulatory “pull” from a giant market such as the EU’s would be able to exert beneficial effects at far greater scale than what can currently be accomplished by private sector initiatives.

Once the, admittedly, giant leap of making the adherence to criteria of sustainable fishing a condition for market-entry is taken, fishing companies all over the world might develop an interest in lobbying governments to strengthen regulation and to cooperate in order to make their fishing grounds pass sustainability criteria.

Voluntary private self-regulation can be a model for the introduction of sustainability criteria in trade policy. Once private initiative is followed up by trade policy, the main worry about fish will hopefully be of culinary nature.