Last September I had the opportunity to work with Brighter Green’s founder and executive director, Mia MacDonald, and am a fan of her work, particularly in China. We gave a joint presentation in New York, Brighter Green’s hometown, on the challenges of feeding the world and how factory farming makes that task harder. Like ours, Mia’s work is very much at the meeting point between animal welfare, the environment and sustainability. Here, I’m pleased to share some of Mia’s insights.
Philip: Why did you establish Brighter Green?
Mia: The idea for Brighter Green evolved from my concern for the environment and animals, as well as my experience in sustainability, issues of equity, and conservation. I’d meet and work with terrific environmentalists from many different countries, but very few had an interest in animal welfare, or much knowledge of it.
Likewise, I knew a lot of people working on animal protection issues who weren’t that well versed in environmental realities. Then I’d see issues like animal agriculture that had huge significance for animals and the environment, and sustainable development, but they weren’t the focus of development work. So, I saw a need for a public policy organisation that could work on animal welfare and environmental issues in a global context.
Philip: What are your aims and activities?
Mia: Brighter Green’s mission is to raise awareness of and encourage policy action on issues that span the environment, animals, and sustainability. One of the major areas we’ve worked in is the global spread of Western-style systems of food and agriculture. These are centred on the massive production of animal products and “feed” crops at the expense of the environment, food security, animals, biodiversity and access to and control of food systems.
Philip: What is the most pressing environmental issue of our time and how can we address it successfully?
Mia: Climate change since it encompasses almost every other issue, but of course natural resource exploitation due to human action is an enormous challenge. It’s made worse by climate change, but also exists independently from it. And animal agriculture and particularly industrial animal agriculture are significant—and growing—culprits in global warming and in the degradation of land, water, forests and the ecosystems that both wild animal and human communities depend on.
Philip: Your film ‘What’s For Dinner?’ made a huge impression on me in New York. It’s about the rapid rise of meat consumption in China and gives a clear picture of the problems from global industrial agriculture. What can you share about the making of the film in China?
Mia: The film grew out of Brighter Green’s research on climate change and the growth of factory farming in China. Our paper, Skillful Means: the Challenges of China’s Encounter with Factory Farming, was first published in 2008 and revised in 2011. We wanted to give a face to the reams of data and examples we’d amassed, to show how these enormous trends were being experienced in the lives of people in China, as well as farmed animals.
Through some contacts in New York, I met Jian Yi, a Chinese independent filmmaker who agreed to take on the project. He and I and the film’s producer, Susannah Ludwig, held a series of Skype calls — he in Ji’an, China and we in New York – and talked through who and what he and his small crew would film. Jian Yi did a terrific job, and has been very involved in a recent screening tour we’ve had for the film in China. Thirty screenings and counting! We’ve just gotten two grants to allow us to continue to show the film and raise awareness in China.
That being said, I have been in China, most recently in 2011 for a weeklong speaking tour on livestock and climate change in Beijing and Shanghai. The pace and scale of development in that country is astounding; the cities are breathtakingly large (and I’m from New York!). I’m both daunted by the realities of how animal agriculture is intensifying, with the government’s support, and encouraged by the ways people and organisations in China have responded to our work. They are “hungry” for information and many Chinese, possibly tens of millions, want another path to development that isn’t based on Western consumer culture and environmental despoliation.
Philip: Where do you see the issue of rising global population fitting into the kaleidoscope of environmental protection and animal welfare?
Mia: More people means more consumption and that directly affects the environment and animals, domesticated and wild. If we look at the top greenhouse-gas-emitting countries, they tend to be those with the largest populations. China, the U.S., and India, with Brazil not far behind. But of course there’s a vast difference between emissions per capita in the U.S. (very high) and in India, still relatively low. Still, if we think of billions more people eating animals and animal products like those of us in the U.S. and Europe, it’s a disaster for the Earth and other species.
Scientists tell us it simply isn’t possible given existing resources. I’d like to see more focus on the links between population and consumption. It’s not fair to equate the effect an average child growing up in India or Kenya will have on the local or global environment with the impact of a similar kid in the U.S. or Europe, which is many times greater. But as Western-style consumer culture goes global—with the support, needless to say, of industrialised country corporations and governments—the ecological “footprint” of each person will rise. That’s a combustible combination. We need to work for far more sustainable consumption levels in the West, and sustainable and equitable development in the global South, along with gender equality and full recognition of women’s reproductive rights.
Philip: What was your impression of ‘Farmageddon’?
Mia: I thought it was extremely well researched and written, and I really appreciated its truly global focus. The chapters on Argentina and China were fascinating and very important in laying out the realities driving what’s taking place with regard to animal agriculture—also what it actually looks (and smells and feels) like. Likewise, with the chapter on big dairy in California, I learned a lot, which is always great. The related videos are excellent and a terrific resource for policy-makers, researchers and advocates. It’s very hard to argue with what they document, or to look away.
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