Twenty environmental NGOs wrote to European leaders this week calling for them to take a serious look at the environmental and health impacts of intensive animal farming.

The letter arrived on the desks of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Council President Donald Tusk, and Parliament President Antonio Tajani on Tuesday – the same day as the most influential players in the agri-business world rubbed shoulders at the annual Syngenta-sponsored ‘Forum for the Future of Agriculture’ confab in Brussels.

The dispatch also comes just two months before the publication of the Commission’s proposal for the EU’s next 7-year budget on 29 May. How much funding the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will receive under the deal is a key issue in the budget talks.

The letter, signed by the European Enviornmental Bureau (EEB), states:

“It is imperative for the European Union to step up and change its policies to accelerate a transition towards healthy and sustainable diets that are higher in plant-based foods and include considerably less and better produced meat, dairy and eggs. The EU institutions should carry out a comprehensive assessment of the health and environmental impacts of the industrial animal farming sector and formulate clear policy recommendations. These should be EU priorities, translated into all the relevant EU policies in order to protect our climate and environment, people’s health, farmers’ livelihoods, and farm animal welfare, both in Europe and worldwide.”

Nine billion animals are raised for food in the EU each year, and animal farming harms the environment in many ways, including: excessive manure; fertiliser and pesticide application; air, soil and water pollution; and wildlife habitat destruction.

The letter follows last week’s ‘red alert’ from over 500 experts that the risks to future food security posed by nature destruction are just as dangerous as those posed by climate change. The study showed that our agriculture system was a huge part of the problem.

The report’s findings show that crop and grazing lands now cover more than one third of the Earth’s land surface, with recent clearing of native habitats, including forests, grasslands and wetlands, being concentrated in some of the most species-rich ecosystems on the planet. The findings show that rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is a direct cause of land degradation which causes huge damage to nature and the ‘services’ people rely on nature for, such as food security, water purification, energy provision.

The researchers warn that increasing demand for food and biofuels is likely to lead to continued increases in nutrient and chemical inputs and a shift towards industrialised livestock production systems, with pesticide and fertiliser use expected to double by 2050.

Prof. Robert Scholes, co-chair of the assessment, said:

“With negative impacts on the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, the degradation of the Earth’s land surface through human activities is pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction. Avoiding, reducing and reversing this problem, and restoring degraded land, is an urgent priority to protect the biodiversity and ecosystem services vital to all life on Earth and to ensure human well-being.”

A new report, also published on Tuesday by NGOs Mighty Earth, Fern and Rainforest Foundation Norway, showed how large-scale deforestation in Argentina and Paraguay is linked to the rising global demand for soy – which is used to feed much of the livestock consumed in Europe.

Another grim study recently revealed the extent of the decline of French bird populations on farms – with numbers falling by a third in 15 years.