In May 2021, Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), finally admitted what climate activists have been saying for years: Preventing catastrophic climate change requires ending all extraction of new coal, oil, and gas. The idea that we need to replace fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy, given how destructive fossil fuels are to the health of humans, nonhumans, and the environment has been undeniable for decades.
This reasoning extends to other industries as well. For example, we know that animal farming harms and kills billions of animals, pollutes and destroys natural habitats, contributes to climate change and biodiversity loss, and risks the spread of antimicrobial-resistant zoonotic diseases. As with fossil fuels, we need to replace animal products with alternative sources of protein, given how harmful animal proteins are to humans, nonhumans, and the environment.
Unfortunately, humans are investing more, not less, in animal farming at present. Not only are we slaughtering more animals than ever before, but we are also adding new kinds of animals to those we already farm, including octopuses. At present, wild octopus populations are declining due to overfishing. But instead of solving this problem by leaving octopuses out of the food system, many companies are trying to figure out how to intensively farm them.
Spanish seafood company Nueva Pescanova is currently winning this grim race. It plans to start marketing farmed octopuses in summer 2022, and to start selling them in 2023 from its new farm in Las Palmas that will keep thousands of octopuses with no transparency or oversight. And in general, when humans intensively breed, raise, and kill this many sensitive, intelligent animals with no accountability, the prospects for humane treatment are low.
Nueva Pescanova did not reach this point alone. For years, scientists have been developing novel ways to breed and feed captive octopuses. Most published research on octopus farming has been produced by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, sometimes sponsored by Nueva Pescanova, which then bought patents on new techniques. Researchers in New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, and elsewhere have worked on this topic as well, funded by companies like Nireus Aquaculture, universities, and national fisheries agencies.
Meanwhile, Nueva Pescanova is seeking funding from the European Union’s NextGeneration Fund, a pot of billions of euros intended to support economic recovery from the pandemic and “build a greener, more digital and more resilient future.” According to the Fish Site, the company claims that it will contribute to this mission by reducing pressure on wild octopus populations, without mentioning the many respects in which it will undermine this mission as well.
Experts have warned against octopus farming for years already. In a widely-read article published in 2019, Jennifer Jacquet, Becca Franks, Peter Godfrey-Smith, and Walter Sánchez-Suárez laid out the damage that octopus farming will do to the marine environment by putting pressure on wild fish populations plundered to feed the captive octopuses. They also explained how poorly such highly intelligent, asocial creatures would fare in a farm environment.
More recently, a report by researchers at the London School of Economics reviewed evidence for the sentience of octopuses and other cephalopods as well as decapod crustaceans and convinced the UK government to legally recognize their sentience. This report concluded that “high-welfare octopus farming is impossible” and that the UK should consider “a ban on imported farmed octopuses” as well as “a pre-emptive ban on octopus farming.”
Furthermore, industrial animal agriculture is inhumane, unhealthful, and unsustainable as a general matter, and we have no reason to expect that octopus farming will be any different. Industrial animal agriculture maintains the appearance of efficiency and affordability only because of heavy government support. Deregulation and subsidies allow meat companies to ignore many of the costs of industrial meat production, with the result that either nobody covers these costs or, at best, governments cover them with support from taxpayers.
Of the $200 billion in subsidies given to farmers globally every year, less than a quarter are used for fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes, equal to the amount spent on meat production. And support for meat is increasing, not decreasing, over time. For instance, President Biden recently committed $1 billion to lower the price of meat in the US. Similarly, the EU has invested nearly €3 billion in aquaculture since 2000, and even its €10 billion investment in alternative proteins includes support for protein derived from marine animals and for new forms of animal farming such as insect farming, which are potentially harmful as well.
Food system experts and the World Economic Forum have identified subsidies as a key way to help farmers grow a greater variety of healthy, environmentally-friendly plant foods like legumes and vegetables. “What food farms choose to grow has a greater effect on the environment and health than how it is grown,” researchers from Oxford University wrote recently in the Conversation. “Redirecting subsidies towards the production of healthy and sustainable food should be an essential part of reforming agriculture worldwide.”
Alternative proteins like plant-based meat (meat made from plants) and cultivated meat (meat made from a cell culture) cause much less harm to animals, global health, and the environment than conventional meat, and these alternatives are currently receiving substantial private support. If they received substantial governmental support too, then they would likely become competitive much faster—particularly if increased governmental support for these alternatives coincided with decreased governmental support for conventional meat.
We can once again see parallels with fossil fuels. Governments around the world continue to support new fossil fuel projects, while fossil fuel companies continue to refine production methods to achieve minor reductions in public health and environmental damage. Meanwhile, researchers and universities, funded by these companies, continue to provide them with new ideas about how to extract and use fossil fuels, as well as about to rationalize this activity.
But all this academic, corporate, and political support for fossil fuels is counterproductive. It helps to greenwash fossil fuel companies, prolonging the life of a fundamentally harmful industry, and wasting time, expertise, and money that we could instead be channeling into rapidly transitioning the world to a truly low-carbon future.
If we want to build a more humane, healthful, and sustainable future food system, then we need to learn from past mistakes now. Expanding industrial animal agriculture into new sectors will make our global problems worse. We instead need to implement an immediate moratorium on the construction of new intensive animal farms, and we need to work to replace existing intensive animal farms with plant agriculture, plant-based meat, and cell-based meat.
Humans desperately need to reform our food systems. Animal farming does far more harm than good and will not solve the problems that it creates. Additionally, it will be much easier for us to stop new forms of animal farming like octopus farming before they start, as opposed to after they become entrenched in our global economy. It’s time to stop developing new ways to harm humans, animals, and the environment and start developing true alternatives.
Claire is an Associate Editor at Sentient Media and a freelance writer focused on animals, climate and the environment.
Jeff is Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Affiliated Professor of Bioethics, Medical Ethics, and Philosophy, and Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program at New York University. He is co-author of Chimpanzee Rights and Food, Animals, and the Environment.