UN Food Systems Secretariat Steps In After Dairy Industry Silenced Teen Climate Activist Genesis Butler

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A dairy industry forum organized around the United Nations Food Systems Summit removed a 14-year-old activist for voicing concerns about the viability of animal agriculture in the age of climate change. Then the UN stepped in.

“I was kicked out of the [United Nations Food Systems Summit] pre-summit Zoom discussion on the global dairy industry and how they are addressing the climate crisis,” teen activist Genesis Butler wrote in an Instagram post late last month. 

According to Butler, she was registered as a guest for the summit and used the summit’s Zoom chat to share her concerns about the dairy industry. She was abruptly kicked off of the call.

Butler says she asked why the UN didn’t have an expert on plant-based milk as a panelist and said she wanted to know why it was discussed that “it makes the most sense to push for nations to switch to plant based milks [sic] because they are more sustainable than milk from animals.”

The teen said she let the summit know the reason for her query was that she’s a 14-year-old worried about her future. “There were others who were asking similar questions about the global dairy industry and they were all kicked off,” she wrote.

The summit session “Raising the Climate Ambition for the Global Agriculture Sector: An Approach From Dairy,” was organized by the Global Dairy Platform and aimed to promote dairy as a solution to the climate crisis. According to Plant Based News, a spokesperson for the UN Food Systems Summit Secretariat said it was not a formal event on the Summit’s agenda. 

But, despite the forum not being an official UN event, it was attended by many of the UN’s summit attendees. The Secretariat’s office said that as soon as they learned of Butler’s removal, they organized an Instagram Live interview with the activist “to ensure her views could be heard,” a spokesperson told Plant Based News.

During the live session, Butler spoke with Paul Newnham, Director of the SDG2 (Sustainable Development Goal) Advocacy Hub. The two discussed the impact of dairy on the planet and Butler’s advocacy work. Butler, who’s been speaking publicly about the vegan diet since before she was 10 years old, told Newnham that there are so many people who still don’t know how harmful animal products are for the environment. The teen founded Youth Climate Save during lockdown as a means for her peers to speak openly about their concerns for the environment. The movement now has chapters all across the globe, according to Butler. She told Newnham she started the platform because “all youth want a future on this planet, and we’re all worried about it.”

Dairy and climate change

The summit discussion mirrors the dairy industry’s ongoing efforts to prove its relevance amid changing consumer habits. While dairy production has increased in recent years, it’s dropped more than 30 percent since the 1970s. 

Dairy is a significant contributor to climate change. According to the BBC, in 2015 the industry produced more than 1,700 million tonnes of CO2—almost 3.4 percent of the global total—a number close to the emissions from both air travel and shipping combined. 

It’s a bit of a shell game, too; in the U.S., dairy cow herd numbers have declined—2017’s 9.4 million to 2019’s 9.3 million—but the industry is producing more milk per cow than at any other time. Milk production was up by more than 240 pounds per cow per year between 2018 and 2019. Between 2005 and 2015, emissions from dairy increased by 18 percent.

Plant-based dairy

As demand fluctuates, the dairy industry has rallied against the booming plant-based milk industry. It’s filed several lawsuits aimed at preventing dairy-free products from using terms such as milk, cheese, and butter. It’s a fight the industry seems destined to lose, though. In a recent victory for the plant-based dairy industry, California vegan cheesemaker Miyoko’s Creamery won the right to continue marketing its product as cheese and butter.

Like her Nobel Prize-nominated contemporary, Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, Butler is keenly aware of the ticking clock in the fight against climate change. And she says the forum’s decision to kick her out is discouraging. 

“This is discouraging because it’s supposed to be a public forum. It’s also discouraging because this shows [the dairy industry doesn’t] want to discuss alternatives. Our leaders are still focused on an animal-based food system and they are trying to greenwash it. This is why we are seeing an acceleration in the climate crisis. Our ‘leaders’ are stuck in their old ways of feeding and providing energy to the world.”

According to the teen, a plant-based food system is needed today, not in the future “because we need to make drastic changes now.”


Lead image via Genesis Butler Instagram.


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