The global meat industry is “borrowing tactics from tobacco companies” to downplay its role in driving the climate crisis and to “confuse and delay regulation” of their planet-harming activities, a major investigation the environmental investigations outlet Desmog has claimed.
Such tactics include routinely downplaying their own greenhouse gas emissions, attacking established science on how livestock farming is driving the climate crisis and casting doubt over the benefits of plant-based alternatives to meat, the investigation said.
“Tobacco didn’t challenge the existence of lung cancer, but they kept denying and deflecting the causal link [with smoking] – and that’s what we’re seeing with beef and dairy,” Dr Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, explained, “Beef and dairy don’t deny that climate change exists, but they are carrying out actions to try to convince us that the causal chain isn’t there.”
The production of meat and dairy accounts for around 14.5 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock farming is particularly polluting because cattle belch out methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In addition, large areas of forest are razed to make space for grazing cattle and animal feed. The world’s largest tropical forest, the Amazon, is particularly threatened by large-scale cattle ranching and animal feed production. The world’s leading scientists say diets must change if the world is to meet its target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. This message was reiterated in England’s recent National Food Strategy, which called for the country to cut its meat consumption by 30 per cent in the next 10 years.
The investigation examines the “climate washing” tactics used by 10 of the world’s largest meat companies and their representative industry groups. Brazilian meat giant JBS was one of 10 companies and industry groups included in the investigation – controls UK companies that supply to many major British supermarkets and fast food outlets. JBS’s two UK subsidiaries alone account for 30 per cent of the UK market for chicken and pork.
Desmog claimed that four of the meat companies analysed underreported their annual emissions when compared to estimates from sustainable farming NGOs. These companies include the US-based Tyson Foods, pork and beef company Danish Crown, Vion and JBS.
“JBS’s environmental and social destruction became a global scandal in 2009 following our own investigation, and yet the company continues to get away with large-scale deforestation and face little or no consequences." Anna Jones, head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK, said. “This important investigation brings to the fore a dangerous and systematic approach by the meat industry to cover up its role in the climate and nature crisis." She went on to say, “But to end the climate crisis, protect forests and restore nature, we must transition to a more sustainable diet by reducing meat consumption – the science on that is clear. The age of big meat is over.”
Jonathan Elmer, a Green Party spokesperson, said the investigation should bring about “urgent action” from the government.
“This investigation throws a welcome spotlight on the environmental impact of the meat industry and offers more evidence that we must now see the end of factory farming for good. It’s a black hole of food waste, a huge threat to public health, and a key engine of the climate emergency,” he told The Independent. “What we are seeing here is akin to the historic efforts made by the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries to obfuscate the science and undermine a vital message, which in this case is that people need to eat much less meat.”
Dutch food giant Vion – one of the companies analysed by Desmog – publicly claims that “eating less meat will not necessarily contribute to more sustainability”. Meanwhile, two top meat industry groups – the US-based Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA) and France-based the International Meat Secretariat (IMS) – have publicly attacked leading scientific research on how eating less meat could benefit the planet and human health. A landmark report on how diet change could boost planetary and human health led by a top nutritionist at Harvard University was branded “elitist”, “biased” and “not scientifically well-founded” by the secretary-general of the IMS and “drastic” by the AAA. Hsin Huang, secretary-general of the IMS, told The Independent that he believed that “the health benefits of eating red meat are often ignored” and that “the livestock sector is too often unfairly represented” as a driver of the climate crisis.
The meat industry also routinely attempting to paint itself as a solution to the climate crisis, the investigation finds. For example, the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) – a levy board representing British farmers – is one of many groups promoting the idea that grazing cattle could help to tackle the climate crisis by stimulating soil to take up more carbon from the atmosphere. However, the idea that grass-fed beef can be a climate solution has been challenged by scientists. A report by researchers at the University of Oxford found that grass-fed cows release more greenhouse gas emissions through belching and manure than they are able to offset through boosting soil carbon levels. This means that grass-fed beef is still a net contributor to the climate crisis.