Is Big Livestock going the way of Big Oil and Big Tobacco?
With the environment featuring ever more prominently in public discourse, it’s no surprise that everyone wants a piece of the action.
That includes the meat industry.
Nowadays, it would seem, livestock companies are racing to assert their unwavering commitment to a sustainable future.
But the astute might recognise some parallels with the tactics of Big Tobacco in the 1950s. Back then the link between smoking and lung cancer had been being established. But instead of holding up their hands and accepting the science, Big Tobacco dug in. It challenged the science and denied the link.
Similar happened with Big Oil in the 1970s: The science was clear that burning fossil fuels was linked to global warming. But instead, Big Oil mounted a decades-long campaign of deception and denial, the devastating effects of which still resonate today.
Now it’s the turn of “Big Livestock” – by which I mean the big industry players in the livestock sector and the countries with significant livestock exports. If you’ve worked in climate change for as long as I have, you can see through many of the claims as mere greenwashing.
So, let’s establish the facts. Globally, meat production accounts for up to a quarter of manmade greenhouse gas emissions. This is mainly due to the production of methane by cattle, nitrous oxide from slurry, and emissions from land use change including forest clearance for grazing land and growing animal feed.
All this means that one of the most important lifestyle choices that consumers in developed countries can to minimise their impact on the environment is to eat less meat. Yet, if you look at what Big Livestock is saying, you’d think it was all green pastures and happy cows.
For example, in 2021, one of the world’s largest meat-producing companies – which, incidentally, has the GHG emissions equivalent of Spain – said it planned to become carbon neutral by 2040. The massive, flatulent cowzilla in the room is the fact that the best way to reduce emissions is to produce less beef. But of course, Big Livestock never talks about that – it’s bad for business. The resulting public relations gymnastics are an attempt to reconcile Big Livestock’s publicly stated concern for the planet with the fact that a lot of what it does is inescapably terrible for it.
Some of those gymnastics equate to deliberate obfuscation. Meat and Livestock Australia has claimed that the country’s lamb is “climate neutral”, despite production increasing over the years. It’s a claim so ridiculous I almost spat out my low-emissions beef steak. Yet it comes from a paper produced by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) – an agency of the Australian government. Scroll to the Acknowledgements section and you see it was partly funded by… you guessed it! Meat and Livestock Australia. Fancy that.
Claiming that lamb is climate neutral can easily confuse or mislead consumers into thinking it is an environmentally defensible option. But here’s what you need to know: climate neutrality occurs when methane emissions are countered by the breakdown of methane in the atmosphere. Achieving neutrality would require a sustained 0.35% reduction in methane emissions per year by, for example, reducing emissions per unit of meat produced. This is a difficult trend to maintain for decades and even so, it would be better to reduce atmospheric concentrations of GHGs rather than maintaining neutrality.
Next up, false narratives. Livestock industry bodies and companies like to cast themselves as providing solutions to issues like global food insecurity. But the narratives don’t hold up. Hunger is much more an issue of food access, distribution and affordability, not absolute production. And animal-sourced foods from Big Livestock are more likely to feed the growing middle classes in the Global South than the poorest of the poor. Similarly, meat may be cultural, but it is not cultural to over-consume it; never have we, as a society, consumed so much meat. But Big Livestock doesn’t let a bit of nuance get in the way of an opportunity to frame themselves as the good guys.
There are many other tactics at play, from creative accounting to obstructing investment in alternative foods that might challenge Big Livestock’s bottom line. These are considered in more detail in the new Clim-Eat Discussion Starter, Smoke screens, oily politics, and bull-poop: Big Tobacco, Big Oil and Big Livestock.
Despite all this, I’m the first to acknowledge that there are many stakeholders in Big Livestock genuinely searching for sustainable solutions. We also need to acknowledge that in the Global South, livestock are a key component of livelihoods for very poor, climate-vulnerable households where meat consumption is very low.
But let’s not kid ourselves that Big Livestock alone will selflessly shepherd us to the kind of a wholesome, sustainable utopia it encourages us to imagine. To tackle the impact of the livestock sector on climate change, we need a full suite of options. These include dietary shifts – less meat for the rich and more for the poor; reduced animal numbers – fewer livestock in rich countries, and more efficient animals in both rich and poor countries; and more research in areas such as plant-based and alternative proteins.
If any of that gets on your goat, the science, unfortunately, is not on your side.
By Bruce Campbell, Chief Innovation Strategist, Clim-Eat