Global meat industry ‘using tobacco company tactics’ to downplay role in driving climate crisis, investigation claims

·6-min read
Investigation examines ‘climate washing’ tactics used by 10 of the world’s largest meat companies (Getty)
Investigation examines ‘climate washing’ tactics used by 10 of the world’s largest meat companies (Getty)

The global meat industry is “borrowing tactics from tobacco companies” to downplay its role in driving the climate crisis, a major investigation has claimed.

Top meat companies are copying tricks also used by fossil fuel firms to ultimately “confuse and delay regulation” of their planet-harming activities, according to the environmental investigations outlet Desmog.

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.

The Brazilian meat giant JBS – 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, according to Greenpeace.

“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, told The Independent.

“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 investigation examines the “climate washing” tactics used by 10 of the world’s largest meat companies and their representative industry groups.

The production of meat and dairy accounts for around 14.5 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions – and 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 landmark National Food Strategy, which called for the country to cut its meat consumption by 30 per cent in the next 10 years.

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.

Anna Jones, head of food and forests at Greenpeace UK, told The Independent: “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.

“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.

“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.”

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.

But 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.

In response to request for comment, a spokesperson for the Animal Agriculture Alliance told The Independent that the group was “proud of our role in communicating these principles and addressing myths and misinformation about the environmental impact of animal agriculture.”

Hsin Huang, secretary general of the IMS, also stood by his comments. In a lengthy statement, he 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.

In addition to downplaying their emissions and attacking science, meat industry players are also routinely attempting to paint themselves 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.

In a presentation on “having positive conversations about meat and dairy”, the group claimed that “managing livestock effectively can sequester tons of atmospheric carbon in soils”.

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.

In a response to a request for comment, a spokesperson from the AHDB said that all of its claims are backed up by “evidence and data”.

“There are a number of reports and studies that support the statement that ‘managing livestock effectively can sequester tons of atmospheric carbon in soils’,” the spokesperson said. “Please note this is not claiming that more carbon is sequestered than emitted.”

The Independent approached all of the companies and industry groups mentioned for comment.

A spokesperson from JBS said the company recognised the “importance of reducing our environmental impact to combat climate change”.

“Earlier this year, JBS became the first major global meat and poultry company to commit to net zero emissions by 2040,” the spokesperson said.

“To support our net zero ambition, we have committed to reduce direct emissions from our operations by 30 per cent by 2030.”

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