The world’s largest beef manufacturer is in trouble. Reports have emerged that employees in over a dozen plants knowingly packed rancid meat, covering up the smell with acid, slabs of which were then sold on to schools and Walmart.
All this happened not in the U.S., though, but in Brazil, headquarters to meatpacking giant JBS. Named for its founder, Jose Batista Sobrinho, the company turns over almost as much as the next three largest U.S. beef producers—Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef—combined.
In response, Egypt has already banned Brazilian beef, and U.S. Senator John Tester (D-Montana) recently introduced legislation to prevent Brazilian beef from entering into the country, even as JBS suspended meat production at 33 of its 36 Brazilian meatpacking plants.
But choosing “America First” for your steak misses two far larger points. The Brazilian giant is simply striving to adopt ideas from, and buy out companies in, the U.S. meat industry. Pilgrim’s, Cargill’s pork business and Smithfield’s beef operation have been acquired by what Bloomberg once called the world’s second largest packaged food company (behind Nestlé).
And even if you could stop the import of dodgy sausage, you still couldn’t avoid the bigger planetary impact of the beef industry, because it’s airborne. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), meat and dairy production alone now generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transport combined.
Much of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by industrial livestock occur indirectly, through the production of grains to feed to animals that then get fed to humans. In 2010, about one-third of all cereals on Earth went to animal feed, and the FAO predicts this figure will reach 50 percent by 2050. More feed means more land under cultivation. And feed crops like soybean, maize, and sorghum are usually grown with chemical fertilizers, themselves another potent source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, consumption is soaring, made possible by widespread marketing and producing meat that’s cheap to buy—even if those low prices are made possible through dangerous and poorly paid jobs, lax environmental practices, corporate subsidies, and dreadful living conditions for animals. If current trends continue, the FAO predicts world meat consumption will grow a further 76 percent by 2050. If, on the other hand, people kept their level of meat consumption to the World Health Organization’s recommended guidelines, the world could reduce 40 percent of all current greenhouse gas emissions.
Unsurprisingly, this advice hasn’t been well received by the meat, fertilizer, pesticide, and processing industries. Industrial meat concerns blasted the FAO after they put out a report in 2006 on the role of livestock in the climate crisis. “You wouldn’t believe how much we were attacked,” said Samuel Jutzi, director of the animal production and health division this UN agency. The FAO soon buckled under the pressure and agreed to establish a partnership with the meat industry’s main lobby groups and shifted the focus of its work accordingly.
Canadian academic Tony Weis has a term for what’s happening here: the world’s diet, food system, and food policy are being “meatified.” The corporations doing it are increasingly based in the global South, where most of the world’s future industrial meat eaters live, and those firms are doing roaring business.
For example, a recent report by GRAIN shows that JBS is also the world’s largest poultry producer. The world’s largest pork producer is the Chinese WH Group, and France’s Lactalis Group is the world’s largest dairy producer. These firms, together with more-established U.S. and European ones, work hard to increase their control over the market: They blunt domestic government attempts to regulate them, they spur demand across the world, and they destroy the livestock practices of small-scale farmers in the process.
Propping Up the Meat Market
When Germany drafted guidelines to reduce meat consumption, demonstrating that a 50 percent cut by 2030 would be “crucial to climate protection,” the industry lobbied. Hard. By the November 2016 launch date, the country’s climate change plan had been gutted, and stripped of any reference at all to greenhouse gases in the agriculture sector. Similar stories can be told of U.S. efforts and those, predictably, in Brazil.
Despite industry opposition to certain kinds of regulation, they’re very happy to suck at the teat of government subsidy. In 2013, OECD countries dished out $53 billion to livestock producers, with the EU paying $731 million to its cattle industry alone The same year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid more than $500 million to just 62 producers (starting with Tyson Foods) in order to get meat and dairy on school meal trays, compared to just a fraction of that to fruit and vegetable suppliers.
But the big guns in the industry’s arsenal are “free trade” agreements. These trade deals artificially prop up production and consumption by promoting the dumping of cheap meat and dairy into poor countries’ economies. They include clauses that eliminate protections for local farmers from foreign competitors. They also make it illegal to grant preference to local suppliers or products and they make government regulations subject to investor-state dispute settlement under which a foreign company can sue governments that adopt social or environmental legislation that they think undermines their profits.
Not all meat production is the same, of course. Small scale mixed farmers and herders who graze animals on land where crops often cannot be grown are the sustainable old-guard. Their production and consumption systems contribute relatively few greenhouse gases, while improving family nutrition and livelihoods and forming an integral part of people’s cultural and religious traditions.
But even if they’re better for the planet, small-scale farmers and ranchers don’t have the political clout that industry has. Factory farms are the most rapidly growing segment of meat and dairy production, accounting for 80 percent of the growth of global meat and dairy in recent years. Industrial livestock production has grown at twice the annual rate of traditional, diversified farming systems, and at more than six times the annual growth rate of production based on grazing.
Change is Possible
Yet it’s not unimaginable to shift, at scale, away from industrial meat. Last month, Friends of the Earth and Oakland Unified School District published the result of a unique two-year experiment. The district reduced animal protein on school menus by 30 percent while increasing fruit, vegetables, and legumes. When kids ate meat, it came from local organic producers. The result: a 14 percent reduction in the school’s food carbon footprint and $42,000 savings in the cost of the meals. Perhaps most remarkable: the children reported increased satisfaction with the healthy, regionally sourced meals.
The Oakland school initiative is smart and, unlike the U.S. meat industry’s practices, deserves to be shared and spread widely. But we can’t just default to letting our children solve climate change for us. Voting with one’s fork or school menu is important, but that alone won’t restore small-scale production, and it won’t detoxify agricultural politics of corporate influence. Larger-scale policy change is vital. Some governments—including Sweden, the Netherlands and China—have started formulating recommendations that people eat less meat in the interest of reducing climate emissions.
De-meatifying the world will require more from legislators, and more from consumers. It will mean rejecting the meat-marketing and the fertilizer, feed, and fossil fuel industries, too. It will mean pushing back on the trade agreements of which these industries are so fond—and doing so without backing into the nationalism of the right. (It is striking that earlier this year we saw a Trump supporter go head-to-head against the U.S. meatpacking industry in defense of sustainable beef.)
The rift between the left and the right around climate change turns on whether you think industrial meatification is an unintended consequence of the food system or its embodiment. If it’s no accident that today’s food system exploits animals, humans and nature, then it’s clear that a radically transformed system—one that moves beyond capitalism—is what’s needed.
Buying America First won’t save us from the worst of Big Meat. But it looks as if there are many ranchers, educators, and small-scale farmers who are ready to take a more radical stand. If consumers are ready to boycott Big Meat for good, permanently choosing to support sustainable animal raising by paying more for it, there’s hope for us all.
Cattle photo CC-licensed by Alex Proimos.