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March 15, 2022
Last fall, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) took out a full-page ad in The New York Times declaring that the U.S. “produces the most sustainable beef in the world” and that “cattle play an important role in protecting and enhancing our ecosystems.” Why was the nation’s beef trade group spending some of its $66.5 million budget to promote this climate-forward message? Because the conversation about the climate crisis has been heating up (pun intended) and policy makers increasingly connect food production, particularly meat and dairy, with the crisis—and rightfully so.
As much as 37 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to the global food system, the majority from meat and dairy, pointing toward policy solutions that very much put the bull’s eye on the meat producers paying the NCBA’s bills. One recent study, for instance, found that high-income countries—especially the U.S., France, Australia, and Germany—could cut their agriculture emissions by two-thirds through diet change alone, largely by reducing meat consumption. But, despite findings like this one, meat companies are still largely out of the firing line when it comes to climate activism and policy making.
Last year, a study published in Climatic Change set out to explore the climate culpability of the top 35 animal agriculture companies globally in terms of climate impacts, building on an earlier report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and GRAIN. This new study investigates how the world’s biggest meat and dairy companies are being transparent (or not) about this responsibility and what role these companies play in a political and cultural conversation that is leading to obstruction on climate action.
Civil Eats spoke with Jennifer Jacquet, the corresponding author on the study and an associate professor at New York University, about the powerful political sway these companies hold, why they’re not being held accountable for their outsized contributions to climate change, and what to do about it.
Let’s start with what inspired this research.
We wanted to do for animal agriculture what Richard Heede had done in exposing the role of industrial producers in the climate crisis. When IATP and GRAIN published “Emissions Impossible,” we were thrilled to see they had done exactly that, so we thought about how we could contribute the next step.
What argument are you making about the responsibility of companies in the climate crisis?
I had been thinking about the role of corporations, and especially publicly held corporations, for a long time. I was influenced by Dale Jamieson, who is a colleague at NYU and a philosopher. He’d also been thinking about different kinds of responsibility—moral, legal—and the different actors, like the nation state, to which the Paris Agreement gives primary responsibility [for addressing climate change]. With work like Rick Heede’s on industrial producers and climate in Climactic Change, or like Shoibal Chakravartyʻs PNAS paper on individual per-capita consumption, you start to think about how responsibility can fracture and how different views of responsibility can be useful to policymakers.
Frankly, I think corporate actors have gone under the radar for way too long. They clearly don’t take much responsibility. If you look at how many of these 35 meat and dairy companies analyzed in that report even calculate the share of their own emissions, it’s less than half. This is a big indicator that they don’t view themselves as having much responsibility and that society hasn’t held them accountable for these problems.
Yes, there’s this interesting effect that can happen when you start talking about attribution differently: It can illuminate responsibility in new ways.
Just like the way that Bernie Sanders helped to reframe the idea of economic inequality to “the 1 percent” in the U.S., that’s an attribution question. The way that influenced conversations about responsibility was so interesting. I think looking at these 35 companies is very much like that. Keep in mind: We know animal agriculture contributes somewhere between 15 to 20 percent of anthropogenic climate change and these companies are the largest in the world, the most transnational. Though this sector is not as consolidated as it is in fossil fuels, these 35 companies still have an outsized influence.
How did you look at responsibility on the part of companies, like meat companies, whose products so often cross borders?
It’s a great question for anyone interested in doing work on climate change. Take any sector—aviation, shipping, fossil fuels—it’s a tricky question. You have a company, say, headquartered in Texas, but half their production is abroad, and half their production is subsidiaries that are owned in six other countries, and their consumer base is largely in Asia. Who should be responsible?
This was one of the pushbacks we got to the paper from industry: “We don’t like that you attributed, say, Smithfield, to America rather than China, for instance [because Smithfield is now wholly owned by the Chinese company WH Group].” Well, how would you suggest we do it? There’s no single right way to attribute responsibility.
When you start undertaking these exercises, you realize how complicated globalization has made the question of responsibility. You have [Brazilian company] JBS, the largest meat company in the world, but more than half of its production is [outside of Brazil]. I’m sure the Brazilian government is asking, “Why are you attributing JBS’s emissions to Brazil?” Currently, a lot of emissions in general, and especially in animal agriculture, are slipping through the cracks.
Many of these companies are also very resistant to taking responsibility for their supply chain emissions: The things happening as a result of their production that are outside their immediate purview. But we’re saying, “Deforestation that’s associated with your grazing? We can tie that to you.”
Where else do you see emissions—and responsibility—slipping through the cracks?
Emissions can also slip through the cracks temporally. Right now, the U.S. doesn’t look as bad in terms of impacts from animal agriculture relative to Brazil, because we are already did all the deforestation. We’re not thinking historically. The U.S. beef industry loves to say, “We’re nothing like Brazilian meat.” Well, we were more like them at some point. Maybe it wasn’t the Amazon rainforest, but certainly the land use changes on account of our own cattle industry have been significant.
You could argue in some ways that the countries with [the highest levels of] consumption should be responsible even if the production is elsewhere, like all the meat that JBS is producing is not consumed in Brazil. Why shouldn’t Germans, say, have some kind of accountability for that? We’re not arguing against that view by any means, but it’s illuminating.
New Zealand—small population, strong environmental policies—has a big economic engine in meat production. As a percentage of its emissions, the sector is huge. The U.S. beef industry likes to pride itself on the small percentage of national emissions attributed to beef, but that’s largely because the U.S. is such a significant emitter overall. That’s another way emissions can slip through the cracks: narrative framing.
Yes—how to lie with statistics. As you point out, the U.S. beef industry loves to capitalize on the large denominator, which is our overall emissions, to make the industry look good. It does that very strategically. They won’t talk about emissions in absolute terms; they want to talk about everything relatively.
New Zealand is fascinating. Not only do they have good policies, but as you say, it’s largely for exports; it’s not being consumed in New Zealand. They’re really trying to grapple with that fact.
In a lot of the documentation between industry and the government over this latest round of the Paris Agreement, [industry is] clearly demanding a carve-out for methane. That’s another way emissions are slipping through the cracks: These companies, especially meat and dairy, want to focus exclusively on carbon dioxide, not on methane, because that benefits the calculations.
I can’t imagine why the industry wouldn’t want to talk about methane.
(Laughs) In addition to land-use change, most of the impact from the livestock industry is from methane emissions from cattle. It’s one reason why the beef industry is running scared—or more than other kinds of terrestrial animal agriculture—because cows have this outsized impact as a result of methane [emissions from ruminant digestion], which is a more intense greenhouse gas [in the immediate term].
Another theme of your research was transparency. What did you find as you analyzed the transparency or lack thereof on the part of the meat industry and the implications for climate action?
Since fewer than half of the 35 companies disclose their emissions, let alone how they calculated them, that leaves us in a totally opaque situation. IATP and GRAIN received pushback over their report, from companies saying they didn’t like how they had calculated emissions estimates. The researchers said, “Okay, so tell us how you’d like to do it?” They’ve never issued a formal correction to the report, because the companies wouldn’t disclose the methods that they use or prefer.
In our research, we showed that in some cases a single company—if it grows at the rate it says it will—would make up 100 percent or more of the total emissions for some countries, like in the case of Denmark. This is one way to highlight the impact of meat and dairy companies, and we believe it’s a worthwhile exercise. If you are Switzerland and you are making these commitments, you really need to be committed to doing something about Nestlé [which is headquartered there], too. How much scrutiny are you paying to that sector or that company? We’re seeing very little scrutiny, and that’s the frustration.
In this study, you also explore one reason we may not have seen this kind of scrutiny: the power of industry lobbying.
We looked at the social influence of the 10 biggest U.S. [meat and dairy] companies. It was surprising to see how politically engaged they are. These companies are not just impacting our physical earth system, but they are hugely influential socially as well. We found, for instance, that Tyson—the largest meat company and emitter of the U.S. meat and dairy companies—has spent twice as much on political campaigns and 20 percent more on lobbying in the 21st century, as a percentage of their revenue, as Exxon did.
These companies haven’t been on the climate radar for nearly as long as the fossil fuel industry, so if we don’t do something about this, they’re in an even better position than fossil fuel companies were to prevent government action. And we know how powerful the fossil fuel companies have been.
We found, not surprisingly, that the largest companies were more influential politically than smaller companies, but we found that every company was doing something to influence the social environment in which they operate, whether that’s funding politicians directly, or funding groups that downplay the connection between animal agriculture and climate change.
How do these companies shape the climate conversation about animal agriculture emissions?
I recently wrote a book on corporate scientific denial and I was coming across meat and dairy companies in doing that research, because they’re actively working against the science. We know a lot now about [science denial from] Exxon and Shell because of historic documents, but with meat and dairy, you can see it in real time. These companies are threatened by new science. And when that happens, they begin to adopt the playbook that other companies have used, to great degrees of success, over the last century: They hire a network of defenders, which include trade associations, PR firms, lawyers, think tanks, and academics to both challenge the science and the policy implications of that science. As I pointed out in an op-ed for the Washington Post, big meat and dairy are adopting a lot of the same tactics as Big Oil.
One way they differ is that they aren’t outright denying climate change, although I’m not giving them lots of credit for that—if this was 1972, they very well might be. Instead, they’re challenging causation, primarily saying they really aren’t as big of an emitter as they seem. [They] hire people like Frank Mitloehner, and they also hire the Edelmans of the world to put out what you could call fake news, or spin, or misinformation-for-hire. Whatever you call it, it’s not independent: You paid to create it, you paid to spread it. We need to appreciate how much misinformation shapes our daily lives, our political lives, our cultural lives; these companies are no doubt directly part of that.
In addition to challenging the link between animals and climate change, they’re also saying there will be easy technical solutions, like seaweed in cattle feed [to reduce methane emissions from cows], but it’s still factory farming. Or, saying they are committed to net zero. This blows my mind. Last year, JBS took out a full-page ad in The New York Times about its commitment to “net zero.” And you’re just like, how? That’s like me saying, “I’m going to fly.” There’s no way for me to logically understand how JBS, the largest meat company in the world with the largest set of meat and dairy-related emissions, will get to net zero. They don’t lay out a plan, but they get tons positive PR for the proclamation. I find the fact that civil society allows these things to go unchallenged remarkable. It’s total theater.
Climate theater. Did you see a shift in the conversation on climate and terrestrial meat at COP26?
The conversation has shifted. Meat and dairy are a much bigger part of the conversation than they were five years ago. But how that plays out in the National Determined Contributions (NDCs) [non-binding national mitigation plans for tackling climate change] is an open question. Methane is getting more attention, and that’s important. But was anybody satisfied with COP26? I was not happy with the Biden administration pandering to industry, but I do think the conversation is gaining traction. That’s part of the reason I pointed out in that Washington Post op-ed that people make the decision about what they eat three times a day. They do not make the decision about what kind of car they drive or what kind of energy powers their home, with nearly the same frequency. As Civil Eats readers know, people are interested in food, so this is naturally going to be a much more public conversation—and a bloodier battlefield, perhaps.
In your op-ed, you cited a poll that found 1 in 4 Americans reported cutting back on meat in 2019. The second most-commonly cited reason, after health, was the environment. That’s significant.
In addition to these companies telling their shareholders that they are going to keep growing, a huge amount of their money goes to ad campaigns trying to convince consumers to keep eating meat.
Yes, there’s a lot of money spent to shape the story of this commodity—and we’re not even talking about the marketing budgets of, say, McDonald’s, the largest seller of beef in the country.
It’s striking the way in which these commodities are so linked to the American identity. I know people have talked about [commodity groups spending money on advertisement] a lot, but in doing the research, and seeing the reaction to it, it became palpable to me. One thing I have found is how huge the impact of the “Got Milk?” campaigns and the NCBA marketing [“Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner”] has been. So many people believe meat and dairy are fundamental to America. I thought we were a land of change and innovators—and in seeing the reaction I got to this study, I’m really struck by how much of a grasp on the cultural narrative this industry has.
What impact did you hope this paper would have?
I have heard that some people working on climate advocacy around the fossil fuel industry feel threatened by the food and climate conversation. They don’t want it to distract from scrutiny on the ExxonMobils of the world. But I don’t think of it that way. I think this conversation is drawing new people in, new philanthropy, new civil society organizations. The animal welfare community, for instance, is talking about climate change in a new way because of the direct linkage between animal agriculture and climate change. The other thing I would hope for is that state, regional, and federal climate policy, as well as the NDC commitments to the Paris Agreement, would start to reflect that society is taking animal agriculture seriously in climate change and that we recognize these companies as major social forces and as political actors.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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