How Big Meat Is Funding Climate Denial and Polluting the Planet

A worker processes cuts of beef.
A worker processes cuts of beef.
Photo: Nati Harnik (AP)

Move over, Big Oil, and make some room for Big Meat at the climate shame table. A new study shows agribusiness is a major source climate misinformation as well as carbon emissions.

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The analysis, published last month in Climatic Change, looks at the PR moves behind some of the world’s largest producers of meat and dairy, comparing them to their emissions. Most shockingly, the analysis finds that all 10 of the top agriculture companies in the U.S. have contributed to efforts to downplay how agribusiness is linked to climate change.

“We’re trying to show how important thinking about the corporate actor is in this problem,” said Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University and a coauthor of the paper. “These companies are not just influencing the geophysical processes, they’re influencing the social processes. This just hasn’t been as appreciated as it has been in other sectors, like fossil fuels.”

The United Nations estimates that animal agriculture accounts for more than 14% of global emissions. A seminal 2018 report, which this new analysis builds on, found that the world’s top 35 beef and dairy producers alone account for 15% of all those emissions. One of the gnarliest issues with animal agriculture is, of course, methane produced from cows. Methane is a short-term greenhouse gas—it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide—but it is substantially more potent and can cause more damage while it’s in there. Research published last year found that global annual methane emissions increased 9% from 2000 to 2017—the equivalent of doubling the total carbon dioxide emissions of Germany or France—largely as a result of agriculture.

The Climatic Change study is separated into three parts. First, the authors surveyed the list of the world’s top 35 producers for sustainability commitments using any available documents—including reports to investors, websites, and annual reports—to get as many details as possible. Of the 35 companies surveyed, just a scant handful had any sort of explicit commitment to lower emissions; just four had a net zero by 2050 target, while three others had some sort of goal set over the next few decades. Most of those commitments, the study found, were vague and focused on mitigating energy use in company supply chains rather than actually lowering methane emissions from animals in their systems.

Next, the study compared these companies’ specific greenhouse has emissions footprints to that of their headquartered countries to see how they lined up with individual countries’ commitments to the Paris Agreement. The findings show that many of these companies’ emissions are so large that incorporating their emissions into the countries where they’re headquartered would vastly exceed these country’s carbon budgets. The emissions from Nestlé and dairy producer Fonterra, headquartered in Switzerland and New Zealand respectively, would take up all of their home country’s carbon budgets.

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There’s a lot of cross-country math involved in some of these calculations—companies headquartered in Switzerland, for example, own farmland elsewhere in the world—and, as Jacquet pointed out, it doesn’t fit exactly into how the Paris Agreement demands countries count up their emissions. But the process, Jacquet said, was more intended as a thought exercise to encourage countries to take action and help keep agribusiness in check.

“If Smithfield is planting or buying soy from the Amazon, maybe that should be part of WH Group, which owns Smithfield, emissions accounting [in China],” Jacquet said. “Are the countries that are home to major animal ag companies thinking a lot about this sector? [These companies] are part of these countries’ tax base and employing their citizens. What are these countries going to do about this sector?”

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Finally, the third portion of the study zeroes in on the U.S, and efforts from meat producers headquartered here to downplay their role in the climate crisis. This finding is perhaps the most jarring: 10 of the country’s major meat producers—including big names like Tyson, Cargill, and Hormel—have supported efforts to fund climate denial, helped spread denier rhetoric, or donated to denier politicians or those who are against climate policy.

These companies are pretty big spenders. From 2000 to 2020, the study found, agribusiness giant Tyson gave more than $3 million to political campaigns. That’s a fraction of the $17 million Exxon spent over the same time period, but a significantly larger portion of Tyson’s revenue compared to Exxon’s. In the context of revenues, Tyson also spent 33% more on lobbying during this time period than Exxon.

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Separating out the intent of some of these donations is a little tricky. As the report notes, much of this money was intended to “support a broad political agenda that include issues beyond climate change, including farm bill appropriations and subsidies.” But, Jacquet said, that money also filtered through trade associations that lobby against climate policy and went directly to support scientists who have publicly downplayed associations between the agricultural sector and global emissions.

“I underestimated the extent to which they were engaged on climate, specifically,” Jacquet said. “They’re working hard to minimize the link between what their companies do and climate change, and they’re also working very hard specifically to undermine climate policy. That feels sort of shady. That’s something the public deserves to know.”

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And the public awareness may spread soon. Jacquet said that the focus on the specific companies outlined in this analysis is something she thinks is going to become very important as we ramp up efforts to get global greenhouse gas emissions under control.

“This conversation has not yet gotten as heated as I expect it will,” she said. “We’re turning up the dial on this.”

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Writing about climate change, renewable energy, and Big Oil/Big Gas/Big Everything for Earther. Formerly of the Center for Public Integrity & Nexus Media News. I'm very tall & have a very short dog.

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