A report written by researchers at New York University reveals that the biggest meat and dairy companies are a major contributor to global warming. In the United States, industry players have spent millions of dollars lobbying against climate action. In addition, they show little effort to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and bypass climate and environmental legislation by all means.
How? ‘Or’ What ? By sowing doubt and minimizing the links between livestock and climate change. And yet, these companies are among the world’s largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, as Olivier Lazarus, one of the study’s authors, a specialist in the history of science, underlines.
This new report, which draws on data released in 2017 and 2018 by the international advocacy group GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), is the first-ever peer-reviewed study to accurately document fingerprints individual carbon from meat and dairy companies.
A significant impact on national emission reduction targets
Livestock are responsible for more than 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to figures from the GRAIN organization and the IATP, the five largest producers of meat and dairy products – JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America and Fonterra – emit more greenhouse gases than the oil giant, ExxonMobil! An IATP report released last year also found that the combined total emissions of the largest dairy companies had increased by 11% in just two years (from 2015 to 2017).
Although several recent reports, including that of the IPCC, have shown that reducing agriculture-related emissions is essential in the fight against climate change, this new research found that only seven of the 16 countries where the most major players in the sector are mentioning livestock-related measures in their plans to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
Of the 35 largest meat and dairy companies in the world examined in the report, only four have made explicit commitments to reduce net emissions by 2050: Dairy Farmers of America, Nestlé, Danish Crown and Danone. Since then, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor – which has been part of China’s WH Group since 2013 – has pledged to be carbon-negative by 2030. Brazilian company JBS, which accounts for about a quarter of the world beef market, recently announced that it would reach zero by 2040. Finally, Hormel plans to set a target for reducing greenhouse gases by 2023.
The problem: all these commitments lack details and concrete elements and focus on carbon dioxide emissions, while the majority of the sector’s emissions come from methane, another greenhouse gas. The authors of the study also note that in some cases, the announced emission targets relate only to part of the supply chain.
The researchers also looked at the impact of each company’s emissions on their country’s emission reduction targets. So, for example, they determined that the emissions produced by the Swiss company Nestlé and the New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra were so high that they would eclipse the emissions pledges made by their respective countries – by consuming the entire product on their own. expected quota. Arla, the largest producer of dairy products in Scandinavia, will account for 60% of Denmark’s total emissions. ” These emissions inherent in the production of meat and dairy products would in fact completely eliminate the promises made by countries under the Paris agreement. Says Jennifer Jacquet, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University and co-author of the study.
Separately, the report found that the nine U.S. companies surveyed were responsible for 6% of the country’s overall emissions, but emitted around 350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is very high in terms of absolute emissions. Not to mention that the study does not include emissions from these companies related to production outside the United States.
Lobbying largely ignored
Thanks to their more granular approach, at the level of companies and no longer of countries as a whole, the authors of the study point out that the responsibility could in some cases rest with a single entity. ” The Paris agreement suggests that Brazil is responsible for what is happening in Brazil. What if Brazil was responsible for JBS or China for Smithfield? »Offers Jacquet.
This approach had already been applied to the fossil fuel sector, in a study published in 2015, in which the emissions of the world’s largest producers of oil, gas and coal (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, BP, Gazprom, etc.), had been scrutinized. This study had shown that these companies had an important responsibility in climate change and that they therefore had the power to effectively contribute to changing the situation. Likewise, this new report aims to strengthen the climate responsibility of meat and dairy producers.
Another part of the research concerned lobbying the US food industry in the face of climate regulation. The authors thus discovered that the sector – the meat and dairy companies, as well as other agricultural companies – had spent 750 million dollars to support political candidates between 2000 and 2020. These same companies also allocated 2, $ 5 billion on lobbying between 2000 and 2019. For its part, the US energy sector spent $ 1 billion on political support and $ 6.2 billion on lobbying.
The report also looked at the individual contributions of companies. It shows that ExxonMobil spent around $ 17 million on political campaigns and over $ 240 million on lobbying over the 20 years studied. At the same time, Tyson, America’s leading beef exporter, allocated $ 3.2 million for political campaigns. But if you consider the turnover of each company, Tyson spent double what Exxon spent on political campaigns and a third more on lobbying!
At the same time, the biggest lobbies – the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, etc. – have spent nearly $ 200 million over twenty years against climate and environmental regulations, say the authors. These pressure groups notably protested against a bill on cap and trade and funded research to minimize greenhouse gas emissions linked to livestock.
Much academic research has already highlighted attempts by the fossil fuel industry to influence public discourse. A similar body of research on the efforts of the agricultural industry has not yet emerged. ” This could be largely attributed to the fact that very little agricultural research is carried out outside of universities influenced by industry or by independent researchers. », Explain the authors.