How The Meat Industry Is Climate-Washing Its Polluting Business Model

Above photo: Peter Reynolds.

Growing global meat consumption threatens to derail the Paris Agreement.

But that hasn’t stopped the meat industry insisting it is part of the solution to climate change.

In February last year, the head of a leading global meat industry body gave a “pep talk” to his colleagues at an Australian agriculture conference.

“It’s a recurring theme that somehow the livestock sector and eating meat is detrimental to the environment, that it is a serious negative in terms of the climate change discussions,” Hsin Huang, Secretary General of the International Meat Secretariat (IMS), told his audience. But the sector, he insisted, could be the “heroes in this discussion” if it wanted to.

“We cannot continue business as we have done in the past,” he went on. “If we are not proactive in helping to convince the public and policymakers in particular, who have an impact on our activities – if we are not successful in convincing them of the benefits that we bring to the table, then we will be relegated to has-beens.”

Huang’s speech points to an industry nervous about its role in a carbon-constrained future. In the face of mounting evidence of the livestock industry’s climate impacts and a growing array of meat alternatives, the sector has developed a multi-pronged PR strategy that seeks to legitimise not only the industry’s current activities but also its plans to scale up production — despite clear warnings from scientists that this could scupper efforts to meet climate targets.

DeSmog conducted a five-month investigation into the meat industry’s PR and lobbying, reviewing hundreds of documents and statements by companies and trade associations. Our research shows how the industry seeks to portray itself as a climate leader by:

  • Downplaying the impact of livestock farming on the climate;
  • Casting doubt on the efficacy of alternatives to meat to combat climate change;
  • Promoting the health benefits of meat while overlooking the industry’s environmental footprint;
  • Exaggerating the potential of agricultural innovations to reduce the livestock industry’s ecological impact.

The Climate Impact of Meat

Today’s meat industry is dominated by a few multinational giants, including JBS, Tyson Foods, Vion, and Danish Crown, with access to markets across the world. In step with rising global demand, meat production has more than quadrupled in the past sixty years.

Despite this tremendous growth, forecasts indicate that the world is still far from reaching “peak meat”. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which represents many of the world’s biggest economies, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predict that global meat production will continue to rise in the coming decade as incomes increase in developing countries.

But that trend sets the world on a collision course with the climate targets laid out in the Paris Agreement. A study published in Science last year found that even if emissions from fossil fuels ceased right away, projected eating habits would make it impossible to keep global average temperature rises to 1.5C.

And a more recent study from New York University (NYU) looked at how meat companies could blow through the climate targets of their countries of origin. The European Union’s largest pork producer Danish Crown, for example, is set to consume 42 percent of Denmark’s emissions budget under the Paris Agreement by 2030 in a business-as-usual scenario.

It’s in this context that meat companies have ramped up their efforts to market their products as climate-friendly, says Kristine Clement, campaign lead of agriculture and forests at Greenpeace Denmark. The industry wants to continue its rapid growth, but is terrified that “politicians will stand up and say, ‘No, we can’t continue this endless production of meat,’” she explains.

‘New Narrative’

Meat producers casting themselves in an environmentally friendly light isn’t a new phenomenon. But increased public pressure for companies to act in a climate-conscious way has caused a step-change in the industry’s PR efforts.

According to Jennifer Jacquet, associate professor of environmental studies at NYU, and a co-author of the study looking at meat companies’ carbon footprints, the first high-profile revelation that the livestock sector was operating beyond ecological limits and having significant negative environmental impacts came in a 2006 FAO report titled Livestock’s Long Shadow.

Since then, meat industry players have shifted from emphasising the supposed sustainability of organically-produced meat to painting meat as an answer to ecological challenges like climate change.

At a virtual conference in March, for instance, the Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA), a US-based industry group, announced plans to “change the narrative and position animal agriculture as a solution to reducing our environmental footprint and improving our planet for generations to come.”

For Jacquet, though, such promises are little more than reputation management. “That’s what these people in these positions are paid to do”, she says, referring to trade associations such as the IMS and AAA. She adds:

“They’re paid to comfort us. They’re paid to get us to not think hard and deeply about the industry. They’re paid to assuage our worries. And they’re paid to tell regulators: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll self-regulate. We’ll do a good job. You don’t need to worry about us. We are good actors.’” – Jennifer Jacquet, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies

Meat companies themselves have also stepped up their climate-friendly advertising. Danish Crown relaunched its website in 2019, pledging to set “a new direction towards a more sustainable future” with a “new brand and narrative” designed to “make it clearer to customers and consumers that Danish Crown has started this transformation.”

In 2020, the company ran a large-scale campaign across TV, radio, newspapers, and billboards, insisting that its pigs were “more climate-friendly than you think.” The same year, it put stickers on its pork products, describing pigs slaughtered by the company as “climate-controlled.”

Greenpeace Denmark’s Clement argues terms like “climate-friendly” or “climate-controlled” may mislead consumers into thinking that pork produces few emissions, or even that it’s beneficial to the climate.

Danish Crown told Greenpeace that it stopped using the “climate-friendly” line after criticism from consumer organisations. The company has never announced the decision publicly, though, a move Clement says is unacceptable: “They have spent millions of kroner to get this message out in people’s faces, and they have not communicated anywhere that they have accepted the critique and stopped using it.”

The company apparently has no plans, however, to withdraw the “climate-controlled” labelling, recently claiming that a voluntary certification program it runs for its suppliers and which forms the basis of the labelling is “reasonably robust”.

The company’s refusal to withdraw the second campaign and publicly retract claims made during the first has so angered environmental groups in Denmark that in June, three filed the country’s first climate lawsuit over Danish Crown’s advertising slogans.

According to Rune-Christoffer Dragsdahl from the Vegetarian Society of Denmark, one of the plaintiffs, even if the industry manages to cut emissions as much as it claims, pork would “still be much more climate-damaging than plant-based alternatives”, and it’s therefore misleading to describe it as climate-friendly. Dragsdahl hopes the lawsuit will deter other meat companies from spreading similar narratives. “Someone has to draw a line in the sand before this gets out of hand and just becomes completely confusing for consumers,” he says.

But Danish Crown is standing by the campaign. The company did not respond to DeSmog’s requests to comment for this story, but its communications director Astrid Gade Nielsen told Danish media: “We believe that our campaign is a strong program based on what our farmers do on the farms.”

Campaigns run by the AAA and Danish Crown are just two examples of the way in which the meat industry is increasingly turning to a playbook long used by other polluting sectors such as Big Oil and pesticide manufacturers, with the campaigns ultimately causing “confusion and delay,” NYU’s Jacquet argues.

Meat Industry Playbook

Through a major review of the PR materials of 10 key meat industry organisations, DeSmog has identified a number of tactics being employed by industry players again and again.

All organisations in this investigation were contacted by DeSmog for comment. IMS and JBS responded and you can find their full comments here. AHDB responded to technical questions, and you can find its answers in its profile.

All other organisations did not respond to DeSmog’s requests to comment.