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With tens of billions of nonhuman animals either hunted or farmed in the world’s current world system of food production, future pandemics are all but certain. (Photo: Tim Geers/Flickr/cc)

A new report highlights how giants of the meat and dairy industry contribue to the climate and biodiversity crises. (Photo: Tim Geers/Flickr/cc)

Meat and Dairy Industry 'Fanning the Flames' of Climate and Biodiversity Crises: Report

Bolstering the case for urgent policy change, the sector's top 20 companies collectively produce more planet-heating emissions than some fossil fuel giants and European countries.

Jessica Corbett

A report released Tuesday by European campaigners highlights how the global industrial animal farming sector, backed by billions from major financial institutions, is fueling the intertwined climate and biodiversity crises—and what policymakers can do to better protect people and the planet.

"The food and farming sector in industrialized countries, which accounts for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, is far from doing its fair share to reduce them."
Meat Atlas 2021

Meat Atlas 2021 (pdf)—published by Friends of the Earth Europe, its German arm Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz, and the Berlin-based Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung—says the food sector is responsible for 21% to 37% of planet-heating emissions, over half of which comes from industrial animal farming.

Along with featuring "facts and figures about the animals we eat," the report explains that scientists have been "stressing for over a decade that a climate- and biodiversity-friendly diet contains less than half the amount of meat consumed in industrialized countries today."

"However, an ambitious and dedicated political shift in agriculture and food policy to tackle the climate crisis seems far away," the report continues. "The food and farming sector in industrialized countries, which accounts for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, is far from doing its fair share to reduce them."

Leaders at the three groups behind the atlas argue in its introduction that "contrary to what politicians might claim, laws and regulations can steer our consumption decisions in favor of sustainability and health. There are numerous instruments for this: fiscal, informational, and legal."

"European and national food strategies should contain such instruments, as well as those which support sustainable livestock breeding and a transition of the industry towards more locally embedded models in order to create fair and sustainable food environments," the trio writes. "They should also reinforce environmental and social laws as well as animal welfare legislation in order to shift the focus of current industrial meat production to quality instead of quantity."

The atlas uses several data points to make the case that industrial farming is wreaking havoc on the planet—including findings from 2018 that "just five meat-and-milk giants, JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America, and Fonterra, produce more combined emissions per year than major oil players like Exxon, Shell, or BP. Taken together, 20 livestock firms are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than Germany, Britain, or France."

Although some animal farming industry giants are privately owned, the atlas acknowledges, "others are at least partially listed on the stock exchanges" and "financial firms are major investors, underwriters, and lenders to the sector."

More than 2,500 investment banks, private banks, and pension funds poured $478 billion into meat and dairy firms from 2015 to 2020, the report says, emphasizing that BlackRock, Capital Group, Vanguard, and the Norwegian government pension fund are among the top investors.

"While many financiers have made commitments to environmental policies and targets," the atlas explains, "the impacts of industrial-scale agriculture are yet to be regulated across financial and legal platforms."

Meat Atlas 2021 also explores various other aspects of the industry including consolidation, trade policies, pandemic risk, land conflicts, water use, pesticides, and microbial resistance. According to the report, key takeaways include:

  • More than one billion people around the world earn their living by keeping livestock. Traditional and nature-friendly animal husbandry is coming under pressure from industrialized agriculture.
  • Almost two-thirds of the world's 600 million poor livestock keepers are women. They face disadvantages because they have limited access to land, services, and farm ownership.
  • Conflicts over land are on the rise, in part because of industrial meat production. More and more people are being killed for defending the right to land.
  • The use of antibiotics in animal husbandry is resulting in more and more microbial resistance. This threatens the effectiveness of antibiotics, one of the most important types of treatment in human medicine.
  • The leading producers of fodder crops are among the largest users of pesticides—which contaminate groundwater and harm biodiversity.

"Industrial meat farming is fanning the flames of climate crisis and biodiversity collapse while threatening the health of farmers, workers, and consumers—the evidence is resounding," said Stanka Becheva, food and agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, in a statement Tuesday.

Though Becheva took aim at the European Union's policymakers in particular, her message about what changes are needed has broader applicability.

"The E.U. needs to curb this insatiable industry, but right now its leaders are just eating out of Big Agribusiness' hand," she said. "Europe must act to clamp down on deforestation and human rights violations in supply chains, facilitate the switch to more plant-based diets, and redirect billions of euros of subsidies and finance to small sustainable farmers."

Surveys suggest such moves would be popular, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung president Barbara Unmüßig pointed out Tuesday.

"As the polls in this Meat Atlas 2021 show, the younger generations in Germany—but also in other countries—share this critical assessment: They no longer accept the meat industry's business model," Unmüßig said.

"More than 70% of German young adults are willing to pay more for meat if the production conditions change fundamentally," she explained. "But the most decisive result: a huge majority of over 80% see politics in the duty to finally set binding conditions for a climate-friendly agriculture, better animal husbandry and a climate-friendly diet."

Meat production "is expected to increase by another 40 million tonnes a year by 2029," which "would take the total output to around 366 million tonnes a year, unless policy changes intervene," according to the atlas. "Although 80% of the growth is likely to take place in the Global South, the biggest producers will remain China, Brazil, the USA, and the members of the European Union."

Noting that "the economic interests of the meat industry, which is worth billions, and the refusal of politicians to reform strategically and coherently are keeping us on a tortuous path overstretching the ecological limits of the planet," Unmüßig warned that "the way things are, we will need to reduce meat production by half."

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