Cows at seen at a dairy farm

Cows at seen at a dairy farm on August 24, 2016, in Porterville in California's Central Valley.

(Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Big Ag Pressured UN Food Agency Over Role of Meat and Dairy in Climate Crisis, Staffers Say

"Wherever you go, whatever you do, if it involves revealing anything about the devastating impacts of animal agriculture... you are beaten down for it," said one advocate.

A landmark report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization forced global policymakers to consider greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and the corporate farming industry nearly two decades ago—and current and former officials at the agency revealed Friday that they were subjected to censorship and internal pressure from meat and dairy industry lobbyists for years afterwards, with ramifications that likely persist today.

As policymakers prepare to discuss agriculture and the climate crisis at the upcoming 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), The Guardian spoke to 20 former and current FAO officials about the response from the industry after the FAO revealed in 2006 that about 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions were attributable to livestock.

Between 2006 and at least 2019, the staffers said, FAO management frequently tried to suppress further investigations into the connection between livestock, factory farming, and the climate crisis—in an attempt to prevent the agency from building on its findings in the landmark report.

Big Ag lobbyists were a major driver of the suppression attempts, said ex-officials.

"There was substantial pressure internally and there were consequences for permanent staff who worked on this, in terms of their careers."

"They had a strong impact on the way things were done at the FAO and there was a lot of censorship," said one of the former staffers, many of whom spoke anonymously. "It was always an uphill struggle getting the documents you produced past the office for corporate communications and one had to fend off a good deal of editorial vandalism."

The "editorial vandalism" included the rewriting and diluting of key passages regarding greenhouse gas emissions and livestock, while management also "buried" a paper critical of Big Ag. Some officials who focused on the issue were excluded from meetings and summits.

"It's not that anyone would come to you and say: 'Stop this! We don't like this work,'" one former official told The Guardian. "They would just make your work difficult. They would not invite you to a meeting with a donor. You would not get a slot when you should be speaking. You would not get the support from project development, from capacity building, from all kinds of other units in the FAO that others would get."

Henning Steinfeld, the head of the FAO's livestock policy division who led the publication of the 2006 report, titled Livestock's Long Shadow, toldThe Guardian that he and like-minded staffers came to be seen as "a pest that needs to be eradicated," while lobbyists for the meat and dairy industries, which were each valued at close to $1 trillion in recent years, complained that the FAO had "fallen into the hands of vegan activists."

"There was substantial pressure internally and there were consequences for permanent staff who worked on this, in terms of their careers," said another former official. "It wasn't really a healthy environment to work in."

Joanna Randall, a plant-based food advocacy campaigner with the Humane Society International in the U.K., said considering the "absolutely historic impact" that the FAO's 2006 report had on public understanding of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by livestock, she was "absolutely not" surprised to learn about the censorship that followed.

The Guardian noted that the pressure felt by officials in recent years at FAO may have resulted in questionable official estimates regarding the current state of methane emissions from livestock and their contribution to planetary heating.

After estimating in 2006 that 18% of global emissions came from livestock, a 2013 paper by the agency claimed the number ws only 14.5%. The FAO currently estimates that about 11.2% of emissions are attributed to the meat and dairy industry.

"This seems counter-intuitive, given that during the same period, the FAO recorded a 39% increase in global meat production," The Guardiannoted.

Other studies completed outside the FAO have concluded between 16.5% and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal products

"It's no coincidence that industry's involvement has led to lower overall relative estimates of emissions for livestock," University of Miami environmental science professor Jennifer Jacquet told the outlet. "Industry was taken aback by Livestock's Long Shadow. It caught them on the backfoot and they had to regroup, double down, and figure out how to get control of the narrative—and over the science to some degree."

At COP28 next month, policymakers will participate in the first-ever dedicated "food day" at a U.N. climate change summit, and will discuss food, agriculture, and water at at least 22 major events at the conference in Dubai.

"The emissions from farming is a huge driver of the climate crisis," Jennifer Larbie of Christian Aid told The Guardian, "and one which needs to be tackled at COP28 if we are to keep global heating in check."

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