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'No Such Thing as Cheap Meat': New Global Index Shows Industry's Failure to Combat Climate Crisis, Antibiotic Resistance

Index gauges how 60 suppliers, worth a combined $300 billion, are managing sustainability risks based on nine criteria

cattle

Cattle graze on a farm in Caroline County, Maryland (Photo: Bob Nichols/USDA/Flickr/cc)

A new sustainability index found that roughly three-quarters of the world's largest meat and fish suppliers are failing to manage their contributions to worldwide antibiotic resistance as well as their contributions to the climate crisis, "putting the implementation of the Paris agreement in jeopardy."

"There is no such thing as cheap meat—these industries have been subsidised for years by the public because we pay for their environmental pollution, public health costs that they do not account for in their business model."
—Shefali Sharma,
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy 

The Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index, a project from the London-based investor initiative Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR), launched Wednesday as a tool for investors. Companies analyzed include suppliers to major fast-food chains such as McDonald's and KFC.

The index gauges how 60 suppliers, worth a combined $300 billion, are managing sustainability risks based on nine criteria: greenhouse gas emissions; deforestation and biodiversity loss; water scarcity and use; waste and pollution; antibiotics; animal welfare; working conditions; food safety; and sustainable protein.

Across the global livestock sector, the measurement and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions—which fuel global warming—is "inadequate, unstandardized, and unverified," according to index's executive summary.

Although the sector is responsible for 14.5 percent of global emissions—or about the total amount produced by the United States—FAIRR found that a full 72 percent of companies simply aren't tracking their emissions at all. 

Additionally, 77 percent of these companies are "failing to adequately manage or disclose antibiotic use, despite growing levels of regulation and international action to combat antibiotic resistant superbugs."

In response to rampant overuse of antibiotics on livestock, public health experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued grave warnings about the growing threat that antibiotic resistance poses to human health.

And while FAIRR's findings about climate and antibiotic risks are enough to alarm environmentalists and doctors separately, experts say the two issues are connected. Research published last week "found a signal that the associations between antibiotic resistance and temperature could be increasing over time," meaning global warming could exacerbate drug resistance.

Policy experts argue the findings indicate a need for ramping up accountability across the livestock sector.

"It is clear that the meat and dairy industries have remained out of public scrutiny in terms of their significant climate impact. For this to change, these companies must be held accountable for the emissions and they must have credible, independently verifiable emissions reductions strategy," Shefali Sharma, director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy European office, told the Guardian, responding to FAIRR's new index.

Beyond just the industry's contributions to the global climate crisis, "it's always worth remembering that there is no such thing as cheap meat—these industries have been subsidised for years by the public because we pay for their environmental pollution, public health costs that they do not account for in their business model," Sharma added. "This is where governments need to step in."

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