Burning at the steak

Meat and dairy farming giants continue to feed the climate-changing emissions that threaten life on Earth. Carina Millstone says they could be off the menu tomorrow

Countless reports tell us the food system is broken and in need of urgent fixing, if we want to avert widespread food insecurity and ecosystem collapse. Yet few dare call out the corporate control that is in play at every stage from crops and livestock, to pesticides and retail as the root cause of our food system woes.

Corporates shape our food economy, culture and diets. The damage they wreak cannot be overstated:

  • soil degradation so severe that some parts of the world have only 60 harvests left;
  • aquifer depletion so acute that water access is already a source of conflict; and
  • biodiversity loss so devastating that our own species is heading to extinction.

All this is directly attributable to our corporate-controlled food economy, organised around the enabling, protection and promotion of shareholder profit, regardless of the inadequacy of growth as a guiding principle for economic life.

For a viable planet, we must move to a post-corporate food system, and with Big Livestock perhaps the most horrendous sector of the lot, ending meat and dairy corporations seems like the right place to start.

The application of industrial processes to animal agriculture, including large, concentrated production, single product output, and lack of embeddedness in local environment and markets, is usually thought of as an American phenomenon. While it is true that some of the largest factory farms are in the US, Europe has its own industrial meat and dairy giants. Examples include Danish and Dutch pork industries, pig farming in Northern Ireland and the megafarms increasingly blighting the British countryside.

It’s the industrial processes of Big Livestock that make it such a climate offender; today. These corporations account for close to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial meat and dairy is also a profligate user of water (it takes somewhere between 2,500 -10,000 litres of water to produce a steak). And its land footprint is gargantuan: pasture and the production of animal feed together account for at least 80% of agricultural lands – that is to say, lands lost to nature.

With such a large land footprint, no wonder that a massive reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy has been identified by the Committee on Climate Change and others as the single most effective intervention to restore land to forest – which we now know we urgently need, under all scenarios, to avert dangerous climate change. Equally terrifying – Big Livestock accounts for the bulk of the global use of antibiotics: its reliance on them is driving antimicrobial resistance so that routine operations may soon become too risky to carry out.

“There is no possible low-carbon version of the industry.”

To make matters worse, the corporate structure of Big Livestock means industrial meat and dairy firms exist to maximise their profits – and grow and grow until, by 2050, and according to the report, Emissions Impossible, by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and community based farming campaigner, GRAIN, the greenhouse gas emissions produced by Big Livestock will account for 80% of all allowable global emissions to remain below a 1.5 degree warming, assuming other sectors decarbonise.

Clearly that’s a big assumption but the salient point is that while other sectors could decarbonise through the energy transition, the climate impacts of industrial meat and dairy are almost entirely due to animal feed production, enteric fermentation for ruminants, and manure – all essential to producing meat and dairy – which will continue regardless of any possible discontinuation of fossil fuels. There is no possible low-carbon version of the industry.

In that sense, Big Livestock poses the same existential threat as Big Oil. But, unlike its equally apocalyptic cousin, the social legitimacy of the industry, its very right to exist, is not challenged.

That is not to say that its poor practices, especially with regards to workers’ rights and animal welfare, haven’t been exposed over the years. But the nature of the industry calls for its end, not for a marginal improvement in its performance. There is no legitimate place for its climate-changing, biodiversity-destroying, medicine-threatening business model and ownership structure.

That is why initiatives like FAIRR, which aim to raise awareness of Environmental, Social and Governance issues among Big Livestock’s investors are dangerous and doomed to fail. Industry engagement through investors is not the right strategy when the goal is for the industry to shut down.

In seeking that goal, we can find inspiration in the achievements of the fossil fuel divestment movement. In addition to at least $8 trillion divested from the industry, the movement has successfully turned Big Oil (and coal) into the social pariahs that they are. Big Livestock deserves the same treatment and is well-suited to it.

First, there’s no escaping the fact Big Livestock is not a pretty industry; it is the business of suffering and slaughter of sentient beings on a mass scale – Tyson slaughters some six million chickens a day – with devastating impacts for human and planetary health. No wonder these corporations keep such a low profile and many of us would struggle to name more than one or two, if any. It’s just very hard for anyone to argue in favour of Big Livestock – slaughterhouse jobs are so poorly-paid that even the jobs’ argument is hard to formulate effectively.

Second, unlike the fossil fuel industry, Big Livestock is a small, discreet sector of the economy, not in any way foundational. Shutting down the oil industry overnight would have dangerous ramifications across our economy and society while the impacts of shutting down Big Livestock would be limited to the industry and its suppliers.

As for its customers, alternatives to industrial meat and dairy already exist. We already know how to grow plant-based protein and turn it into delicious dishes. Unlike the transition to renewable energy, low-carbon transport or housing, the shift to a food system in line with the Paris targets (or in line with net zero recommendations), where diets are largely plant-based, does not require the acquisition of new knowledge, the building of new infrastructure or the deployment of new technologies. We already have all that we need. The transition to plant-based diets and the end of Big Livestock could happen overnight.

Third, when we talk about Big Livestock, we’re not talking about an enormous, amorphous industry. We’re referring to a few dozen, gigantic corporations, the likes of JBS, Tyson, Danish Crown, and ABP Foods. All it will take to end Big Livestock is for a few dozen companies to go out of business. Corporate bankruptcies have happened before, they can happen again, especially in the age of the impossible burger.

A viable planet requires the end of fossil fuel extraction and industrial meat and dairy production. There is no place for BP or Shell on this planet, neither is there a place for JBS or Cargill. The fossil fuel divestment movement made enrichment on the back of climate change unacceptable, the same process must happen for Big Livestock.

The financiers propping up the industry through debt or equity must be exposed, called out, until the industrial meat and dairy corporation is understood for what is it: the greatest culprit in creating the climate and ecological crisis, a sector that is unfit for purpose. We must end Big Livestock now; the stakes are, after all, very high.

Carina Millstone

Carina is the Executive Director of Feedback, an environmental campaign group seeking to regenerate nature by transforming the food system. She is the Founder of The Orchard Project, a charity …

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