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The IPCC Report: The Environment vs The Meat Industry

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published their latest report, and it’s a pretty grim read. You’d think it would have made bigger headlines, but hey, what’s irreversible environmental damage with repercussions that will last millenia?

The report discusses findings, projections, and suggestions for what needs to happen for us to keep environmental damage to the minimum. There’s a lot to say about it, but this post is about a revelation that just has me like:

It’s been revealed that in an earlier draft of the IPCC report - leaked by Scientist Rebellion - there was some guidance that read like this…

"A shift to diets with a higher share of plant-based protein in regions with excess consumption of calories and animal-source food can lead to substantial reductions in GHG emissions . . . Plant-based diets can reduce GHG emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emission intensive Western diet"

This text, however, is missing from the final draft. After some intense lobbying from the meat industry, it was replaced in the published version with a weirdly vague recommendation of

"balanced, sustainable healthy diets acknowledging nutritional needs"

Whatever the hell that means.

It’s crazy that the highlighting of this topic has been quashed. We’re at a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change, and it’s unarguable that animal agriculture is a top offender in contributing to environmental destruction.

An extensive study on food production published in 2019 by researchers Poore and Nemecek found that ‘meat, aquaculture, eggs, and dairy use ~83% of the world’s farmland and contribute 56 to 58% of food’s different emissions, despite providing only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories.’ In layman's terms, the costs involved in bringing animal products to the dinner plate far outweigh the reward.

A separate study found that ‘livestock production contributes an estimated 14 - 30% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions and is the largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions’. Jonathan Safran Foer writes in his book We Are the Weather that the concentrations of these emissions grew six times faster between ‘the advent of factory farming in the 1960s and 1999 . . . than they had over any previous forty-year period during the last two thousand years. Added to this, the meat industry is the single biggest cause of deforestation globally, pollutes water, causes desertification and contributes to biodiversity loss. (More detail on that here).

The world, however, is consuming meat like never before. Despite growth of the plant-based movement, consumption of animal products in developing countries is rising, and the global increase has prompted predictions of a potential 80% rise in meat-production greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Scholars have voiced concerns that ‘the impacts of the livestock sector alone may bring irreversible environmental changes regardless of any technological methods of addressing climate change.’

Whilst my initial reaction to the IPCC report amendment was disbelief, it’s not actually surprising at all. The power and influence of the meat and dairy industries are enormous, and obviously they don't want any green nonsense impacting their profits. Far from the romanticised stereotype of country farmers in muddy dungarees, the reality of the meat industry is a global giant with an estimated value of $897 billion in 2021, forecast to increase to $1354 billion by 2027. A report by sustainable food campaigners Feedback states that ‘between 2015 and 2020, global meat and dairy companies received over $478 billion in backing by over 2,500 investment firms, banks, and pension funds headquartered around the globe.’

This article, that explores the political challenges of red and processed meat reduction due to its economic importance, suggests a co-dependency between governments and the meat production and processing industries, arguing that the latter are major contributors to rural livelihoods and to the economies of many countries, and thus involve 'a number of organised interest groups' who use 'their power to maintain the status quo and undermine efforts at reduction’. The authors argue that

"high levels of meat production and consumption are enabled by deeper belief systems that preference free markets and economic growth over health and environmental objectives . . . This has allowed for the substantial growth in size of transnational food corporations, with power shifting away from both state and civil actors and governance being positioned in a more market-orientated form. This growth has only been amplified with the financialisation of much of the global food economy . . . Neoliberalism reinforces, and is reinforced by a ‘productivist’ policy paradigm, which has formed the basis for agricultural law and policy, especially in high-income countries, since the 1960s"

They go on to describe the discursive power that can ‘manifest in normalising ‘truths’ about a particular issue, and alter perceptions, often unconsciously, about what interpretations and solutions are considered acceptable or desirable.’

It is easy to see how an industry with such clout can hold sway over both governments and consumers alike. Political and corporate interests are so intricately connected that any meaningful legislative action would undoubtedly be contentious.

The changes to the IPCC report were pushed by delegates from Brazil and Argentina, but failure to address the issue of animal agriculture's contribution to the climate crisis is internationally applicable, and certainly relevant here in the UK.

In June 2022, The Vegan Society expressed disappointment at the UK government’s Food Strategy Policy Paper, accusing ministers of ignoring recommendations from their own experts in setting targets for the reduction of meat and dairy consumption. Corporate influence goes a long way in explaining policy choices that not only fail to place restrictions on animal agriculture, but positively fund it. One could argue that it would be difficult for the government to impose significant change on the way that the nation eats; after all, everyone has personal choice over the foods they consume. However we only have to look to The Soft Drinks Industry Levy – better known as the ‘Sugar Tax’ – imposed by the Treasury in 2018 to tackle childhood obesity, to see how the government are willing to demand responsibility from an industry and influence public habits if the issue is considered important enough. Even if the meat industry were not contributing to an environmental crisis, the fact that processed meat is associated with increased risks of coronary heart diseases, type 2 diabetes and various cancers, surely makes this an issue comparably worthy of government attention. Suggestions of a meat tax put forward by research groups in 2021 proposed price increases to offset the environmental impact of various products. Far from implementing any policy based on this research, the British government ‘categorically’ rejected the idea of a meat tax as a step towards meeting the net-zero carbon emissions pledge, and concurrently invested £500,000 into the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board’s £1.5 million campaign to encourage meat and dairy consumption instead.

With government hands tied by the power of money and the goal of re-election, it seems that the task of fighting the beast that is animal agriculture will continue to lie with NGOs and activists. Though with a large-scale opinion poll finding that despite 64% of participants believing that climate change is now a global emergency, switching to a plant-based diet was the least popular of 18 suggested mitigation strategies, it will undoubtedly remain a painfully uphill battle.


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