Top U.S. meat and dairy companies, along with livestock and agricultural lobbying groups, have spent millions campaigning against climate action and sowing doubt about the links between animal agriculture and climate change, according to new research from New York University.
The study, published this week in the journal Climatic Change, also said the world’s biggest meat and dairy companies aren’t doing enough to curb their greenhouse gas emissions, with only a handful making pledges to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
“These companies are some of the world’s biggest contributors to climate change,” said Oliver Lazarus, one of the study’s three authors, now a doctoral student at Harvard University. “They’ve spent a considerable amount of time and money downplaying the link between animal agriculture and climate change.”
The research, which builds on data first published in 2017 and 2018 by the advocacy group GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), is the first peer-reviewed study to document the individual carbon footprints of meat and dairy companies.
The authors found that, as of last summer, only four of the 35 companies—Dairy Farmers of America, Nestlé, Danish Crown and Danone—had pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
JBS, Cargill, Hormel, Fonterra and Smithfield had not. China-based Smithfield has since pledged to be carbon-negative by 2030 and Brazil-based JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, announced last week that it would reach net-zero by 2040. A spokeswoman for Hormel said the company was “on a path to zero” and plans to set a target for greenhouse gas reductions by 2023.
These commitments, the authors say, are short on specifics or focus on carbon dioxide reductions, while the bulk of emissions from animal agriculture comes from methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas. In some cases, the companies’ commitments don’t address emissions from their whole supply chain.
JBS, for example, has said in public statements that it does not assess land-use change—a major source of agricultural greenhouse gases—from third-party suppliers. These are emissions, the company said in 2019, “over which the Company has no responsibility or indirect responsibility.”
Overall, animal agriculture is responsible for more than 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to calculations by GRAIN and IATP, the five largest livestock-based producers—JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and Fonterra—emitted more greenhouse gases than ExxonMobil. The NYU researchers said they’re not aware of more recent and accessible company-level data, although a 2020 report from IATP found that emissions from individual dairy companies climbed in the years since the GRAIN assessment.
Recent reports, including from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have found that cutting emissions from agriculture is critical for controlling runaway climate change. But the new research found that only seven of the 16 countries where the largest livestock producers are based mention animal agriculture in their plans to meet the targets of the Paris climate agreement.
While the Paris agreement focuses on individual country’s emissions—and their potential to reduce them—the authors of the new report looked at how these companies’ future emissions compared to the emissions reductions pledges of their home countries. They determined that emissions produced by Switzerland-based Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, and New Zealand-based dairy giant, Fonterra, were so high that they would eclipse their respective home country’s emissions pledges, in effect consuming the entirety of those countries’ emissions budgets. Denmark-based Arla, the largest producer of dairy products in Scandinavia, will account for 60 percent of Denmark’s total emissions.
“Those meat and dairy emissions would actually completely wipe out the emissions (those countries) say they’re going to be emitting according to their Paris agreement pledges,” said Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Environmental Studies and one of the authors.
In taking this approach, the authors say, they’re assigning responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions to countries on a corporate basis.
“The Paris agreement suggests that Brazil is responsible for what happens in Brazil. What we said was: What if Brazil was responsible for JBS or China for Smithfield?” Jacquet said.
The authors said they were following the pattern of seminal studies on the fossil fuel industry, which calculated historic emissions from individual companies and then assigned responsibility to those companies.
“Essentially what we’re trying to do is build out the climate responsibility of meat and dairy producers,” Jacquet said.
A spokeswoman for Fonterra said its carbon footprint was “46% lower than other major milk producers” and that the company was “actively working on tools and technologies to reduce emissions and help New Zealand reach its climate change commitments.”
Filling a Research Gap
The next goal of the study, Jacquet said, was to examine how these companies and their lobbying groups have fought climate regulation in Congress and before the Environmental Protection Agency, and to analyze how they’ve shaped a narrative around animal agriculture’s role in climate change.
The authors calculated that U.S. agribusiness, which includes meat and dairy companies and also other agricultural companies, spent $750 million on national political candidates from 2000 to 2020. The U.S. energy sector, by comparison, spent $1 billion.
The same agribusinesses spent $2.5 billion on lobbying from 2000 and 2019, compared to $6.2 billion by energy and natural resource companies.
The authors said these companies also spent their lobbying money on issues beyond climate change, including the Farm Bill and farm subsidies. But, they wrote, “it is often difficult to disentangle the two as policy decisions on crop incentives, land-use, and animal production methods have large implications for the extent and intensity of the animal agriculture sector’s emissions.”
The report also looked at the contributions of individual companies. Exxon spent roughly $17 million on political campaigns and more than $240 million on lobbying during the 20 years studied. In the same time frame, Tyson gave $3.2 million to political campaigns. But relative to each company’s revenue, Tyson spent double what Exxon spent on political campaigns and 33 percent more on lobbying.
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Industry lobby groups—the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the International Dairy Foods Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation, along with its state members—spent nearly $200 million, much of it lobbying against climate and environmental regulations, from 2000 to 2019, the authors found.
A spokesperson for the National Pork Producers Council said the organization voted against a cap-and-trade bill specifically because it “would have converted massive amounts of cropland to forest” at a time when pork producers were already struggling to gain access to feed.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the new study said, published or funded research downplaying the emissions from livestock production, often pointing to the low percentage relative to overall U.S. emissions.
Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for NAMI, said the report referenced outdated documents. “NAMI members are at the forefront of research and innovation to strengthen meat’s contributions and ambitious commitments to healthy diets and protecting our environment. The U.S. meat sector has dramatically reduced its impact on the environment in recent decades, including by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions…. This study was already outdated the day it was researched.”
The nine U.S.-based companies covered in the report emitted 6 percent of overall U.S. emissions, the study found, but emitted about 350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s on the same scale as Brazil, which has the highest carbon footprint from animal agriculture and where the top four livestock companies emitted about 380 million metric tons of the greenhouse gas annually. But that amounts to about 28 percent of that country’s emissions.
“The US industry really leans on Brazil’s terrible carbon footprint to compare to its own,” Jacquet said, but domestic agriculture is “high in terms of absolute emissions.”
The report also notes that the U.S. companies’ emissions totals presented in the study don’t include those connected to production outside of the U.S.
The authors pointed out in an interview that there’s been ample academic research into the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to influence public discourse, but that a similar body of research into the agriculture industry’s efforts has not yet emerged. That could largely be attributed, they said, to the fact that very little agricultural research is done outside of industry-influenced universities or by independent researchers.
“It’s not surprising that they’re this active in shaping climate discourse,” Lazarus said, referring to the livestock companies. “What we’re trying to do is show the extent to which that has largely been ignored.”