The Steaks are High – exposing the investors and banks propping up Big Livestock
The message of what we need to do to save the planet is clear, but who's been financing the earth's demise?
In a week when Extinction Rebellion’s occupation of major London landmarks has focused minds, and even Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England is calling on global banks to face up to the climate emergency, thoughts turn to practical action to stave off climate change and mass species extinction. The message that we should all ‘cut down on meat and dairy to save the Planet’ has brought some comfort – at last, something doable! Yet while the appearance of bleeding beetroot burgers and vegan sausage rolls on the high street are to be celebrated, the best way to cut our national meat intake quickly and at scale is to significantly curtail meat production. That’s because, and I speak as an expert here, you’re not going to be eating many sausages if you don’t have any pigs…
For a while now, many of us working in food and environment have been reluctant to talk about reducing meat production. We don’t want to be insensitive to the difficulties faced by British farmers; we fear further polarising the vegan versus flexitarian versus omnivorous debate. We’ve hidden behind the excuse that it’s hard to convey that not all meat is equally bad, and that in the right farming systems, some livestock may play an important role for soil health and nutrient cycling. But lengthy debate has meant we have failed to point our collective finger to the type of animal farming we all agree we want to see the back of: Big livestock, which can be characterised by industrial production methods and corporate ownership structure.
It’s not just about the USA
The application of industrial processes to animal agriculture is usually thought of as an American phenomenon, and, as an aside, the most firmly impressed memory of my Californian honeymoon is the sorry sight of cows in a huge muddy complex by a highway somewhere near Fresno: thank you Dairy Farmers of America. But Europe has its own industrial meat and dairy: be it the gigantic Danish and Dutch pork industries, pig farming in Northern Ireland or the ‘megafarms’ increasingly blighting the British countryside. Big Livestock’s second characteristic, its entity as a corporation, also gives the industry a global footprint through financial flows, often international and opaque, regardless of where operations are sited. Zambian beef factories are traded on the LSE, which strikes me as a good example of much of what is wrong with a corporate controlled food system.
It’s the industrial processes of Big Livestock that make it such a climate offender; it is Big Livestock that is responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the meat and dairy sector, close to 15% of total emissions today. Big Livestock is also driving alarming biodiversity loss and species extinction, soil and aquifer depletion. More terrifyingly still, its reliance on antibiotics, the only way to keep so many animals held in such cramped conditions healthy, is driving antimicrobial resistance so that C-sections and other operations may soon become too risky to carry out. One day, we will wonder why one industry was allowed to so casually squander the gains of modern medicine.
It doesn’t end there
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 seismic report by the IATP and 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. Sure, that’s a rather 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. To the lay man: food, burps and farts and faeces – all essential parts of growing animals and producing meat and dairy, which will continue regardless of any possible discontinuation of fossil fuels. What I am getting at is that there is no possible low-carbon version of the industry.
The choice before us is as follows: let Big Livestock get on with their business-as-usual and call it a day on the climate, Planet, and health and wellbeing, or end Big Livestock now. Now give me a moment with that one…
Ending Big Livestock may seem a tall order, but, having spent much of my career working on intractable environmental problems, I am surprisingly upbeat about this one for three reasons.
First, there’s no escaping the fact Big Livestock is not a pretty industry. Let’s not forget the business of industrial meat and dairy corporations is the business of suffering and slaughter of sentient beings on a mass scale, with devastating impacts for human and planetary health to boot. 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 poor that even the ‘jobs’ argument is hard to effectively formulate); suffice to say I have never come across someone wearing an ‘I heart Cargill’ T-shirt.
Second, unlike the other industry that must end now to stabilise the climate, 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, 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, tonight.
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, ABP Foods. All it will take to end Big Livestock is for a few dozen companies to go out of business. Simple. Corporate bankruptcies have happened before, they can happen again, especially since we’re talking about an industry whose bloody wares are starting to look a bit 1950s in the age of the aquafaba meringue.
The Steaks Are High
At Feedback, we will shortly be launching our new campaign, The Steaks Are High:The End of Big Livestock to help hurry along Big Livestock’s inevitable demise. Our plan is to bring Big Livestock’s threat to our climate, food, health and medicine to the fore, and expose the banks and investors that are propping up this catastrophic industry though debt or equity. We’ll be taking a close look at university endowments, foundation investments, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, banks. After all, students, charity beneficiaries, pensioners and all citizens have a right to know if they are in any way connected with Big Livestock through their institutions or savings – and to say out loud they don’t want anything to do with such a destructive industry.
Get in touch with us if you’re interested in being involved – and stay tuned, and in the meantime, don’t forget to pledge to reduce your own meat intake.
Image: “A rotary milking parlor at a modern dairy facility, located in Germany” by Gunnar Richter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License
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