whose side are we on?

21st Apr 20 by Mia Watanabe

Feedback launches our report making the case that Big Livestock, like Big Oil, by its very nature belongs on the wrong side of history.

Read our report: It’s Big Livestock Versus the Planet: A case to cut off meat and dairy corporations’ financial fodder.

In 2000 a very large and very profitable global oil company underwent a now infamous rebrand. ‘Beyond Petroleum’ may have been a marketeers’ dream, but is widely agreed to have been almost entirely meaningless when it came to actually shifting BP ‘beyond petroleum’, and into a truly renewable future. How could it, when for Big Oil their very business model, founded on expansion and shareholder payouts, is incompatible with the complete decarbonisation of our energy systems?

The five largest Big Livestock companies – JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America and Fonterra – may not have the name recognition of a Big Oil company like BP or Texaco. But from the perspective of a zero-carbon future, they are to all intents and purposes in the same boat. Today, Feedback launches our founding report making the case that Big Livestock, like Big Oil, by its very nature belongs on the wrong side of history.  

We start with what we know: the climate, land use and biodiversity impacts of Big Livestock are enormous, matched only by their egregious effects on the people who work for them or who are displaced to make room for their greed for expansion.

Whether land grabbing from indigenous territories in the Amazon rainforest, creating a dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico, or exploiting workers in meatpacking plants during the Coronavirus crisis in South Dakota, these companies will not stop abusing the planet and its citizens in order to drive profit.

In their current form these companies are incompatible with a sustainable and just future, the next question is whether Big Livestock companies are capable of the sort of transformation needed to move them from the wrong side of history to upstanding corporate citizens of a zero-carbon future.

Alas, the evidence suggests this is unlikely. Focussing on emissions, our report uncovers the ways in which companies use sustainability initiatives to greenwash their destructive practices, how Big Livestock’s emissions reductions targets will be negated by the same corporations’ growth ambitions, and how these corporations will fail to result in an overall reduction of climate impacts. Tyson for example, an anomaly in the sector for its adoption of climate goals, and early espousal of the ‘sustainable protein’ tag, has a rare target covering the emissions intensity of their products (‘scope 3 emissions’ in the science-based targets rubric). Yet, even if Tyson met its targets by its 2030 goal, the company would still have the same carbon footprint as the entirety of Greece. What’s more, the company has said it targets growth of 3-4% per year: even if their emissions intensity falls, their overall emissions will continue on an exponential curve. If this is the best the sector can offer in terms of corporate goals, it seems that for Big Livestock, there is neither the will nor to the way to transition to a sustainable model. In their complete failure to look beyond relentless growth they continue to position themselves at odds with a just and sustainable future. Greenwash cannot fix this desire for growth – we need to bring about the end of Big Livestock.

We also sound a note of caution for those who hope that novel “plant-based” products and patient investor engagement will squeeze the industry enough to lead to meaningful change. Big Livestock certainly looks unlikely to shift its business model to plant based: There’s no precedent for a wholesale transformation of the kind this would entail (nor is it at all clear that mass produced fake meat is a desirable outcome), and no sign at the moment that Big Livestock companies seek alternative proteins as anything other than a side-dish to the main meal of ongoing meat and dairy expansion.

So, what is to be done? We have a case: Like the fossil fuel industry, Big Livestock is sustained by vast flows of public and private finance that prop up a fundamentally extractive and unsustainable business model. And without targeting these financial flows and building broad coalitions to call for divestment, change is unlikely to occur at the pace required for in the context of climate emergency. Following the money also forces us to look beyond our dinner plates and question who funds the meat that is on them. It exposes the investors complicit in Amazonian deforestation, the universities that fund slave labour conditions in meatpacking plants, and the museums and galleries that enable land grabbing from indigenous territories. It turns out that the food we eat and where it comes from forms a direct link between those campaigning for a sustainable future and those on the frontlines of climate breakdown.

As governments around the world support and stimulate their economies in response to COVID-19, a growing movement is making the case to “build back better”. Post-COVID, we need to future-proof our food systems for both people and planet. Ending industrial animal agriculture by cutting its financing, redirecting subsidies to smaller, resilient and diverse farms and enabling people to have healthier diets offer the chance not only to reduce the risk of pandemics, but to fight climate breakdown too.

A small but vital side note: while Big Livestock may share several species and product categories with small farms and livestock herders both in Northern countries and in the Global South, the similarities end there. Globally, livestock production is highly varied: a smallholder in Mozambique with a few head of cattle is not Big Livestock; neither is an independent dairy farm in Devon. Recent debates about dietary choices in many Northern countries, have often been blind to the corporate power that shapes the most impactful and destructive forms of livestock production. Getting to the heart of the debate about what we eat and how it is produced requires us to clearly differentiate between different forms of livestock production and livelihoods, from smallholders with mixed businesses, to internationally financed factory farms. This distinction helps focus attention on the most destructive animal farming practices, not only to the environment and animals but to people. Equity, rights and social justice must be central to climate action in the livestock sector.

The task ahead is vast, and the debate around meat and dairy has so far been bitter amongst those of us who should be natural allies. But it is time to put our collective focus towards common enemies: Big Livestock and its financiers.

Read the full report.

What can you do next?