Why industrial livestock agriculture is the next divestment target
Industrialised animal agriculture has much in common with Big Oil and its catastrophic climate impacts - and shares some solutions.
A few days ago the BBC aired a disquieting documentary. ‘Meat: A Threat to Our Planet?’ focused primarily on the industrialised livestock industry which has boomed in the US, and which is quietly arriving in the UK countryside: drone footage shows over 800 US-style ‘mega-farms’ in the UK. These units might be called farms, but they have more in common with a very different extractive and environmentally catastophic industry: fossil fuels.
In 2012, environmentalist Bill Mckibben wrote an article for the Rolling Stone called Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. Research from Carbon Tracker had just shown that the fossil fuel companies – or Big Oil as they came to be known – had around five times as much oil and coal and gas reserves on their books as climate scientists thought would be safe to burn. And so, set against the backdrop of towering wildfires in Colorado and the hottest June on record, over some six thousand words Mckibben compellingly built the case for the end of the fossil fuel industry, inspiring thousands of students and communities in his call to arms.
Seven years later, as the Amazon continues to smoulder off the back of a new temperature highs set this summer, here is some more terrifying math: there are 23 billion chickens, 1.5 billion heads of cattle, 1.2 billion sheep, 1 billion goats and 1 billion pigs living on factories and farms worldwide. These numbers are growing – rapidly. In just two decades the farmed chicken population has risen from 14 billion to 23 billion. This number, however, is just a snapshot in time – over the course of a year 62 billion chickens are slaughtered. Many of these animals are raised for the benefit of major, globalised corporations and their financiers, not the subsistence farmers that rely on them for nutrition and food security.
Why are these ever-growing numbers such alarming news for our Planet? More animals means more methane and carbon dioxide – from the land converted to house them, from the forest cleared to feed them, from the food they eat and from the industry that sustains, processes and transports them – and the meat products they become. In other words: faster and greater environmental destruction, a heavier burden on the Planet and its people, already struggling to deal with the effects of a changing climate.
For too long, many of us working in the environment sector have been reluctant to talk about animal agriculture. We don’t want to be insensitive to the difficulties faced by farmers especially small farmers, pushed inexorably further into the red by relentless downward pressure on prices; we fear further polarising the vegan versus omnivore debate. But all this lengthy debate has obscured one thing we can all agree we want to see the back of: industrial-scale production methods and the corporate ownership structures that prop them up, the systems in which 70% of animals we eat are raised. Big Livestock.
The scale of destruction that Big Livestock wreaks on the Planet is already approaching that of Big Oil. Together, the top five meat and dairy companies produce as much greenhouse gas emissions as Exxon Mobil. All in all, at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock and this is set to grow, fundamentally threatening our ability to avert the worse of the unfolding climate catastrophe.
The deeper you look, the further the damage extends: Some estimates attribute up to 70% of deforestation in the Amazon basin to the beef industry, with investors such as Blackrock bankrolling the deforestation driven by companies such as JBS, Marfrig and Cargill. Through this destruction, and the destruction of other habitats to convert for animal feed crops, especially soya, these corporations are the main driver of the mass species extinction that we are currently experiencing.
And it’s not just environmental impacts we have to worry about. There continue to be alarmingly high rates of serious injury and chronic illness among those working in meat processing plants. Giant agribusinesses force small-farmers to sell-up to make way for animal feed monocultures. Animal welfare, never the industrial livestock sector’s strong suit, is as troubling as ever. Further afield, the routine use of antibiotics in the sector is catalysing the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; England’s Chief Medical Officer recently warned that antibiotics resistance could soon be killing at least 10 million people a year.
Like Big Oil, the large livestock corporations are in denial about their climate problem. Only 14 of the world’s 35 largest livestock companies have an emissions reduction target. Those that do, woefully under report their emissions. Some observers point out that the big players in the livestock industry have been quicker to rebrand as “protein companies” than Shell and Exxon Mobil were to greenwash themselves as energy companies. But as Noel White, CEO of meat-giant Tyson foods puts it, corporate-backed ‘fake-meat’ will always be an addition to their business, not a subtraction. More emissions, not less.
These corporations will fail us in the same way Big Oil continues to fail us. Ignore their greenwashed rhetoric, the maths is clear: based on their own projections for growth, the industrial meat and dairy corporations will eat up 80% of the greenhouse gas budget by 2050.
Two years after Bill McKibben’s clarion call in the Rolling Stone, there were 180 institutional investors cutting fossil fuel stocks from their portfolio. In 2019, there are 1100 – representing $11 trillion dollars’ worth of assets that investors will divest from fossil fuels. This year, Shell listed divestment campaigning as a material risk in its annual report. The time has come to set our sights wider. Like any globalised financialised sector, Big Livestock relies on the financial and moral backing of thousands of institutional investors and creditors around the world – university endowments, sovereign wealth funds, banks and public pensions. Recent research from Global Witness shows that around 300 banks and investors back six of the world’s most harmful agribusinesses to the tune of $44bn. As investors such as Allianz and Storebrand launch the UN-backed Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, they cannot keep financing companies such as JBS, Tyson and Cargill. Companies that no matter how you spin it, are fundamentally incompatible with a low-carbon future.
As political outrage over the Amazon fires flickers and fades, we cannot just stir the embers. Just as McKibben turned our attention to the financial flows sustaining Big Oil, it is time to turn our attention to those providing financial fodder for Big Livestock.
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