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How sustainable is our global meat industry?

Article-How sustainable is our global meat industry?

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Global meat-supplying giant JBS is facing allegations of misleading, unsubstantiated claims over its net zero emission goals. We ask, is it possible for the meat and livestock sector to be truly sustainable?

The US Better Business Bureau (BBB)’s National Advertising Division (NAD) has found JBS, the world’s second-largest food company and the largest animal protein producer, responsible for misleading and unsubstantiated net-zero claims.

The finding follows a challenge by the not-for-profit organisation for fair and sustainable food and farm systems, the International for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Following the discovery of these claims, NAD has recommended JBS discontinue claims relating to its goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2040, which the company is currently appealing.

“Companies like JBS, one of the worst offenders, market themselves as green and simply ignore the environmental impact of 97% of their operations,” Gemma Hoskins, UK director at Mighty Earth, told Fi Global.

The claims raise questions over the prevalence of greenwashing in the meat industry and how the sector can actively eradicate it to build consumer trust and confidence.

Awareness of greenwashing in meat

“Consumers are increasingly considering the environmental impact of their products, and companies know that,” says Laura Brett, vice president of NAD.

However, consumers cannot evaluate the true environmental impact of a product like meat without doing considerable research, which is unrealistic for the average consumer.

“Whether greenwashing its environmental sins or humane-washing the terrifying, bloody reality for animals, the meat industry works to hoodwink the caring consumer,” says Dawn Carr, director of vegan projects at non-profit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

A Greenpeace spokesperson adds “The meat industry can only tell a positive story by making it up, and so that’s what they do. [...] it is sophisticated enough to create doubt in the minds of many consumers who don’t want to believe that their favourite ingredient is responsible for environmental catastrophe, which is all it needs to do.”

Misleading climate plans

Global meat companies have a significant climate footprint and face increasing pressure from shareholders, investors, the media, and the public to respond to the climate crisis. In response, companies are publishing their climate goals, including plans to reach net zero emissions.

However, companies sign up for climate disclosure systems that are typically self-reporting so they can choose what they want to reveal. “That needs to change,” says Mighty Earth’s Hoskins.

Therefore, many climate plans fail to measure up under scrutiny. “They often omit emissions from the biggest part of their supply chains, on the farm, and make promises based on undeveloped technology or scientifically questionable land-based offsets,” says Ben Lilliston, director of rural and climate strategies at  the think tank, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). “Many of these companies have resorted to accounting tricks instead of real emission reductions.”

Simultaneously, the industry is struggling with its business model of perpetual growth as it faces increasing scrutiny over its emissions. “These companies project a continued expansion in meat and dairy production – an expansion that will inevitably lead toward rising emissions, not less,” adds Lilliston.

What can meat producers do to reduce their impact?

A core problem in meat production is the inefficient use of vast land areas. “The only way for cattle and sheep farmers, or beef and lamb processors, to convincingly show they are serious about preserving our climate, is to dramatically scale back meat production,” Greenpeace UK’s spokesperson adds. 

“There is a lot the industry could do to reduce emissions, and perhaps most fundamentally is a re-examination of its factory farm production system,” says Lilliston.

Producers can position themselves as less destructive than most competitors by avoiding ecologically damaging chemicals and processes and never sourcing from areas with ongoing deforestation.

In practice, the level of overhaul required means “cutting suppliers who farm on deforested land, often taken from Indigenous communities; slashing methane pollution; and ensuring full transparency across the supply chain”, adds Hoskins.

A specific, verifiable claim about using or not using a particular agricultural input or process should come with evidence. “The whole system needs a ‘root and branch’ overhaul if we are to believe the meat industry pledges to reach net zero,” says Hoskins.

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Important differences: Regenerative and grass-fed versus intensive rearing

One danger, however, is that all meat production garners a negative reputation. Some farmers worldwide raise meat sustainably, keep animals on well-managed pastures, and work within local ecosystem limits. They do not have the climate footprint linked to nitrogen fertilisers used to produce feed for animals in giant feedlots.

“It is important to distinguish between the systems adopted and refined by the global meat companies and those following regenerative, agroecological principles,” says Lilliston.

New Zealand exports 95% of its red meat. A spokesperson for the Meat Industry Association of New Zealand says the production, regulatory, and market access systems leave little scope for greenwashing to occur.

However, it says that the country’s red meat products will compete with other products in international markets, and some of these producers may engage in greenwashing.

Greenpeace: Meat industry needs state intervention ‘to end its predicament’

The meat sector requires market regulation to reverse current incentives. “The solution is not to blindly hope that the meat industry will put the planet's future before their own economic welfare, they need government intervention to create a route out of their predicament and a just transition to jobs with a future,” says Greenpeace UK’s spokesperson.

For example, the UK’s leading meat association says it is waiting for government direction to identify greenwashing. “The UK government is still deciding what metric we should use, we are aware of some 70 plus metrics you could use,” says a spokesperson for the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA).

“Investors need to more deeply scrutinise corporate climate claims,” says Lilliston. They need to examine a company’s emissions throughout its supply chain, emission-reduction goals, and utilisation of existing technology versus non-existent future technology. Investors must also explore a company’s dependence on land-based offsets, which, Lilliston adds, should not be part of any short-term climate action.

Greater slaughter and production numbers transparency, more information about emissions in their supply chains, and a year-by-year progress accounting would also help. Recognising the value of more regenerative and agroecological systems of raising animals is also vital, including fairly compensating farmers who have developed these systems.

“Nearly every major meat company, including JBS, projects major growth in meat production in the coming years - growth incompatible with their climate plans,” Lilliston says. “The industry is going to have to revise its climate plans to restore credibility; otherwise, greenwashing claims will continue.”