Meat industry propaganda and the climate crisis
by Ian Sinclair
25 July 2022
In recent years United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has made increasingly strong statements about the climate crisis. His latest warning came at last month’s Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in the US, organised by the White House. “We seem trapped in a world where fossil fuel producers and financiers have humanity by the throat,” he said.
“For decades, many in the fossil fuel industry has invested heavily in pseudo-science and public relations – with a false narrative to minimize their responsibility for climate change and undermine ambitious climate policies.”
“They exploited precisely the same scandalous tactics as big tobacco decades before. Like tobacco interests, fossil fuel interests and their financial accomplices must not escape responsibility.”
New research suggests the UK meat industry should be added to the list of powerful forces working in opposition to the public interest and addressing climate change.
Published in Food Policy journal, the article is the first peer-reviewed systematic analysis of how meat industry documents publicly frame the health and sustainability aspects of their business.
Explaining the wider context, the authors – academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Boston University School of Health – note “current consumption trends of red and processed meat are being increasingly understood as a threat to both human health and the health of the planet.”
Red and processed meat have been linked with cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, while the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic” to humans.
The authors also highlight livestock farming accounts for 14.5 per cent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with beef the biggest climate offender.
The study looked at the websites of six organisations representing the UK meat industry: the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, the British Meat Processors Association, the Country Land & Business Association, Craft Butchers, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and Pasture For Life.
Their conclusion? The meat industry frames the debate about the environmental and health aspects of meat consumption “in line with the ‘playbook’ used by producers of other harmful commodities [e.g. the fossil fuel and tobacco industries] to portray their products in a more favourable light and to avoid regulation.”
The authors note four ‘classic’ framing devices deployed by the meat industry, which will be very familiar to observers of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries. First, it “fosters uncertainty about scientific consensus and casts doubt over the reliability of both researchers and the evidence”. Second, the industry was found to have shifted the focus to deflect attention away from the central issues – for example risk factors for cancer other than meat were highlighted. Third, the industry portrays itself as a well-intentioned actor, emphasising its own environmental credentials. And finally, there is an emphasis on personal choice. These devices lead to four broad messages: the evidence is “still open for debate”, “most people have no need to worry”, “keep eating meat to be healthy” and “no need to cut down to be green”.
While noting it is unclear whether the industry’s framing has impacted consumer or policy-making behaviour, the study does conclude that “in comparison to other producers of harmful products, the meat industry has thus far avoided significant inspection of its wider corporate tactics.”
Which brings us to the UK government’s (non)reaction to the National Food Strategy it commissioned in 2019 from Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain. Published last year, the report’s executive summary noted “our current appetite for meat is unsustainable: 85% of total land that produces UK food is used to graze livestock or produce crops to feed to animals… we have set a goal of a 30% reduction over ten years.”
This echoes the positon of conservation charity WWF, who argued in February that to meet the nation’s climate commitments British farmers needed to reduce the production of meat and dairy, ideally by at least 30% by 2030. And in 2019 a commission convened by the Lancet medical journal and the Eat Forum NGO highlighted how Europeans needed to eat 77 per cent less meat to avert planetary climate disaster. There are indications these kinds of measures have public support, with a WWF-Demos survey of 22,000 Britons finding 93 per cent of respondents supporting “a strong campaign run by supermarkets, food companies and government reduces red meat and dairy consumption per person by 10%”.
Despite all of this, the government’s response to the National Food Strategy, a White Paper published by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in June, did not include anything about reducing meat and dairy production.
No doubt the meat industry was very happy with the government’s continued inaction.
Lord Deben, the Chair of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), certainly wasn’t. “This is an opportunity wasted,” he said. “The government’s Food Strategy will do precious little to tackle emissions from agriculture which is now one of the most serious contributors to climate change.” The CCC recommended a 20 per cent reduction in meat and dairy by 2030 and 35 per cent reduction for meat by 2050.
The government’s refusal to engage with reality follows on from its 2021 Net Zero Strategy, a 368-page document that set out the policies for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy to meet the 2050 net zero target. According to Michael Thorogood, a political intelligence consultant at Dods, the strategy did not mention “meat” once.
Indeed the CCC’s recently published Progress Report found “major failures in delivery programmes towards the achievement of the UK’s climate goals” and that “the current strategy will not deliver Net Zero.” Chris Stark, the CCC Chief Executive, noted an absence of clear policies to deal with the 12 per cent of UK emissions the CCC estimates come from farming and land use. “DEFRA is really failing to deliver,” he noted.
Researching this article, I’ve found there is a paucity of information about the size and lobbying power of the UK meat industry. However, journalist George Monbiot gave an insight into its close relationship with the government in the Guardian last month. Describing the White Paper as “disastrous”, he noted “these failures reflect a general reversal of Johnson’s environmental commitments, feeble as they were, in response to one of the most pernicious lobby groups in the UK, the National Farmers’ Union… the environment department, DEFRA, occupies 17 Smith Square, London SW1; the NFU, 18 Smith Square, London SW1. It scarcely matters which door you enter: you’ll hear the same story.”
It is important to realise this story is bigger than the UK meat industry, and bigger than UK politics.
Echoing the results of the EAT-Lancet commission, an article published in the peer-reviewed Science journal in 2020 noted the centrality of the food system, and therefore of reducing meat and dairy production, to averting global climate catastrophe.
“We show that even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted, current trends in global food systems would prevent the achievement of the 1.5°C target and, by the end of the century, threaten the achievement of the 2°C target,” the study abstract noted. “Meeting the 1.5°C target requires rapid and ambitious changes to food systems as well as to all nonfood sectors. The 2°C target could be achieved with less-ambitious changes to food systems, but only if fossil fuel and other nonfood emissions are eliminated soon.”
In a sane world, the record breaking temperatures experienced earlier this week would sharpen minds and lead to a radical shift in policymaking. Sadly history tells us not to underestimate the governing elite’s ability to ignore the rapidly worsening climate emergency. As always it’s up to us, as concerned citizens, to get active and start challenging the meat industry and the government on this crucial issue.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.