Just five of the world’s largest meat and dairy companies, among them JBS, Tyson and Cargill, are responsible for more emissions than oil giants like Exxon and BP. This is just one of the shocking findings revealed in the latest Meat Atlas report released by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and Friends of the Earth Europe, which examines the “devastating” environmental impact of the livestock industry.
A new report released on Tuesday (September 7) has revealed the “increasingly damaging” impact that the livestock industry is having on the climate crisis and biodiversity. Published by Berlin-based Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and Friends of the Earth Europe, Meat Atlas 2021 shows that as much as 21% of the world’s GHG emissions come from the production of meat and dairy.
The latest assessment, which is the 8th edition to date, estimates that this percentage is “likely to escalate” with devastating impacts on the planet if consumption trends are allowed to continue. It comes just weeks after the IPCC climate report warned of a “code red for humanity”.
According to the Meat Atlas, just 20 livestock companies in the world produce more GHG emissions than Germany, Britain or France—some of the strongest economies in the world. Taken together, just five of the world’s biggest meat and dairy firms, among them JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America and Fonterra, are responsible for more emissions than oil giants like Shell, BP or ExxonMobil.
The report aims to expose the huge role of the animal agriculture industry, an often-overlooked sector compared to the fossil fuel industry when it comes to climate change.
“Industrial meat farming is fanning the flames of climate crisis and biodiversity collapse while threatening the health of farmers, workers, and consumers – the evidence is resounding,” said Stanka Becheva, campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.
Unless consumption trends change, meat production is forecasted to rise by 40 million tonnes to reach 366 million tonnes annually by 2029. This will have devastating consequences on the environment and communities, says the report.
“Globally, three-quarters of agricultural land is used to raise animals or the crops to feed them. Livestock farming and soybean cultivation are the biggest contributors to deforestation, whose effects include soaring emissions, destruction of indigenous communities’ and small farmers’ livelihoods, and pandemics,” the report summarises.
Other figures reported by analysts include the huge contribution that industrial animal farming makes to the overall footprint of the global food system. According to the Meat Atlas, the food sector drives anywhere between 21-37% of GHG emissions, of which 57% comes from factory farms alone.
Aside from highlighting worrying consumption trends and the footprint of the industry, researchers also revealed the ongoing reinforcement of unsustainable livestock farming via public and private financing.
Between 2015 and 2020, meat and dairy giants globally benefited from more than $478 billion in financial support from over 2,500 investment firms, banks and pension funds, the report finds. The majority of them are based in the US and Europe.
“The EU needs to curb this insatiable industry, but right now its leaders are just eating out of Big Agribusiness’ hand,” says Becheva. “Europe must act to clamp down on deforestation and human rights violations in supply chains, facilitate the switch to more plant-based diets, and redirect billions of euros of subsidies and finance to small sustainable farmers.”
“The economic interests of the meat industry, which is worth billions, and the refusal of politicians to reform strategically and coherently are keeping us on a tortuous path overstretching the ecological limits of the planet,” added Barbara Unmüßig, president at Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.
Similar calls have been made by global scientists and biodiversity experts. In July, renowned conservationist Jane Goodall and 60 other leading climate scientists penned a letter to the European Commission to stop funding meat and dairy advertisements, which contradict the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy to shift to a sustainable food system.
Around a third of the Commission’s €200 million annual budget for agriculture had been spent on advertising high-emissions animal products.
In the US, farm subsidies and bailouts doubled year-on-year in 2020 to over US$50 billion—of which 60% was pocked by meat, dairy and animal feed production firms, the APA reported a few months ago.
Meat Atlas 2021 further showed that public pressure on politicians and businesses to change their practices is now reaching a tipping point. With greater awareness about the role of animal agriculture in driving climate change—especially among younger generations—consumers are already changing their consumption habits and switching to sustainable plant-based alternatives.
Last year, US retail sales of plant-based foods topped $7 billion for the first time, while the EU’s plant-based industry saw sustained 49% growth over the last two years. Changing consumer preferences can also be pinpointed to Covid-19, which sparked greater interest in health and nutrition, and exposed the dangers inherent in the meat supply chain.
“As the polls in this Meat Atlas 2021 show, the younger generations in Germany—but also in other countries—share this critical assessment: they no longer accept the meat industry’s business model,” explained Unmüßig.
“More than 70% of German young adults are willing to pay more for meat if the production conditions change fundamentally. But the most decisive result: a huge majority of over 80% see [a duty from politicians] to finally set binding conditions for a climate-friendly agriculture, better animal husbandry and a climate-friendly diet.”
Last year, a landmark study published in the journal Science warned that even if fossil fuels were entirely eradicated, the Paris Agreement goals would still be out of reach without an urgent shift towards a plant-based food system.