Borrowing a page from the fossil fuel industry’s playbook, meat’s “merchants of doubt” are funding questionable research and lobbying to keep meat reduction off the table.
For years, meat producers have worked furiously behind the scenes to keep meat reduction out of discussions on climate policy. The first draft of the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on climate change mitigation recommended shifting to plant-based diets and agricultural systems. Delegates dispatched by then-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—who presided over a mass burning of the Amazon rain forest, in part by beef producers—helped get that phrase removed. The IPCC flinching in the face of lobbying allowed the same ambivalence toward agriculture to carry over into that year’s Conference of the Parties for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was focused on establishing a framework to reduce methane emissions: Despite the fact that animal agriculture emits a third of global methane and that it is impossible to meet emissions targets without addressing the food sector, the question of the industry’s contribution to anthropogenic climate change was conspicuously left off the policy menu—even though food options offered to conference attendees were paired with a carbon calculator.
The public is well aware, at this point, of fossil fuel lobbyists’ obstructionism on climate policy. We know, for instance, that there were more fossil fuel lobbyists than delegates for any country at COP26 and that the number has increased further at this year’s COP27. It’s harder to run the numbers on those representing the meat industry. Their influence, however, is evident.
The plan President Biden announced on Friday at this year’s COP27—which to its credit is putting food on the agenda—set specific goals for energy but was conspicuously vague on agriculture. The president merely said he intended to expand the country’s domestic programs for “climate-smart” agriculture globally—domestic programs that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has previously said would not require any reduction in meat production. This is in line with last year’s methane pledge, which set strict new standards for energy and waste sectors but approached agriculture “through technology innovation as well as incentives and partnerships” with corporations like Bayer and JBS, a double standard celebrated by meat industry lobbyists.