Cowspiracy: Is 'Big Meat' Denying its Role in Climate Change?

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Activists frequently assert that 'Big Meat' has tried to deny agriculture's contribution to climate change. Is there any truth to this conspiracy theory?

Food production takes a toll on the environment. While there's no denying that fact, the good news is that farming is becoming more sustainable as new technologies come online, enabling more people around the world to eat nutritious diets while protecting the environment. Put another way, agriculture isn't destroying the planet.

This is a perfectly defensible conclusion based on solid scientific evidence. But the academics and politicians who have tasked themselves with remaking the world, right down to dictating what you get to eat, disagree. The thesis outlined above isn't a science-based conclusion, they argue, it's denialist rhetoric fabricated by the meat industry, which is desperate to exonerate itself from any blame for climate change. Civil Eats outlined this narrative in a recent piece titled How the Largest Global Meat and Dairy Companies Evade Climate Scrutiny.

The story was an interview with Jennifer Jacquet, New York University associate professor of environmental studies, and centers around a 2020 study she co-authored, which “set out to explore the climate culpability of the top 35 animal agriculture companies globally in terms of climate impacts ...”

I don't have an affinity for any of these companies, but I do have a functioning brain and take exception to activist publications that mislead their readers. Let's examine a handful of the claims Jacquet made during the interview. By the time we're through, it should be clear that her complaints about agriculture are misguided.

Emissions can also slip through the cracks temporally. Right now, the U.S. doesn’t look as bad in terms of impacts from animal agriculture relative to Brazil, because we are already did all the deforestation. We’re not thinking historically.”

There's a better reason US agricultural emissions seem to be lower: they are. Looking at the situation “historically,” this is because wealthier societies have the resources to meet their basic material needs and invest in environmental protection. "As capitalism advances, so does the quality of the physical environment,” economist Daniel Fernández explained in 2019. To be sure, the relationship doesn't hold everywhere at all times, but the assumption underlying Jacquet's analysis is that increasing meat consumption inevitably leads to environmental degradation. The empirical research doesn't bear this out. As I argued recently:

  • Studies have shown that the amount of land dedicated to raising animals for food has declined markedly in recent decades. There are 140 million fewer hectares of pasture today than there were in 2000.
  • All models of greenhouse gas emissions from land-use changes indicate that they have declined by a third over the last two decades.
  • Technological innovations that improve animal health, produce better feed, and optimize the animals themselves for food production could boost this global sustainability trend.
  • Dairies and livestock operations can collect methane from animal manure and use it as an alternative energy source, turning a potent GHG into a sustainable fuel source. California's dairy industry has slashed its methane emissions from animal manure by 30 percent using this approach.

How does Jacquet respond? She doesn't mention any of these developments in her interview, probably because there isn't a great answer. The Lancet, when called to account for its dubious claims about agricultural emissions, could do nothing but admit that its opposition to meat consumption wasn't grounded in good evidence.

Misleading statistics

But never mind all those details. The real problem is the meat industry's statistical sleight of hand:

“… the U.S. beef industry loves to capitalize on the large denominator, which is our overall emissions, to make the industry look good. It does that very strategically. They won’t talk about emissions in absolute terms; they want to talk about everything relatively.”

There's some irony here worth savoring. In their paper, Jacquet and her colleagues wrote that animal agriculture's role in climate change is “estimated as 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.” That figure was calculated by combining emissions estimates from developing and developed countries then averaging them across all 200 nations around the globe. It's a misleading estimate because poorer countries are disproportionately agrarian societies; agriculture accounts for most of their economic output, so most of their emissions come from agriculture.

All that to say, critics of animal agriculture have no problem utilizing relative figures when they are convenient. It's also worth noting that assessing emissions on a national basis confirms our earlier point: economic growth facilitates substantial declines in the environmental footprint of food production.

The Big Meat conspiracy

No anti-meat article would be complete without references to a shadowy industry cabal working to mislead the public and prevent politicians from enacting regulations that harm industry. Civil Eats didn't disappoint, alleging that food companies

"… hire people like Frank Mitloehner ... to put out what you could call fake news, or spin, or misinformation-for-hire. Whatever you call it, it’s not independent: You paid to create it, you paid to spread it. We need to appreciate how much misinformation shapes our daily lives, our political lives, our cultural lives; these companies are no doubt directly part of that."

Dr. Mitloehner is an air-quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, and he's widely respected in his field. Some of his work is industry-funded, though that isn't much of a scandal since most research is industry-funded. [1]

The bigger problem with Jacquet's argument is the assumption that “independent” academics only take grant money from public institutions. This is a myth, and there's an entire branch of economics called Public Choice Theory that explains why. Scholars in this field have pointed out that public-sector employees, be they senators, bureaucrats, or professors, respond to the same incentives everybody else responds to. More bluntly, their actions are often deeply influenced by who funds their work and how much they contribute.

Plenty of studies have confirmed this analysis, but if you follow politics at all, you know from experience that Public Choice Theory is correct. That leads us to an important point: everybody has biases that can influence their conclusions about important issues. The only viable way to control the problem is to approach every study, op-ed, and podcast you come across with skepticism.

When you apply this scrutiny to claims about the evils of eating meat, you'll find there's little evidence to justify the hysteria.


[1] Usually through public-private partnerships.