Food and Global Warming: The Silent Treatment
The following is adapted from Diet for a Hot Planet (Bloomsbury USA).
I learned three things on my first trip to Nashville, Tennessee. Number one: there is an entire museum devoted to Cooter from the Duke's of Hazzard. Number two (and perhaps less unexpected): don't order the sushi. And number three, the meat industry and its communications experts are unfazed by the threat to their markets of public concern about the livestock sector's impact on global warming, or if they were, they certainly weren't yet talking about it in the spring of 2008.
That March, six hundred meat industry reps descended on the Gaylord Opryland Convention Center for the annual convention of the Food Marketing Institute and American Meat Institute. As a presenter joked from the stage, their attendees may have been significantly smaller than the National Religious Broadcasters who filled most of the rest of the convention hall with their throngs of thousands, "but our booze is better." That got a rousing applause from the crowd of meat vendors, producers, and retailers from across the country.
Any alarm about public concern or imminent policy on greenhouse gas emissions from their sector? Not a peep. The words "global warming" were never uttered, at least not at any of the plenaries or workshops I attended. Mind you, this is two years after the United Nation's Livestock's Long Shadow report was released, which spelled out in no uncertain terms that the global livestock sector is responsible indirectly and directly for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. To put that into perspective: That's more then all transportation-related emissions combined at the time.
The big public relations concern was the YouTube video depicting animal abuse at a slaughterhouse in Northern California, show by a hidden camera and then gone viral. The industry's strategic communications teams were in overdrive, working to repair its damaged reputation. Among their responses was to produce their own video of a "humane" slaughterhouse, said Deborah White of the Food Marketing Institute. Other communications workshops included one on how to beat back anti-meat groups in which the presenter compared animal welfare organizations to Hezbollah and the Irish Republican Army.
Meat-industry silence on global warming was perceptible, not only at the conference, but also in reports required by law to be submitted annually by public companies to the Security and Exchange Commission. Interested to see whether the industry has been changing its tune about climate change, I searched these "Form 10-k" filings back through the mid-1990s.
Since these are legal documents filed in part to explain exposure to risk, nearly every filing referred to the context of national and international environmental regulation. But did the impact to the industry of public concern about "global warming" or "climate change" appear anywhere in these reports? Rarely.
Smithfield, the country's largest pork producer remained mum about most environmental concerns, including climate change, except to say in its 2007 10-k: "Hog production facilities generate significant quantities of manure, which must be managed properly to protect public health and the environment." That same year the company also noted $50 million in assistance to preserve wetlands in eastern North Carolina to promote "environmental enhancement activities." (A relatively small price tag for a region that is regularly ravaged by hurricanes that have flooded the state's large-scale hog facilities-and manure lagoons. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd, called the "worst disaster to hit North Carolina in modern times," by the governor Jim Hunt, caused $3 billion in damages, in part from flooded hog farms. Hard-hit counties include Duplin County, 50 miles south of Raleigh, home to 2.2 million hogs and only 42,000 people.)
The only 10-ks I found that mentioned global warming were the 2008 filings from Hormel, Tyson, and Cagle's, and then only because the companies had no choice. The anti-meat advocacy organization, PETA, known for its celebrity spokespeople like Pamela Anderson and controversial ads, had submitted shareholder resolutions which requested disclosure by 2010 of "the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions caused by individual products." (Using shareholder resolutions to force companies to talk about climate change is not a strategy unique to PETA. In 2007, the number of environmental resolutions before shareholders reached a record high, spurred by demands that companies address the climate crisis.) The companies that PETA targeted urged their shareholders to vote against the resolution.
Flash forward one year and the American Meat Institute has changed its tune: The silent treatment strategy has turned into the denial method of shirking blame. Exhibit A: The Climate Change and Animal Agriculture fact sheet that the institute released, which claims that the official figure of livestock-related emissions is a paltry "2.8 percent of U.S. emissions," in other words "only a small part of U.S. GHG production."
What the authors of the Fact Sheet obscure is that this figure only counts methane emissions from ruminant digestion (that'd be cattle) and manure management (that'd be those cesspits that fill with waste from factory farms). It doesn't even begin to account for the full range of sources of emissions from...
- producing synthetic fertilizer for feedcrops for livestock and the emissions from using it. (Worldwide, half of all corn and 90 percent of all soy is diverted to feed livestock, which give back to us only a fraction of the grain and soy we feed them);
- depleting our soils to raise those feedcrops;
- producing agricultural chemicals and fertilizers to raise feedcrops;
- heating, cooling, and cleaning feedlots and processing plants;
- processing, packaging, and transporting products.
And more, like the meat industry's proportion of methane emissions from landfills, which contain food waste, including our uneaten meat morsels. Add these together, and the industry's toll on climate is much more significant than the American Meat Institute is trying to get you to believe. For the AMI must know that if more Americans were to get wise to the connections between industrial livestock and the climate crisis, they'd expect the industry to take responsibility-to change.
The typical American is smart and getting smarter about the severity of the climate crisis. More of us get it: Every industry-including meat and dairy-needs to do its part. We expect more than just a deft deflection of public concern with pseudo-scientific fact sheets. And if the industry doesn't take this public concern seriously? Well, the feedlot hamburger might just go the way of the Hummer and end up in the dustbin of history.