Big Meat Unveils Battle Plans for COP28

Yves here. We’ve pointed out for some time that people in advanced economies should be eating more foods lower on the food chain, not just out of greenhouse gas concerns but also to reduce agricultural land and water use. As a very crude generalization, every step up the food chain takes 10x as many calories. So it take 10 calories of grain (that you could eat as grain) to produce one calorie of meat. Admittedly there is a lot of variability. Chicken is very efficient in food chain terms, beef very inefficient.

But there are a lot of bucks in what this article calls “Big Meat”.

By Rachel Sherrington, a freelance investigative researcher and reporter based in London and is the former Lead Researcher and Reporter at DeSmog. Her work has been covered by outlets including The Guardian, Vice News, The Financial Times and The Hill. Originally published at DeSmogBlog

Credit: Andy Carter

Major meat companies and industry lobby groups are planning a large presence at COP28 in a few days time, equipped with a communications plan to get a pro-meat message heard by policymakers throughout the summit, DeSmog can reveal.

Documents seen by DeSmog and the Guardian show that the meat industry is poised to “tell its story and tell it well” in the lead up and during the Dubai conference, which comes on the heels of the world’s hottest ever year.

The files relate how the world’s largest meat company, JBS, is planning to come out in “full force” at the summit, along with other big industry hitters such as the Global Dairy Platform and the North American Meat Institute.

The documents, which were produced by the industry-funded Global Meat Alliance (GMA), emphasise the meat lobby’s desire to promote “our scientific evidence” at the summit, which will run from November 30 through to December 12.

Farming will be front and centre at this year’s COP. Leaders have released a four-point “food and agriculture” agenda that calls for governments and industry to work together to find new solutions to climate change–driven food insecurity.

Members of the Alliance are encouraged to stick to key comms messages, including the idea that meat is beneficial to the environment and will help to “feed the world”.

The revelations come at a time that meat and dairy companies are coming under increasing pressure to clean up their act.

Combined, the emissions of the world’s three largest meat companies are estimated to be significantly larger than those of oil giants Shell and BP, while the dairy industry’s 3.4 percent contribution to global human-induced emissions is a higher share than aviation.

The GMA documents also reveal that the industry will be helped to stay on message in Dubai by the PR firm Red Flag,which has previously lobbied EU regulators on behalf of the US meat industry group as well as for a leading tobacco firm.

Trade groups also give some indication of how they hope to shape conversations. One says it will “push” the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to host “positive livestock content” at COP28. This follows recent revelations that pressure from industry led to censorship of FAO reports on the role of cattle in driving greenhouse gas emissions.

Animal agriculture is the largest emitter of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide when measured over a 20 year period. Scientists say that unless swift action is taken, methane from agriculture alone will take us beyond a 1.5C rise in temperature that risks tipping the world into irreversible climate breakdown.

“These companies are stepping up their game because the exposure they are facing is stepping up,” says Jennifer Jacquet, Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Miami. “It used to be that they were caught on the back foot, but now they’re completely prepared.”

The GMA declined to offer a formal comment, however a spokesperson told DeSmog in an email that the group works to “simplify and distil public information” around international events which are “often dominated by an anti-meat narrative”.

PR Push

The meat industry is planning a concerted PR push at the summit, which it describes as a  “notoriously challenging environment”.

It offers a comprehensive guide to all areas of the UNFCCC climate conference, highlighting where industry can hope to get its message across, including on thematic days, food and ag-based events and at pavilions where countries and observer groups showcase their climate credentials and hold events.

In one document, the industry acknowledges that the global meat sector has a “job to do” in making sure governments are positioned to push for what it describes as “balanced, science-based outcomes” rather than what it characterises as “ideologically driven solutions”.

To help the industry navigate the complexities of COP28, the controversial PR firm Red Flag will also be at the summit. In 2018, the Irish company came under fire for “astro-turfing” after it was revealed to be employed by pesticide firms to run a pro-glyphosate campaign, which it had represented as a grassroots-led effort by farmers.

Red Flag chief executive Karl Brophy was quoted at the time as saying: “We are grateful to several clients for supporting the project,” adding, “we’re proud to have played a small part in providing the information” to help defeat the proposed ban of the herbicide.

In signs of a PR war being fought online as well as in person, an earlier draft of the GMA documents stated that several groups – including the UK levy-funded group the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) – were planning to work with social media influencers to amplify their messaging around the summit.

A spokesperson for the AHDB informed DeSmog it did not plan to use social media influencers during the summit, and that any documents stating this were incorrect.

“Throughout the year, including during COP28, AHDB will offer its expertise to promote a balanced and sensible debate about the future of our food system,” they said.

The spokesperson added that food production must increase by 70 percent to keep pace with population growth, and complained that the common narrative on livestock was dictated by “simplistic negative conclusions of livestock’s role within rising global temperatures, nature decline and decreasing human health”.

Past marketing drives run by the AHDB include the £3.5-million “We Eat Balanced Campaign”, which aims to “provide clear facts to help those reducing meat and dairy consumption to reconsider”.

The GMA files also namecheck influential pro-meat individuals such as author and podcaster Diana Rodgers, who has been referenced by the Global Meat Alliance in a previous campaign, which targeted the UN Food System Summit.

Rodgers defends meat-eating as sustainable and has spoken against measures to curb its consumption in rich countries. (She was listed as an attendee at COP28 in an earlier version of the documents, but has since been removed).

“Any credible action to reduce emissions in the food sector will inevitably lead to a reduction in the total volume of meat and dairy products produced,” says Nusa Urbancic, chief executive of campaign group the Changing Markets Foundation. “The industry is terrified of that and has been deploying multiple tactics to delay the inevitable.”

Turning Out in ‘Full Force’ 

The meat sector’s largest emitters – whose past efforts to obstruct climate action have been documented by DeSmog – plan to be on the ground in large numbers at COP28, the files show.

JBS, the world’s most polluting meat company, will be out in “full force” in Dubai , according to the files. At COP27 in Egypt, DeSmog revealed that the firm gained access via Brazil’s country delegation.

“It is hard to understand why decision-makers would allow companies like JBS to have a seat at the table at climate negotiations,” Urbancic said. “They are simply not credible partners in these crucial talks, especially now when the time for action is rapidly running out.”

The Brazilian meat giant has come under growing pressure for failing to tackle the outsized climate and environmental impacts of its business. It stands accused of misleading investors over a green bonds scheme and was recently ordered to retract net zero claims by the US ad regulator.

The sector’s second largest emitter – Tyson Foods – is also planning to be at the summit in Dubai.

Companies at the summit will be accompanied by lobby groups that represent them, some of which have a history of obstructive action. They include the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), a powerful group representing large meat producers in the US, which in 2022 was still questioning on its website whether climate change was caused by humans.

While the leaked documents are aimed at the meat sector, they also show that high-emitting dairy companies are planning on sending a “large delegation” to COP28.

Earlier this year a backlash from several countries with interests in meat led to the watering down of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC’s) recommendations on dietary changes needed to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.

Urbancic says producers are aping the tactics of the oil industry: to delay climate action with weak voluntary commitments, all the while pushing industry-funded science.

Plans to Work Closely With Governments

The documents show that the industry will be collaborating with major producer countries and friendly governments to amplify their message at COP28.

Companies and trade groups are told one of the ways to “to have the most influence” is to “equip delegates with your key messages and solutions”, a list of which is provided in the pack.

The files also detail collaborations planned for the event itself. The North American Meat Institute will host a side event at the US COP pavilion on December 11, the summit’s Agriculture Day, for example.

For its part, the Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), a levy-funded group, plans to hold events at its country pavilion, and says it is also looking to engage with other countries at COP28. It also states that it will hold regular meetings with the Australian government before the summit.

Australia and the US are the second and third largest beef exporters globally, and their governments have a strong economic interest in supporting the growth of these industries, which enjoy close political ties. In the US, the current secretary of State for Agriculture – Tom Vilsack – is the former head of the powerful dairy industry group: the US Dairy Export Council (USDEC).

A spokesperson for the Australian government’s Department for Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water told DeSmog:

“The Australian Government is providing the agricultural sector, including the meat industry, support for innovation, infrastructure, biosecurity and building resilience, which OECD [a club of rich nations] characterises as positive areas to invest.”

Some academics believe government support to be a significant factor in determining the continued power of the animal agriculture industry over alternatives.

A study published earlier this year found that meat and dairy farmers in the EU received 1,200 times more public funding than new alternative protein sources, while in the US, they received 800 times more support.

Jennifer Jacquet says addressing the cosy relationship between governments and industry was crucial to bringing diets into line with climate goals.

“Typically, the talk is about demand side interventions, like you can get schools or, or individuals to give up meat,” she says. “But I’m a little worried that some of this [meat] production is so baked into subsidies and policy, that even with decreased demand, this apparatus will just keep flowing.

“We need the animal agriculture equivalent of ‘keep it in the ground’ for fossil fuels,” she adds. “It’s really about production at the end of the day.”

Sponsorship of Pavilions

In the documents, trade groups also reveal their plans to influence the pavilions run by observer groups. They do this via sponsorship, which can cost between $10,000 and $200,000 and is championed as a way to host sessions, receptions and invite guests.

The US Dairy Export Council are confirmed sponsors of a COP28 pavilion hosted by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), an intergovernmental body with close ties to industry. Other sponsors include NAMI, pesticide firms Croplife and Bayer, along with the industry-sponsored Protein Pact initiative.

USDEC anticipates that sponsorship will “help to ensure side event opportunities and make strategic sense for guaranteeing a presence at the event”. The Council also shares plans to promote the target-free initiative known as Pathways to Dairy Net Zero, whose members are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

A section on NAMI’s plans in the documents also confirms its support for the IICA, which last year hosted an online panel featuring UC Davis professor Frank Mitloehner, a high profile defender of the meat industry, which also funds his research.

NAMI relates that Mitloehner will be coming in person to COP28 where he is signed up to speak on two panels, so far. It encourages other meat sector groups to “plug” Frank into other events at the summit, describing him as a “top expert in animal ag GHG emissions”.

Mitloehner has helped popularise a controversial way of counting methane emissions known as GWP*, which effectively penalises new sources of methane from the Global South but lets pre-existing high-volume emitters from the Global North off the hook. He has used GWP* to claim that the US meat and dairy sector can become “climate-neutral” by the late 2040s by reducing emissions only two percent a year.

Professor Mitloehner told DeSmog: “GWP* is a metric that measures methane’s impact on warming. In conjunction with others, it can be used in a way that drives further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

He added: “Reducing emissions from livestock requires involving farmers, ranchers, and companies and organizations across animal agriculture. Like many of the more than 70,000 delegates expected to attend COP28, I’ve been invited to share my expertise through the events planned in pavilions hosted by governments and international organizations.”

In its comment to DeSmog, the AHDB spokesperson also used GWP* to claim that “methane from UK livestock since 1990 has not caused global warming”.

‘Positive Livestock Content’

The documents also include a messaging summary with key talking points, which present meat as “sustainable nutrition” and suggest that meat production can be beneficial to the environment.

In a four-page set of arguments, the Global Meat Alliance claims that producers can “play a key role in environmentally sustainable food systems” and that the sector is “continuously driving towards carbon-friendly farming”.

Several of these arguments reference the idea that grazing livestock can help maintain healthy soils which can store carbon. This is often described as ‘regenerative agriculture’, a term that featured among six greenwashing terms for the agriculture sector reported by DeSmog in September.

It’s a term favoured by many food companies, despite the fact that scientists have said that soils are not a reliable way to store carbon in the long term, and that removals can be easily undone.

In its messaging, industry also heavily references the role of meat in relieving hunger and in the Global South, claiming that it “plays a key role in reducing food insecurity and malnutrition”.

However the UN-linked Committee on World Food Security has repeatedly pointed out that hunger and malnutrition is not caused by a lack of food, pointing instead to problems with access, distribution and power.

Meat eating globally is very unequally spread, Europeans eat more than twice the global average, and North Americans’ and Australians’ consumption levels are even higher. One study released in the academic journal Nature in 2018, foundthat Western countries would have to reduce their meat intake by 90 percent to limit climate change to acceptable levels.

The full set of documents – which add up to 23 pages – make only passing, discursive reference to cutting methane, which is mentioned twice in the context of carbon-storage and “feeding the world”, and to encourage participation in events where methane is on the agenda.

This is despite the fact that emissions from beef production globally are roughly equal to those of the entire nation of India, with science pointing to a shift in diets as the one surefire way to cut emissions.

The Food4Climate pavilion, which aims to promote plant-based food, is labelled by the meat group as “extreme”. The GMA also shows displeasure at the COP28 presidency’s choice of a vegan menu, which is one of just two passing references to changing diets.

At no point does the industry acknowledge the serious and public health and environmental harms of livestock, which are also the leading cause of biodiversity loss worldwide.

Meat lobby groups will share a different message at pavilions at COP28. NAMI says it will push the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to host “positive livestock content”.

Elsewhere in the documents, industry stresses the importance of sharing “our scientific evidence” at the summit.

As well as plans to present meat as “positive for the environment”, it will promote the Dublin Declaration, a document signed by over 1,000 scientists, which has been criticised as meat “propaganda” by climate experts.

The meat industry has long been engaged in efforts to present its industry as green, from selling the idea of climate-friendly cows to ‘greener cattle’ initiatives, which will also be promoted at COP28 through the US-led AIM for Climate initiative.

Missing Perspectives

While the Global Meat Alliance promotes itself as supporting an “aligned global meat sector” the group’s membership is skewed heavily toward producers in the Global North.

Fourteen of the group’s 16 partners come from either Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland or North America. Its remaining two partners are global lobby groups representing large companies and multiple countries.

Of the 21 companies and trade groups who appear to have coordinated with the GMA on their attendance for COP28, more than half are the countries listed above. One (JBS) is from Brazil, and the rest are transnational.

This follows a wider trend in multi-stakeholder climate initiatives, where smallholder groups are sidelined. A November report found that small-scale farmers, who produce a third of the world’s food, receive just 0.3% of climate finance.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Global Meat Alliance described itself as an “international networking group with an aim to support a better connected, aligned global meat sector by providing industry with accumulated insights, best practice, and collaboration opportunities.”

The major dairy industry initiative – Pathways to Dairy Net Zero – has also publicised itself as a global effort welcome to companies from across the dairy supply chain, but a DeSmog analysis shows that Global North groups dominate the group.

In 2022, DeSmog’s analysis of the major sustainable farming initiative AIM for Climate (or Aim4C) found that more than two thirds of some 300 partners were located in the United States or Europe. Just seven percent are based in Africa.

Livestock experts with a focus on the Global South have repeatedly stressed the importance of including a range of perspectives in discussions of livestock pollution. Ian Scoones, a researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Development argues that often industrial, intensive producers “lump all livestock in together” – forgetting over 200 million herders, shepherds and small-scale producers who live mostly in Africa and Asia.

Scoones explains that this can lead to unhelpful discussions. It’s notable that the solutions pursued by some of the GMA members are not always in the interests of Global South producers. Beef + Lamb New Zealand, for example, is pushing the UN to adopt the new methane metric GWP*, which punishes the new and growing sources of methane in the Global South.

Scoones says: “My big fear in all of this debate is that the likes of pastoralists who we work with around the world will get stuffed because they don’t have a voice.”

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  1. K

    It is time to end the war and unconditionally surrender. The people of the world need to come to the table with the aligned powers of oil, meat, cars, etc and ask what permanent level of profits need to be guaranteed to them all to get them onboard. We also ought to offer to take over all competing green industries and hand them over too. The goal would be that if we guarantee their current and future control of all the rest of us that we may be allowed to continue to live even if only as peasants… (Aside: yes..kidding I think)

  2. Rob

    If you grow beef like Greg Jeudy (You Tube) in Missouri, grass fed and finished, then I would submit that no only is it better for the soil and larger ecosystem, but it is not 10x calories for beef vs chicken. He does clear brush with a large tractor that he also uses to place large round bales for winter feeding if necessary, and uses a 4 wheeler for pulling mineral feeder and laying out paddocks. But probably less gas/diesel than any commercial chicken grower. Not to be nitpicky but there are models that work for just about everything. Its the Industrial model of food that does not work on every level, ecosystem, animal health, human health and nutrition, and climate if that is your bogey.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Indeed – it’s the industrial scale that’s the problem, not just eating meat.

      That’s one of the reason my family sold their dairy herd earlier this year. They had a small herd of just 60 milking cows for many decades, and could no longer make a go of it with that many cows because the margins were so thin due to all the other herds being much larger now.

      My uncle pointed out that while they could expand their own herd to try to compete, then it would be a factory and no longer a small family-run farm, and he didn’t want to do that.

      1. flora

        Joe Rogan has some great interviews with Will Harris of White Oak Pastures farm in Geogia. Search for links on youtube.

    2. KLG

      Thank you. Industrial agriculture – plants and animals – is a category error. Grass-fed cattle in a lush pasture where it rains (i.e., east of the 100th meridian) are not the problem. And they return nutrients to the soil. Pigs raised in pasture with shelter are not the problem. Chickens raised on the ground are not the problem.

      I recently got into an “intense” argument with the president of the Georgia Cattleman’s Association about the hidden costs of 95% of all yearling cattle being shipped to Kansas and Nebraska for “finishing” while they stand up to their “knees” in the hot sun in, well, this is a family blog. He replied that White Oak Pastures of Bluffton, Georgia, is not “sustainable.” Well, yes, it is, but he will see little reward from local agriculture. See Flora’s comment at 1:50 pm. What are unsustainable and inhumane: CAFOs for cows, pigs, and chickens.

      As for the possibility of mixed local agriculture feeding the world: Yes. This was standard practice until WWII, except at the far margin for exotics. It will be again, whether Big Ag wants it or not, as the world shrinks as a consequence of our clearly visible future.

      Rant ended. Part of it began here, please pardon the self-reference. And like Carla, I am glad to be old. The future of my grandchildren fills me with dread, though.

    3. i just dont like the gravy

      Just adding another “here here!” to the mix.

      The best thing we can do is make people aware of alternatives.

    4. Yves Smith Post author

      I am late to this ad you are selling misinformation.

      The issue with beef is all the methane cows produce. My personal SECONDARY issue is how inefficient they are in food chain terms (as in how many calories of plant matter it takes to produce beeff.

      Grass fed beef is MUCH MUCH worse in methane terms. You are doing a huge disservice in touting it as environmentally responsible.

      Increased methane emissions of grass-fed cattle are also an unavoidable result of ruminant digestion, as cows fed a natural diet of grass, hay, and other forages produce three times more methane than cows fed corn and grains (the traditional diet on intensive industrial or “factory” farms.)

      1. Piotr Berman

        New Zealanders claim that the difference is 20%,, not 100%, plus letting cattle eat cultivating grass causes much less erosion, carbon is sequestered in soil (rather than depleting soil), uses less fertilizers and fuels. As I posted, meat consumption is much larger than physiologically necessary, and eating less of healthier meat would make us spend less and emit less methane.

        One reason that grass feeding is “less efficient” is that it is more humane. Cows amble around pasture instead of quickly converting feed into fatty meat in tight confinements.

  3. Carla

    Maybe this is a stupid question, but it is an honest one: is it possible, in practical — not political — terms, to feed the current population of the world, particularly large urban areas, without industrial agriculture of some scale?

    I really hope the answer is “Oh, don’t be so dumb, Carla, of course it is!”

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      This is a time-consuming, but worthwhile answer. It’s a Nate Hagens Roundtable with Vandana Shiva, the well-known organizer of peasant farmers in India, Jason Bradford, a regenerative farmer in Oregon and on the board at the Post-Carbon Institute, among others. They address if a low-to-no carbon agriculture can feed 8 billion. Spoiler alert: the answer is yes if we go back to labor-intensive ag. The side benefit is that we can regenerate the soil and contribute to habitat while we’re at it.

      1. Carla

        The Roundtable with Vandana Shiva et al is fantastic, HMP. Thank you so much for linking to it. I hope many in the commentariat will take the time to check it out.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Anecdotal, but in my town there used to be a lot of farmland decades ago. A large part of that was converted to what is now the biggest mall in the state. Another large part was converted into one of those huge subdivisions filled with single family homes. There are no farms of any significant size in the town at all now. In general, we also used to have a much larger percentage of the population working on farms.

      So if we were to get rid of a lot of suburban sprawl, convert the land back to farmland, and move a significant percentage of the population back to agricultural work, then I do think it’s doable. But it won’t happen overnight (you can’t just start farming on land polluted with industrial waste for decades and expect good results), so it may not be practical. And politically I think it’s a non-starter, at least given the current US political situation, so we’re probably going to have to get used to eating fake meat, bug meat, or we’re just screwed.

        1. i just dont like the gravy

          Indeed. A coworker of mine recently had a child. Very difficult to feign excitement knowing the future that kid will inherit.

  4. Piotr Berman

    “A study published earlier this year found that meat and dairy farmers in the EU received 1,200 times more public funding than new alternative protein sources, while in the US, they received 800 times more support.”

    The adequate protein consumption is 50g per day (men more than women because they have excuse to weight more, cited figure is 45g per woman, 55g per day). US average consumption is 114g per day. Moreover, having adequate intake of plant fiber can give 20g of protein per day from grains, pulses etc. And we also eat milk products, under-average consumption easily adds 20g. Adding average 3 oz meat or fish per day we get more than enough. As Americans and Europeans consume more than double of necessary protein, new sources are not needed!

    One can argue that we need more whole grains like barley, buckwheat or wheat with less protein removed, and more vegetables for a complete non-fattening diet, but those are not “new food sources”. Perhaps they require some support.

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