Navigating misinformation: the raw truth about Big Meat 

This year a lot has changed, but scientific reality has not: to halt the climate crisis, we must transform global food systems. One crucial dimension of this transformation is the role of animals in agriculture. By shifting to healthier, more sustainable diets, the benefits to farmers, farm workers, health, nature, and animal welfare would be enormous! So, what’s preventing action? Ben Snelson reports. 

The end of 2023 saw Dubai host the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP), the United Nations’ annual climate summit.  

The prevalence of fossil fuel industry lobbyists at these gatherings has been growing for years, and COP28 was no exception, with the number of such attendees surpassing 2,400 – a record high, and more than the total delegations of the ten most climate-vulnerable nations combined.  

But in 2023, this now-normalised army of fossil fuel lobbyists was accompanied by a notable surge in the number of representatives of a different sector: Big Agri. In fact, the number of attendees representing these corporate giants – from fertiliser companies like Nutrien to pesticide behemoth Bayer to the world’s biggest meat producer JBSdoubled since the previous year’s COP. 

Specifically, it was the number of attendees from the meat and dairy industry that raised eyebrows. There were three times as many representatives from these sectors than there were at the previous COP. 

The raw facts 

We know that the world’s current food systems account for ∼17.3 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per year – over a third of the global total. Nearly 60% of that figure stems from animal farming. In the EU, the rearing of animals produces more emissions than all cars and vans combined. 

But when viewing the bigger picture, the true scale of environmental damage caused by this sector is not limited to GHG emissions. In Europe, our current food systems are the leading cause of biodiversity loss, with only 23% of species and 16% of habitats in good health. Europe’s current appetite for meat fuels widespread and poorly regulated deforestation beyond our shores, vanquishing some of earth’s richest ecosystems, and most crucial allies against climate chaos.  

In Europe today, our consumption of meat is more than twice the global average. There is a clear scientific consensus on the need to reduce our overall average meat consumption. 

Yet despite these worrying trends, we are witnessing not a decline but an increase in the production of meat and dairy products globally. 

In a visible deviation from previous COPs, the agenda of COP28, as well as its dedicated ‘Food4Climate’ pavilion, indicated an apparently strong focus on addressing the direct causal links between our agri-food systems and the global climate emergency. As such, the spike increase of meat industry delegates at this year’s COP should probably come as no surprise. 

A method to the madness 

The vast majority of COP attendees are “observers”, while representatives of official delegations have privileged access to more directly influence negotiations. COP28 saw a third of all meat and dairy industry delegates attend as part of such delegations – a 500% leap since the previous year. 

Following a clear communications plan, delegates from some of the world’s biggest agricultural giants arrived in Dubai to deliver a simple message: current consumption levels of meat and dairy are “environmentally sustainable”

An extensive study by DeSmog reveals an intricate web detailing the prongs of access (see interactive map) for the world’s 50+ largest agri-food corporations and supporting trade associations to the formal and informal negotiating rooms of COP28.  

Sowing confusion and doubt around the benefits of meat-free alternatives and plant-based diets, Big Meat lobbies sought to frame the consumption of animal products not as a leading cause of, but rather a solution to the climate emergency we and our planet collectively face. 

This is just the latest manifestation of a long-established approach, which is most evident in the way agricultural lobbies have been engaging with key officials within the United Nations’ food and farming body, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

In October 2023, it was revealed that, in response to the FAO’s 2006 publication of Livestock’s Long Shadow, a major report on livestock emissions, Big Agri lobbyists initiated an aggressive (and ongoing) campaign to influence the official position of the FAO regarding the livestock-emissions nexus. FAO experts raised serious concerns of censorship, “editorial vandalism”, threats, and pressure to revise down estimates of this sector’s contribution to emissions. 

At the EU level, we know that similar Big Meat lobby interventionism is also in motion, with ever-more brazen actions taken by aggressive and often invisible actors. Their questionable privileged access to policymakers is playing a leading role in delaying, diluting or even deleting promised EU Green Deal legislation. Farming group Copa-Cogeca, represented by one such nebulous group also makes lofty claims to represent all EU farmers. This is simply not true

Fantasy in the digital realm 

In media discourse, such falsehoods are being regurgitated liberally. But perhaps more insidious is the dissemination of this fake news in the digital sphere. A recent report published by Changing Markets Foundation (CMF) showed that a domain in which misinformation around meat and diets spreads effectively unchecked is the world of social media. 

In this extensive study, CMF revealed almost one million social media posts and conversations from June 2022 to July 2023 that it was able to directly categorise as misinformation.  

Most of these communications focused on either disparaging plant-based alternatives or promoting meat consumption (reiterating health-washing and greenwashing narratives). 

From Changing Markets Foundation report ‘Truth, Lies and Culture Wars: Social listening analysis of meat and dairy persuasion narratives’

The absence of effective regulation of content on social media, inadequate resources to fact-check and remove fake news, and these platforms’ sometimes selective interpretation of what constitutes a breach of their ‘rules’, make it difficult to confidently discern fact from fiction. 

What needs to happen? 

People are entitled to the truth about the meat we consume, where it comes from, the health implications of its overconsumption, and its impact on both planet and people throughout the supply chain. Moreover, we need to ensure that the fora for discussion on climate action offer equal access and platforms to all relevant stakeholders – not only those with the most financial heft. 

None of this is to say we need to end the consumption of meat full stop. It is a simple call for ‘less and better’ – to reduce current consumption of animal products that manifestly exceed levels that our planet can sustain. It is also an alert to consumers everywhere to take what you hear and read (especially on social media) with a generous pinch of salt.