Food, inglorious food: a COP28 story of greenwashing
What influence did ‘Big Livestock’ have on COP28? Our Head of Policy and External Affairs, Jen Elford, looks at what happened at the conference.
When the facts don’t go their way, big industrial powers have a tendency to push back. They go into counter-claim mode, and create a media presence that distracts and dissents. In the 1950s, it was Big Tobacco that sought to bury medical evidence around smoking. In the 1970s, it appears that giant oil companies knew all about the harm caused by rapidly growing carbon emissions but failed to admit it for decades.
Quite clearly, vested corporate interests can keep up a campaign of denial for years, and all in plain sight. Now, it appears it’s the turn of the world’s meat industry.
While a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists descended on Dubai for the 13-day COP28 meeting, another untoward presence was coming over the horizon in the form of the global meat lobby. This is a major issue, particularly as the meat and livestock industry has recently been called out by various NGOs over a campaign of misinformation, and for creating what’s been dubbed a new ‘wild west’ at the frontier where net zero meets the global meat giants.
Almost as if to complete the metaphor, this year’s COP28 saw the world’s meat corporations roll into town with their PR company seemingly riding shotgun. The newly formed Global Meat Alliance (GMA) had sent an ominous message ahead of time that they were coming to COP in “full force”, armed with “their scientific evidence” and ready to “tell their story, and tell it well”.
Just four immense companies dominate the global meat and livestock trade. The Brazilian corporation JBS is the biggest of all with a carbon footprint larger than Spain’s, and no doubt a scale of self-protective ambition to match. Their arrival at the world climate meeting naturally prompted talk of a new corporate PR machine taking shape, in the form of ‘Big Livestock’.
But while I scoured the COP28 programme, keen to see how this PR machine might show up session by session, I was also interested to learn of a stand being taken at the highest level against these global corporate giants.
The UN Secretary General António Guterres is an outspoken character. Last year Guterres commissioned a report on the net-zero commitments of non-state entities (NSEs), that is to say big corporations. With the clear aim of cracking down on a range of dubious net zero practices, false pledges and other corporate greenwashing tactics, he candidly described such NSE pledges as having “varying levels of rigour and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through.”
Since the release of that non-state entities report, NGOs and other agencies have likened the emergent activities and strategy of Big Livestock to that of the fossil fuel sector. In particular, they state that the use of disinformation campaigns and digital technology to control the livestock carbon agenda amount to an attack on global citizens’ basic right to the truth.
From misplaced claims about the methane metrics of livestock, to liberal, disingenuous use of terms like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘climate friendly’ to describe European pork and beef and antipodean lamb: just like the corporations before them, the meat lobby cleverly combines hard fact with a warped narrative to create its own special brand of greenwash.
Perhaps it is telling that Big Livestock has entered the scene at this particular COP, because clearly food has ratcheted up the global agenda since the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration of two years ago.
Indeed, in the space of just eight days at this COP, there have been big strides forward, at least on a framework for talking about food.
First there was a big hurrah for the, at the time of writing, 158 countries, that signed up to the milestone Emirates Food and Agriculture pledge. Then, six days later, came the UN Environment Programme report on how important alternatives to conventional animal products will be for global sustainability.
It wasn’t all good news though. On the same day the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) released their controversial report on global livestock emissions. Perhaps it was no surprise that the report seemed unapologetically pro-meat, given the extensive history of meat lobby interference at the UNFAO. Then, just two days later, came the big one: the unveiling of the UN’s flagship roadmap for ending hunger and creating global food security. This presented nothing less than a wholesale re-envisioning the entire global food system. It was all very progressive, except for the fact that livestock were again front and centre of a new global food system with the same old emissions greenwash.
Looking for the positives closer to home, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)’s alternative proteins report and the UK’s support for the Emirates Food and Agriculture Pledge are significant. Indeed, the UK has finally decided that being a global leader in the rapidly developing alternative protein industry might not be a bad thing, and backed this up with the announcement of a £2bn commitment to develop the UK’s alternative proteins sector.
As far as the Food and Agriculture Pledge is concerned, even though it is written in broad terms, with no clear specifics, the pledge itself is good news. The UK now needs to work on a 30–35% meat reduction just in this decade. Signing up to the pledge also means the UK government must now engage more actively on food sustainability.
This, along with the UN roadmap released on Sunday, has fired the starting gun on a race to reduce food system emissions: a race which the UK has finally, albeit belatedly, entered. The government will now need to build food emissions into its Nationally Determined Contributions to global carbon mitigation.
Of course, globally, meat consumption and the associated emissions are forecast to continue rising, and global meat corporations (‘Big Livestock’) are now weighing in as the new Goliath.
But on the bright side, the new government funds, pledges and roadmaps will give organisations like the Vegetarian Society some welcome leverage in the fight against the corporations’ might as we campaign to get meat off the menu for good.