- Annual greenhouse gas emissions from the top five global meat and dairy corporations are greater than those from Exxon, Shell or BP, according to a new study from two sustainable agriculture groups.
- The research from GRAIN and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said if current growth in the meat and dairy industries continues as expected, the sector could represent 80% of the planet's permissible greenhouse gas emissions in only 32 years.
- The "Emissions impossible: How big meat and dairy are heating up the planet" report found that while some of the top 35 global meat and dairy companies report their greenhouse gas emissions and have reduction goals, most do not. Plus, their plans for growth tend to cancel out any potential progress.
The report highlights how difficult it may be between now and 2050 to shift sufficient numbers of consumers away from traditionally produced meats and toward plant-based alternatives and/or lab-grown protein products to make a difference to the planet's ever-increasing greenhouse gas problem.
Meat and dairy production has extensive environmental impacts, and this report included not only the direct greenhouse gas emissions from company facilities, processing plants and machinery but also "upstream supply chain emissions" from associated power generation and emissions from livestock, feed production and inputs such as fertilizer. The report noted that a full picture of total emissions is impossible without including all of these sources.
"As vertically integrated businesses, [large meat and dairy companies] exercise significant and often direct control over their supply chains, including feedlot and processing operations, contract farming systems and feed production units. It is thus critical that big meat and dairy companies be held directly accountable for the upstream supply chain emissions, and denied the ability to shift blame (and costs) onto their farmer suppliers or the public," the report stated.
While some consumers are aware of the connection between diet and environment and how their food choices may impact climate change, plenty of others aren't or just don't care. Yet individual behavior can have a major influence on the situation. Recent research from the University of Michigan and Tulane University found that 20% of Americans are responsible for about half of U.S. diet-related greenhouse gas emissions on any given day, largely because of high beef consumption.
"Reducing the impact of our diets — by eating fewer calories and less animal-based foods — could achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It's climate action that is accessible to everyone, because we all decide on a daily basis what we eat," said Martin Heller, a researcher at the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems who helped author the study.
As climate change becomes more serious and the timeline to mitigate it more limited, some companies are taking action to reduce their own environmental footprints and let consumers know what they can do. The "Emissions impossible" report noted that just four companies — Japan's NH Foods, Nestlé, FrieslandCampina in the Netherlands and France's Danone — share "complete, credible emissions estimates," and that reporting them, let alone doing anything to reduce them, is voluntary.
Meat and dairy firms, and those marketing their products, could win major sustainability points by educating consumers about the problem and what they're doing to reduce their own role in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, those companies making meat and dairy substitutes — such as Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger, JUST, Quorn, Blue Diamond, Danone North America and Ripple, among many others — stand to gain market share by publicizing the report's findings wherever they can.
Such studies might also help consumers accept the impending debut of lab-grown meat, which is made from cells taken from a live animal and grown in aseptic environments with the help of a special serum. These companies — including Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat and Mission Barns — stress their smaller environmental impacts and emphasize that no animals are killed to make their products.