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How Big Beef muzzled methane research
A new Guardian investigation reveals the U.N.'s farming wing downplayed livestock emissions after pressure from the meat, feed and dairy industries.
But there’s another major contributor to methane emissions that we haven’t recently discussed, with an equally powerful lobby behind it: animal agriculture.
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Climate scientists have been saying for years that the world needs to eat less meat to slow global warming. They’ve said that even if fossil fuel emissions were immediately halted today, trends in meat and dairy consumption could still prevent the achievement of both the 1.5 degree and 2 degree Celsius targets, because of the massive resource consumption required for raising cattle.
Part of that may be because of lacking media coverage. According to a June analysis by Sentient Media and Faunalytics, only seven percent of climate news articles mention animal agriculture, making it “one of the least-discussed causes of climate change in the media.”
But another reason may be the animal agriculture industry itself, and the influence it has on softening climate research long before it reaches the hands of the press.
“Censored, sabotaged, undermined, and victimized”
On Friday, a new Guardian investigation revealed that former officials at the United Nation’s farming wing were “censored, sabotaged, undermined and victimized for more than a decade after they wrote about the hugely damaging contribution of methane emissions from livestock to global heating.”
Based on interviews with about 20 former and current FAO officials, the article claims senior leadership at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) censored their reports because of significant pressure applied by meat, feed, and dairy producers.
“There was substantial pressure internally and there were consequences for permanent staff who worked on this, in terms of their careers,” one ex-official said.
The pressure began in 2006, when the GAO released its first detailed report about how livestock harm the environment. The backlash was immediate: meat-producing countries like Brazil, Argentina, the U.S., and Australia complained to senior officials at the FAO; as did meat, feed, and dairy producers, according to FAO’s former head of livestock policy, Henning Steinfeld.
The pressure worked: a 2009 report was delayed by several months as FAO senior leadership tried to water down the descriptions of the climate harm caused by the meat industry, according to staff members and Steinfeld.
“Even if livestock contributes 18 percent to climate change, the FAO shall not say that,” Steinfeld recalls being told by senior leadership. “It’s not in the interest of the FAO to highlight environmental impacts.”
The mystery of the FAO’s declining livestock emissions numbers
The FAO’s oft-cited, official number for livestock emissions is 14.5 percent. That estimate has dropped precipitously since the FAO’s first report in 2006, which estimated that livestock emit 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
That estimate is now being reduced again, to 11.2 percent, according to the FAO’s most recent estimates. “This seems counter-intuitive, given that during the same period, the FAO recorded a 39 percent increase in global meat production,” the Guardian reports.
The number the FAO uses here is important, as the Guardian reports, it will be included in a blueprint for countries to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius at the next international climate talks in November.
A spokesperson for the FAO’s livestock development office said the new figure simply reflects “best practices and evolving methodologies”—but not all researchers agree with that.
For example, the Guardian reports that a recent paper by New York University environmental scientist Matthew Hayek said that “the FAO’s use of modelling—rather than verifiable monitoring data—could underestimate methane emissions from livestock by up to 90 percent in countries such as the U.S.”
Another peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Sustainability estimates that livestock account for closer to 16.5 to 28 percent of greenhouse gas pollution.
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An unspoken rule: Don’t talk about consumption
In addition to questioning the FAO’s emissions numbers, the Sustainability paper also critically examines the FAO’s preference to recommend making animal production more “eco-efficient,” rather than recommending reducing the amount of meat and dairy people consume.
“The FAO’s tendency to assume demand for animal products leaves it at odds with other U.N. agencies that have explored the potential for reducing animal consumption,” the paper’s author writes. “What sort of explanation could be offered for this discrepancy?”
One former FAO official, who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity because he still fear reprisal, said “No one wanted to go to the next step of saying agriculture is a problem for the planet and we need to mitigate it—including by potentially reducing production levels or changing things in less profitable ways.”
One explanation could be that the animal agriculture industry—which has a vested interest in keeping meat and milk on the menu—also provides funding to the FAO. Some experts say this leaves the organization beholden to the industry it oversees.
“It’s clear that there is corridor pressure by the main agri-producers in the FAO,” Hans Herren, co-chair of the UN and World Bank’s agricultural assessment report, told the Guardian. “There is a chain of pressure because the FAO, like most agencies, depends on external funds.”
A lobby as powerful — and far-reaching — as oil
In interviews, several FAO staff members “compared the power of the agribusiness lobby over FAO policy to that of the oil and gas giants on energy policy,” Guardian journalist Arthur Neslen writes.
But the agribusiness lobby’s influence doesn’t just extend to the FAO. Indeed, while reporting on the USDA’s climate-friendly agriculture program worth $3.1 billion, I spoke with one scientist who estimates that the USDA may also drastically undercount livestock emissions by as much as 39 to 90 percent.
Industry influence may also be a factor here, too. Matthew Hayek, a professor of environmental studies at New York University and author of the USDA emissions analysis, detailed for me how the USDA advertises for the same industries it regulates.
For example, the USDA manages the industry boards that pay for ad campaigns like “Got Milk?” and “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” When I asked if it’s normal for agencies to help advertise the industry they hold accountable, Hayek pointed out that the EPA doesn’t advertise coal plants. It’s an example of what he calls a much larger regulatory paradox in the USDA.
"They are at the same time charged with regulating agriculture and marketing agriculture businesses,” said Hayek. “It's not just that there are instances of regulatory capture. It is a culture and an institution of regulatory contradiction.”
In another example of how government and industry are entwined, officials frequently have worked in the industry they regulate. Current agriculture secretary and former head of the USDA Tom Vilsack told reporters at COP26, “I do not think we have to reduce the amount of meat or livestock produced in the U.S.” Before becoming the secretary of agriculture, Vilsack was the CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.
Essentially, the government officials tasked with regulating agriculture are serving two masters: industry and the people they’re supposed to protect. The Guardian’s expose is merely one more example of this conflict of interest, and a reminder of why accountability for these government institutions is so important.
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Speaking of holding institutions accountable…
“A huge gift to the fossil fuel industry:” Yet another methane gas project has gotten the OK from federal regulators, in spite of objections of climate activists and three West coast states.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday unanimously approved a plan to increase the capacity of the Gas Transmission Northwest Express, a 61-year-old pipeline that transports more than 2 billion cubic feet of fracked methane gas from western Canada to the West Coast per day.
As InsideClimate News reports, the Oregon-based environmental nonprofit Columbia Riverkeeper has vowed to challenge the decision when it’s finalized, calling it “a huge gift to the fossil fuel industry.” It’s yet another reason we think methane literacy is becoming such an urgent issue.
Related HEATED coverage:
The urgent issue of methane literacy. October 2023.
“It’s an unprecedented planned build-out of new fossil fuel infrastructure … happening amid warnings that ensuring a livable climate requires the exact opposite course of action.”
Why we’re no longer calling it “natural gas.” May 2023.
”If fossil fuel companies succeed in convincing the public that gas is a clean source of energy, they will be able to effectively neutralize policies intended to prevent a harrowing climate future.”
A setback in the fight for climate reparations. At last year’s international climate talks, wealthy nations that caused the climate crisis promised to set up a fund to help the vulnerable nations suffering the consequences.
But now, Grist and AFP report, wealthy nations–including the U.S. will not budge in their negotiations with vulnerable nations regarding how the fund should be set up. One huge point of contention: wealthy nations want the fund to be housed at the World Bank; while vulnerable nations want a new, independent body.
Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy for Climate Action Network International, condemned wealthy nations’ position. "Developed countries must be held accountable for their shameless attempts to push the World Bank as the host of the fund, their refusal to discuss the necessary scale of finance, and their blatant disregard for their responsibilities,” he said in a statement to AFP.
Related HEATED coverage:
The rich injustice of COP26, November 2021.
“While a loss and damages agreement is the most important thing for vulnerable nations, it’s also the biggest threat to polluting nations and the fossil fuel industry.”
The U.S. is trying to get out of paying climate damages to poor countries. December 2019.
“Industrialized nations including the U.S. have routinely failed on their promises to help poor countries deal with devastating climate effects.”
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