Bully Beef

The meat industry’s misinformation tactics are even worse than the fossil fuel industry’s.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 14th December 2023

Everything that makes campaigning against fossil fuels difficult is 10 times harder when it comes to opposing livestock farming. Here you will find a similar suite of science denial, misinformation and greenwashing. But in this case, it’s accompanied by a toxic combination of identity politics, nostalgia, machismo and the demonisation of alternatives. If you engage with this issue, you don’t just need a thick skin; you need the skin of a glyptodon.

You will be vilified daily as a “soyboy”, a “hater of farmers” and a dictator who would force everyone to eat insects. You will be charged with undermining western civilisation, destroying its masculinity and threatening its health. You will be denounced as an enemy of Indigenous people, though generally not by Indigenous people themselves, for many of whom livestock farming is and has long been by far the greatest cause of land-grabbing, displacement and the destruction of their homes.

You will find yourself up against those who promote paleo diets (with or without added anabolic steroids), “agrarian localists” pushing impossible dreams of feeding 21st-century populations with medieval production systems, and culinary conservatism, which ranges, in different forms, from Donald Trump to MasterChef. You will find yourself fighting not only a very modern and peculiarly vicious demagoguery, but also a very old and deep-rooted romanticism, which still portrays the pastoral life much as the Greek poets and the Old Testament prophets did. There’s a powerful, de facto alliance between the two.

Perhaps most often, you’ll be denounced as a puppet of the World Economic Forum (a target of multiple conspiracy fictions), or a stooge of corporate or institutional power, in the pay of plant-based meat, precision fermentation, Big Lettuce or Big Bug, which are depicted as monstrous behemoths stamping on traditional businesses. As usual, it’s pure projection. Between 2015 and 2020, financial institutions invested $478bn (£380bn) in meat and dairy corporations. But from 2010 to 2020, only $5.9bn was invested in plant-based and other alternatives. Astonishingly, the livestock industry also receives, across the EU and US, about 1,000 times more government funding than alternative products. This includes massively more money for research and innovation, even though meat and dairy are well-established industries, while the alternatives are at the beginning of their innovation phase. Why? Because the livestock industry’s political connections are umbilical.

Tempting as it is to turn away, we simply cannot afford to ignore this sector. A remarkably wide and intense range of impacts – from global-scale habitat destruction to the mass slaughter of predators, river pollution, air pollution, dead zones at sea, antibiotic resistance and greenhouse gas emissions – reveal livestock farming, alongside fossil fuels, as one of the two most destructive industries on Earth.

The chances of a reasoned conversation across the divide are approximately zero. That’s not an accident. It’s a result of decades of the meat industry’s tobacco-style tactics and manufactured culture wars. Clever messaging triggers men who are obsessed by (and anxious about) their masculinity, generating paranoia over “feminisation” and a loss of dominance. The industry amplifies popular but false claims about livestock healing the land and drawing down more greenhouse gases than it produces. These efforts are reinforced by a tidal wave of disinformation from far-right influencers on social media. While many people have now become aware of how the fossil fuel industry has deceived us, there’s less recognition of the even grimmer game played by the livestock industry.

This came to a head at Cop28, which was meant to be the first climate summit at which the impacts of the food system were properly considered. But by the time 120 meat and dairy lobbyists had done their worst, nothing meaningful came of it.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) unveiled a report at the summit that was shocking even by that organisation’s notoriously pro-corporate standards. It greatly underplayed the impacts of the livestock industry and proposed nothing but a series of feeble technofixes to address it, including some that have been wildly overhyped, such as feeding seaweed to cows to limit the amount of methane they produce. I call this approach Guillotine Syndrome. There might be a slight improvement in efficiency, but it’s still decapitation.

Where was the discussion in this report about reducing livestock production or consumption? On the contrary, it proposed that, for nutritional reasons, the poor world should be eating more meat and dairy. It’s true that many of the world’s poor should have access to more protein and fat, but new approaches, such as microbial proteins, could deliver them to everyone without the import dependency, environmental disasters and health problems caused by switching to a western diet.

So where, in the FAO’s vision, would these extra livestock products come from? Hold on to your seats, because the answer is truly gobsmacking. As the Financial Times reports, the organisation’s chief economist, Maximo Torero, explained that “the way forward was for countries that are ‘very efficient in producing livestock’, such as the Netherlands and New Zealand, to produce more meat and dairy and then ship those products across the world”. Could he really be unaware that both these countries have been thrown into severe ecological and political crisis by the scale of their livestock industries? Yet now he wants them to produce even more – and for poorer nations to become dependent on these imports? Greetings to our visitor from Planet Meat.

The FAO, as the Guardian has documented, has a long and shameful history of suppressing awareness of livestock’s massive impacts. The scientists at the organisation who tried to raise the alarm about the environmental impacts of livestock production in 2006 and 2009 were vilified, censored and sabotaged by senior management. Following the report it published this week, I feel I can state with confidence that the FAO is a major cog in the meat misinformation machine.

The meat industry also nobbled the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Earlier this year, delegates from Brazil and Argentina – major meat exporters – managed to block its recommendation that we should shift towards plant-based diets.

Huge and powerful as these forces are, we need to be brave in confronting livestock production and the dark arts used to promote it. Those of us who do so don’t hate farmers, however much some of them might profess to hate us. We simply seek to apply the same standards to this industry as we’d apply to any other. But when we raise our hands in objection, they are met with fists raised in aggression. That’s the strategy, working as intended.