The meat lobby blocked the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s attempt to recommend a shift to plant-based diets, show comparisons between the draft Working Group III report leaked in 2021 by activist group Scientist Rebellion and the final, published version. Instead of the initial wording, which included a note that “plant-based diets can reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emission-intensive Western diet”, the IPCC’s Working Group III final report instead suggests “balanced, sustainable healthy diets acknowledging nutritional needs”, without explaining what a sustainable diet is and leaving out the reference to meat-heavy and emissions-intensive Western diets.

It was Argentina’s Secretary for Climate Change, Rodrigo Rodriguez Tornquist, who requested the language be changed, according to documents seen by Greenpeace Unearthed, the NGO’s investigative unit. Brazil’s foreign minister also sought to remove wording stating that a shift to diets with a higher share of “plant-based protein” in regions where people eat an excess of calories and animal-based foods could lead to substantial reductions in GHG emissions and provide health benefits, reveals Unearthed.

The Brazilian reviewer wrote: “It cannot be assumed that plant-based diets and healthy diets are the same, that both will have a low environmental impact or that a sustainable diet will be healthy.” Brazil and Argentina are two of the world’s biggest producers of beef and animal feed.

The influence of the meat industry is reminiscent of the influence of the oil and gas industry, where governments have failed to include a mention of winding down or halting oil and gas production in the outcomes of UN climate conferences.

A land use war

Brazil’s efforts to silence criticism against meat – one of its most lucrative exports – run deeper and more sinister than editing reports.

It has been one year since the deaths of British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous peoples expert Bruno Pereira, who were killed by illegal fishers while returning by boat from reporting on illegal activities in the Amazon. The attacks are suspected to have been premeditated, reported the BBC on 5 June, as suggested by fresh evidence based on conversations held by the killers in their cells. In May, developments in the case resulted in two former government officials, the former president and vice-president of Brazil's National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples agency, being indicted over the murders.

How well do you really know your competitors?

Access the most comprehensive Company Profiles on the market, powered by GlobalData. Save hours of research. Gain competitive edge.

Company Profile – free sample

Thank you!

Your download email will arrive shortly

Not ready to buy yet? Download a free sample

We are confident about the unique quality of our Company Profiles. However, we want you to make the most beneficial decision for your business, so we offer a free sample that you can download by submitting the below form

By GlobalData
Visit our Privacy Policy for more information about our services, how we may use, process and share your personal data, including information of your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications. Our services are intended for corporate subscribers and you warrant that the email address submitted is your corporate email address.

In 2020, Phillips worked with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to expose a cattle-laundering scheme involving giant Brazilian beef company JBS that showed how cows are moved between farms to mask their connection to deforested land.

Keep up with Energy Monitor: Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

On 2 June, the Bureau revealed that more than 800 million trees have been cut down in the Amazon over the past six years to produce beef that Brazil sells globally. In 2019, the organisation found that the UK imported £1bn ($1.08bn) worth of beef from Brazil’s “Big Three” beef giants (JBS, Marfrig and Minerva) over five years, and later revealed how UK banks were financing the worst-offending companies to the tune of billions.

As a result, some European supermarkets have stopped selling certain Brazilian beef products. “But change doesn't happen overnight,” wrote the Bureau in a 5 June statement on the anniversary of the deaths of Phillips and Pereira. “That is why the work of Dom, Bruno and others must go on,” it added.

Big Meat’s big investments

The world’s five biggest livestock-based producers – JBS, Tyson, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America and Fonterra – together emit more GHGs than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP, according to a 2018 report by US advocacy group GRAIN and think tank the US Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). A 2020 analysis from IATP indicated that cemissions from specific dairy farms increased further in the years after the GRAIN evaluation.

Only five of the 35 meat and dairy companies assessed by GRAIN and the IATP – Dairy Farmers of America, Nestlé, Danish Crown, Danone and Arla – had made a commitment to achieve net-zero climate emissions by the year 2050.

Those five companies’ climate commitments, according to the authors, are vague or focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, even though most emissions from animal husbandry come from methane, a much more powerful GHG. In certain instances, the corporate promises do not cover the whole supply chain either, although supply chain emissions, which include everything from the production of animal feed crops to the methane released by cattle, account for 80–90% of meat and dairy climate emissions.

JBS does not evaluate land-use change, a significant source of agricultural GHG emissions, from outside suppliers. The company said in its 2019 sustainability report that these are emissions "over which the Company has no responsibility or indirect responsibility".

Livestock’s contribution to overall global GHG emissions is estimated to be anywhere between 11.1% and 19.6%.

Beef is by far the most emissions-intensive food to produce, largely because of the vast amounts of land required to raise cattle. Direct methane emissions from cows alone account for more emissions per kilogram of beef than any other food product.

Big Meat’s climate playbook

Valued at $415bn in 2022, the global beef industry in particular has proven to be a force in the fight against climate action.

According to a 2021 NYU study published in the science journal Springer, ExxonMobil, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, spent $235m on lobbying between 2000 and 2018. US-based Tyson, the second-largest meat company in the world after Brazil’s JBS, spent more than $25m between 2001 and 2018. As a share of each company's total revenue over those periods, Tyson spent 21% more on lobbying than ExxonMobil, found the research.

Just like major fossil fuel companies, big meat and dairy companies are spending big on PR campaigns to polish their public image, but the meat lobby’s PR has not yet been met with the same scrutiny as big oil and gas.

Journalist Joe Fassler recently set out to unravel the enigma surrounding the significant funds flowing into the meat lobby. Fassler enrolled in the ‘MBA’, a ‘Masters of Beef Advocacy’ programme run by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the US beef industry’s main lobby group.

“My interest in doing the course was to better understand cattle industry messaging at a time when beef’s outsized role in the climate crisis is under scrutiny," Fassler wrote in the Guardian about his experience on the course. "My experience as an MBA student, in addition to other details I uncovered as I reported this story, led me to conclude that the beef industry is engaged in an all-out public relations war to pre-empt environmental criticisms of its products – and that those PR efforts are increasing."

According to its website, the MBA, which, despite the misnomer, is not an accredited master's degree, is “your go-to program for training and resources to be a strong advocate for the beef community. [The MBA] provides farmers, ranchers, service providers, consumers, and all members of the beef community the tools and resources to become a beef advocate and answer tough questions about beef and raising cattle”.

The MBA, of which there are more than 21,000 graduates, teaches students how to “confuse, defend and downplay” the consequences of the beef industry on the climate, according to Fassler.

MBA-trained “advocates and spokespeople help educate consumers and influencers about the role of beef in a healthy diet and how beef farmers and ranchers raise beef responsibly and sustainably”, according to a document the Guardian saw from the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, which set aside $572,700 for the MBA project in 2023.

Read more from this author: Nour Ghantous

The Cattlemen’s Beef Board is a US organisation composed of cattle producers appointed by the US Secretary of Agriculture. The Board oversees the government-backed beef 'checkoff' programme, which is a PR initiative designed to support the US beef industry. It operates by collecting a small fee, known as a checkoff, from cattle ranchers for every head of cattle sold. These funds are then used for various activities including marketing, promotion, research and education to increase consumer demand for beef and support the industry.

The checkoff programme plays a crucial role in advancing the interests of beef producers. Through it, ranchers collectively contribute to funding industry-wide efforts that aim to sustain and strengthen the beef industry's competitiveness and profitability. In 2022, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board spent $45m. Nearly 20% ($8.4m) was budgeted for “foreign marketing”.

In a document on its website entitled the “long-range strategy”, the Board outlines its intention to "aggressively explore alternatives for reducing methane emissions [and] determine benchmarks and cultivate opportunities for the beef industry to participate in carbon credit markets and ensure credit for current practices”. Carbon credits remain contentious in terms of climate impact.

While oil and gas companies are increasingly under fire for their PR tactics, meat companies are using a similar playbook with less scrutiny but potentially problematic implications for climate change. The European Commission is gearing up to adopt a legislative framework for sustainable food systems based on its Farm to Fork Strategy, a major component of the European Green Deal, which revolves around four pillars: sustainable food production; sustainable food processing and distribution; sustainable food consumption; and food loss and waste prevention.

This legislation, too, has fallen victim to lobbying efforts, according to a leaked Commission document seen by Politico in January of this year, with many of the most ambitious reforms delayed or entirely blocked by political battles among farmers, EU officials and national diplomats, it reports. However, an open letter signed in February by nearly 300 non-governmental groups including WWF, Green Transition Denmark and the European Environmental Bureau, urges the Commission to stay on course and serves as a reminder that there is everything to gain by staying committed to the original objectives.