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Meat industry’s moment of reckoning

Not surprisingly, the growing call to transform our food system to reduce its carbon footprint has presented a serious dilemma for major meat companies. Photo by Jan Koetsier/Pexels

COP28, the annual UN summit on climate change, has proven to be a clarifying, historical moment. Despite concluding with a “landmark” agreement to phase out fossil fuels, the summit laid bare the ugly reality of international climate negotiations, especially when those negotiations are overseen by an oil industry magnate.

Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, chair of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and president of COP28, shocked the entire summit, and much of the world, by candidly disclosing his true sentiments regarding the urgent call to decarbonize our energy system. As Al Jaber put it in an acid remark to the former president of Ireland and former UN high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson, “There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phaseout of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5 C.”

Al Jaber’s remark was patently absurd, but revealing nonetheless. It demonstrated the impossible balancing act of professing a commitment to climate action while remaining steadfastly devoted to fossil fuel production.

The mask, as it were, finally came off.

We might ask how the animal agriculture industry, another major climate offender, has fared in attempting a similarly impossible balancing act. A virtual mountain of scientific studies has documented the incontrovertible role of meat and dairy production in exacerbating the climate crisis.

The list of the industry’s major climate offences includes massive greenhouse gas emissions, widespread deforestation, colossal water depletion, and extensive soil erosion. Environmental scientists and climate activists have long assailed animal agriculture for its many climate infractions, calling for a radical change in world food production and consumption, with a sharp focus on the Global North — by far the largest contributor to food-related climate impacts. Climate activists and environmental groups had high hopes for COP28 as the critical site for this basal transformation.

Not surprisingly, the growing call to transform our food system has presented a serious dilemma for major meat companies. Just as their manic cousins in the fossil fuel industry sent a record number of lobbyists to COP28 (around 2,000), meat companies and trade associations dispatched the largest number of meat industry lobbyists in COP’s history, tripling the number from just last year.

The industry’s outsize presence at the UN summit included representatives from major meat companies like JBS Foods Canada, as well as powerful organizations like the North American Meat Institute, the Canadian Cattle Association, the Global Meat Alliance and the Global Dairy Platform. Predictably, they joined forces to push back against the call for reducing meat and dairy consumption, in part by flatly denying any link between animal agriculture and climate breakdown.

Despite this intense lobbying effort, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) issued an urgent report at COP28 calling for a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from animal farming, an echo of the UNFAO’s more famous and damning 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow.”

Merchants of false hope acknowledge the link between animal agriculture & climate change, yet firmly resist the call to reduce meat production and consumption, writes @jasonwhannan #ActOnClimate #COP28 #MeatIndustry #cdnAg #cdnpoli

To the fury of industry lobbyists, the UNFAO once again put the writing on the wall, and once again in words plain enough for the world to see: animal agriculture is greatly intensifying our climate crisis.

While the meat industry denialists at COP28 are a vivid example of what world-renowned earth scientist Naomi Oreskes has called “merchants of doubt” in her 2010 book, another group of denialists might be termed “merchants of false hope.”

This group acknowledges the link between animal agriculture and climate change, yet firmly resists the call to reduce meat production and consumption. Instead, they propose technological solutions like burp-catching masks, genetically engineered cows, better manure management and “regenerative” ranching.

Like Professor Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide, they promise the best of all possible worlds — in this case, a world where we enjoy all of the old pleasures with none of the sacrifices. Indeed, compromise and sacrifice, even for the sake of the planet, are squarely off-limits, an unthinkable suggestion as grave and calamitous as climate collapse itself.

Even to suggest that what we eat might be worsening the climate crisis is “disrespectful.” Instead, “tradition” and “culture” — that is, the privileged consumption habits of Europe and North America — must be preserved at all costs.

The technological optimism of the merchants of false hope is the counterpart to the fossil fuel industry’s chimera of “clean coal” and carbon capture technology. It’s more sentiment than science, a form of toxic positivity that obscures the sheer gravity of the moment.

It betrays the limits of the impossible balancing act of professing a commitment to climate action while remaining energetically devoted to climate-harming meat production. This contradiction is, in a word, unsustainable. There is no technological solution that simultaneously preserves meat production while magically eliminating its worst effects.

Rather, the single most effective dietary change we can make is to avoid meat and dairy. The evidence is clear: switching to a plant-based food system is a powerful way, not only to combat climate change but also to improve global health. This is a very feasible goal.

As one recent study found, anger is the most powerful emotion for spurring action on climate change. So, instead of placing the blame and burden on the consumer, we should redirect our anger and energies toward the animal agriculture industry, confronting it for obstructing meaningful climate action.

Clinging to such elusive goals as “sustainable beef” as our planet literally burns isn’t to display scientific fortitude or entrepreneurial courage, but rather to luxuriate in ecocidal fantasy. We need not wait for another COP summit to see that this mask, too, will come off.

On the contrary, we should extend to the merchants of false hope the courtesy of removing it for them and making it explicit that the meat industry’s moment of reckoning is finally here.

Jason Hannan is associate professor in the Department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications at the University of Winnipeg. His books include Meatsplaining: The Animal Agriculture Industry and the Rhetoric of Denial (Sydney University Press, 2020) and Trolling Ourselves to Death: Democracy in the Age of Social Media (Oxford University Press, 2023). His research focuses on the politics of truth in the public sphere. His current book project is Reactionary Speech: The Denial of Reality.

Jason Hannan
Jason Hannan
  Jason Hannan is associate professor in the Department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications at the University of Winnipeg. His books include Meatsplaining: The Animal Agriculture Industry and the Rhetoric of Denial (Sydney University Press, 2020) and Trolling Ourselves to Death: Democracy in the Age of Social Media (Oxford University Press, 2023). His research focuses on the politics of truth in the public sphere. His current book project is Reactionary Speech: The Denial of Reality.
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