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It’s not just Big Oil. Big Meat also spends millions to crush good climate policy.

A new study reveals how the companies you buy meat from block climate action.

The sun setting on agricultural fields as the cows come home in Skanderborg, Denmark. Getty Images
Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

You probably already know that the fossil fuel industry has spent many millions of dollars trying to sow doubt about climate change and the industry’s role in it.

But did you know that big meat and dairy companies do the same thing?

According to a new study out of NYU, these companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying against climate policies and funding dubious research that tries to blur the links between animal agriculture and our climate emergency. The biggest link is that about 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from meat and dairy.

“US beef and dairy companies appear to act collectively in ways similar to the fossil fuel industry, which built an extensive climate change countermovement,” write the authors of the study, published in the journal Climatic Change.

One of the authors, Jennifer Jacquet, says the paper should spur a vigorous public response. “People should be mad,” she said. “And we should build a system where we can prevent this kind of influence.”

Comparing the meat and dairy industry with the fossil fuel industry is not a facile analogy. These industries have worked in tandem for years to undercut climate policy.

For example, in 2009, Tyson and other meat companies got nervous about the American Clean Energy and Security Act, also known as Waxman-Markey, which would have established a cap-and-trade system. They worked alongside the fossil fuel industry to stop the bill. Had it passed, it would’ve been the first congressional bill to directly tackle greenhouse gas emissions. But it never made it past the House.

Now, more information is coming to light about how big meat and dairy companies work against climate policies: through lobbying, through political campaigns, and through academic research.

How Big Meat lobbies against climate-friendly policies

Let’s start with lobbying.

It’s not a surprise that meat and dairy trade associations would lobby for things like access to federally owned public lands for cattle-grazing or industry-friendly manure management regulations. That’s more or less their raison d’être, and it’s what they’ve done for decades. But as the authors determined, “more recently they have been involved in blocking climate policy that would limit production.”

Six of the big US groups — the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the International Dairy Foods Association, and the American Farm Bureau Federation — have together spent about $200 million in lobbying since 2000. And they’ve been lobbying annually against climate policies like cap-and-trade, the Clean Air Act, and regulations that would require farms to report emissions.

Individual meat companies likewise spend millions on lobbying. Tyson, for example, has spent $25 million since 2000. Now, that may not sound like much if we compare it to what individual companies in the fossil fuel industry spend — Exxon alone spent over $240 million during the same period. But the study notes that we have to look at these amounts in proportion to each company’s bottom line. Taken as a share of total revenue over the past two decades, Tyson has spent 33 percent more on lobbying than Exxon has.

“The relative spending is very much an indicator of political engagement,” Jacquet said.

These figures refer to meat companies’ total spending on lobbying, not only climate-specific lobbying. That said, even policies that are not explicitly about climate — like crop incentives or land-use decisions — can also drive harmful emissions.

When Big Meat gets involved in political campaigns

The study also found that the big US meat companies have spent millions on political campaigns, typically to support Republican candidates.

Again, these companies are big spenders in this arena relative to their bottom line. Since 2000, Exxon spent about $17 million on US federal political campaigns, while Tyson spent $3.2 million. “But taken as a share of each company’s total revenue over that period, Tyson has spent double what Exxon has on political campaigns,” the study notes.

Meat and dairy companies bankroll candidates because it pays off. Members of Congress they’ve funded, like Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), and Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), have backed pro-agriculture bills and frequently voted against climate change legislation, including cap-and-trade.

According to the study, in some cases funding from Big Meat is the biggest contributor to a politician’s financial resources: “Hormel Foods was the largest contributor to Rep. Gutknecht (R-MN) over the course of his career — a former Congressman who has regularly questioned climate science.”

Sometimes, Big Meat has also funded Democratic candidates. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Tyson was known to be one of Bill Clinton’s main backers — to the point that Clinton was actually nicknamed the “Chicken Man.” Tyson, which is headquartered in Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, did not respond to a request for comment.

Can you trust environmental research funded by Big Meat?

The meat and dairy industries also fund their own academic experts, who then publish research that minimizes or denies the causal link between animal agriculture and climate change.

Industry-funded research isn’t always necessarily flawed. But it’s certainly fair to wonder about the integrity of industry-funded research that happens to advance that industry’s goals. As Undark has reported, you might read a white paper that paints a hopeful picture of the cattle industry’s emissions, only to then realize that the co-authors run dairy groups or received livestock industry funding.

This happens in adjacent industries, too: You might hear a scientist denying that overfishing is a major problem, say, only to then find out that they’ve received funding from fisheries and seafood industry groups. (To be fair, we should note that plant-based meat companies have also commissioned analyses from outside researchers, though much less extensively.)

The new study out of NYU provides other examples of how meat-industry-funded research seeks to downplay the industry’s environmental costs — like emphasizing that its emissions are small relative to those of other sectors, like transportation, instead of acknowledging that animal agriculture causes almost 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which means it’s still a big driver of climate change.

In fact, the NYU paper notes that if the Food and Agriculture Organization is right in projecting that meat consumption will rise 73 percent by 2050, emissions by some meat and dairy companies could exceed the emissions of several fossil fuel companies.

That means people who care about the climate need to get serious about holding Big Meat and Big Dairy accountable, just as they’ve been trying to do for years with Big Oil.

“There has to be a big reimagining of meat and dairy,” Jacquet said. Whether that will entail a reduction in meat consumption or a total switch to plant-based or lab-grown meat and dairy, one thing is for sure: “Given what we know about climate change,” Jacquet said, “it seems clear that business as usual is not the answer.”

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