Before you add this to your list of criticisms of Musk, know that if you’re anything like the average person — or Musk himself — you too probably underestimate just how much agriculture, especially meat and dairy production, contributes to climate change and other environmental problems.
Late last year, Madre Brava, an environmental research and advocacy group, commissioned a poll of 7,500 consumers across the US, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Brazil, asking which industries and environmental issues they thought were the biggest contributors to global warming. People generally ranked industrial meat production as one of the smallest contributors, even though it’s one of the largest.
The tens of billions of chickens, pigs, cows, and other animals we raise and slaughter for food annually account for around 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from cow burps, animal manure, and the fertilizer used to grow the corn and soy they eat. More than one-third of the Earth’s habitable land is used for animal farming — much of it cleared for cattle grazing and growing all that corn and soy — making animal agriculture the leading cause of deforestation and biodiversity loss globally.
Deforestation causes emissions itself, but it also represents a missed opportunity to sequester carbon. If that land were “rewilded,” or retired as farmland, it would act as a carbon sink, sucking massive amounts of climate-warming carbon out of the atmosphere. But we keep clearing more and more forestland, especially in the Amazon rainforest and elsewhere in the tropics, mostly for beef, pork, and poultry.
The consumer survey findings are bleak, and one major reason for them could be the fault of my own industry: journalism.
Madre Brava also conducted a media analysis that found that between 2020 and 2022, less than 0.5 percent of stories about climate change by leading news outlets in the US, the United Kingdom, and Europe mentioned meat or livestock.
Last month, two groups that work on issues related to animal agriculture — Sentient Media and Faunalytics — published an analysis with similar findings. The organizations looked at the 100 most recent climate change stories from each of the top 10 US media outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN, and found that 7 percent mentioned animal agriculture. Of that 7 percent, most only discussed how climate change-fueled weather events like droughts, floods, and heatwaves impact animal farmers. “Across the 1,000 articles we examined, only a handful of stories reported in depth on the connection between consuming animal products and climate change,” the researchers wrote.
The media is an easy target, and some criticism is deserved — it’s a disservice to readers to largely ignore a leading cause of the climate crisis. Part of the problem is that the media, like everyone else, operates in an information environment in which the meat lobby downplays and in some cases suppresses the full extent to which burgers, ribs, and chicken nuggets pollute the planet. But journalists could be doing more to cut through the noise.
The food misinformation environment that reporters swim in
Estimates vary, but peer-reviewed research says that animal agriculture causes between 15 percent to 19.6 percent of climate-warming emissions. The United Nations’ most recent estimate puts animal agriculture’s emissions at 11.1 percent, but it hasn’t been peer-reviewed and has been questioned by some food and climate researchers.
Last month, journalist Sophie Kevany explained in detail for Vox why there’s such a wide range in estimates, but here’s the gist: It’s hard to measure emissions from farms, there’s evidence these emissions are undercounted, and different models use different carbon accounting methods.
The range of estimates has left room for meat lobbyists to muddy the waters, creating an environment of misinformation and exaggeration.
For example, in recent years the beef industry has promoted a misleading method of counting the warming impact of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas emitted by cows. “It’s the [beef] industry choosing metrics which make their impact look small,” Drew Shindell, a professor of Earth science at Duke University, told Bloomberg about the industry’s alternative math. “It’s not a credible way to approach the problem.”
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the industry’s leading lobby group, runs a “climate messaging machine,” food journalist Joe Fassler recently wrote in the Guardian, that trains influencers to confuse the public and downplay beef’s emissions.
The list goes on. Last year, leaked documents showed that delegates from Brazil and Argentina successfully lobbied the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to remove any mention of meat’s negative impact on the environment, or recommendations for people in rich countries to reduce their meat consumption, in its recent report. Meat giant Tyson Foods spends a much bigger share of its revenue than ExxonMobil lobbying Congress to stop climate policy.
Outside the animal rights movement, there aren’t many voices pushing back against these narratives. The US environmental movement has largely shied away from campaigning to reduce meat and dairy production, with some leaders outright rejecting the notion that we need to eat fewer animals. Policymakers largely avoid the issue too.
It’s no wonder that public health researchers, in a paper published last year in the journal Sustainability, found that the media often engages in “both-sidesism” on meat’s role in climate change, treating it as more of an open debate than it really is.
There’s also a human element at play. Food is a touchy subject, and telling people to change what they eat can turn some readers hostile. “Ask me how I know,” said Tamar Haspel, a food and agriculture columnist for the Washington Post who regularly encourages people to eat less beef and more lentils, during a recent Sentient Media panel discussion.
A 2014 study of US, Canadian, and Swedish environmental activists found a prevailing sentiment that climate groups felt influencing meat production wasn’t a part of their core mission and that changing diets has limited social and political appeal. That last part is true — people love to eat meat. But it’s on journalists and environmentalists to be clear-eyed about the realities of the climate crisis, and cover ideas — changing diets, yes, but also government food policy and farming practices and technologies — to try and get us out of it.
Improving how we talk about meat and climate change
Given recent newsroom closures and mass reporter layoffs, news outlets aren’t likely to be hiring scores of reporters specializing in agriculture and the environment anytime soon. But there is something any newsroom can do: treat agriculture and climate change with the same level of skepticism and nuance as any other issue. There are plenty of examples in recent memory in which journalists haven’t.
For example, President Joe Biden’s landmark climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, included $20 billion for “climate-smart” farming, but there’s scant evidence that the IRA’s agricultural initiatives will meaningfully reduce emissions, especially since they don’t touch emissions from livestock. Despite the limits of the legislation, most mentions of the agriculture component of the law received little to no scrutiny in initial news coverage.
“The [meat] industry is something we should really remain skeptical of … It’s every bit as powerful as oil and tobacco before that,” said Georgina Gustin, a reporter at Inside Climate News, at the Sentient Media panel. “I think that if we give industry too much credit by kid-gloving our treatment of farmers, then we’re making a mistake as journalists.”
Leading news outlets have exaggerated the potential emissions savings from feeding cattle seaweed. Many headlines have framed “regenerative agriculture” — an approach to farming that aims, among other aspirations, to store carbon in the soil — as something that could “save the planet.” But its carbon-storing potential remains speculative, and regenerative agriculture generally requires much more land than conventional farming, an environmental drawback.
Also, be skeptical of meat alternative startups. I think developing better veggie burgers and nuggets is an important pursuit to cut food system emissions, but the field has been prone to hype. Most products are still too expensive and don’t taste good enough.
On top of applying healthy skepticism to claims made in the food and agriculture sphere, journalists could also be more specific by naming animal agriculture as the top cause for an environmental problem when appropriate, not agriculture writ large. For example, “agriculture” is sometimes cited as a major cause of the Colorado River water shortage, which could lead readers to think that the current sky-high levels of water use for agriculture in the Western US are just an inevitable part of feeding the world. But at least 70 percent of the water diverted from the Colorado River for agriculture is used to grow feed for beef and dairy cows, and animal products generally require much more water than plant-based foods.
Covering this huge, complex issue with skepticism and nuance requires time, resources, and specialization, all luxuries many reporters don’t have. The problem is a symptom of bigger challenges in journalism.
To be sure, in addition to journalists quoted in this article, there are a number of news outlets, non-profits, and writers that regularly report on how what we eat contributes to climate change. But an enormous coverage gap remains. It may just take time for stakeholders in the climate crisis — journalists, policymakers, environmentalists, and consumers — to catch up.
“The food conversation is probably about 20 years behind the energy conversation, and it is catching up, but it’s not visceral to people in the way energy is — that they immediately know energy is a climate issue,” said Michael Grunwald, a food and agriculture columnist for Canary Media, in the Sentient Media panel discussion.
But time is in short supply. Experts say that if we don’t change what we eat — especially reducing beef and dairy — we can’t meet the Paris climate agreement of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less. Journalists have risen to the occasion before: Coverage of climate change has increased in recent decades, especially in the last few years. Hopefully reporting on the emissions from what we put on our plate will follow a similar trajectory.