A wake-up call for the meat industry

Helen Burley

Raising beef on deforested land has a bigger environmental footprint than raising beef on rich pasture, photo: AC Moraes via flickr.com, creative commons licence

The figures are stark, and the vegans are smiling. A comprehensive analysis of meat and dairy’s environmental footprint shows that cutting our consumption of meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce our impact on the planet.

The headlines have focused on consumer choice — and the study provides compelling reasons for concerned consumers to minimise the consumption of meat and dairy products in their diets. But they should also serve as a long overdue wake-up call for the meat and dairy industries, who have been slow to act when it comes to addressing their environmental impacts.

Because while a growing number of consumers are choosing to reduce their meat and dairy consumption, or even cut it out completely, the companies that produce and sell these products must also face up to their own sustainability responsibilities. Especially given that where and how these products are produced has considerable impact on their environmental footprint.

Inefficient industry

As the new research shows, meat and dairy farming are incredibly inefficient, taking 83% of farmland to produce just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, while contributing 60% of the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Raising beef cattle on deforested land results in 12 times more greenhouse gases than raising cattle on rich natural pasture. Yet cattle farming in these areas continues to expand and is the biggest driver of deforestation in Latin America.

Other meats are more efficient in terms of their land and water needs, but soy-based animal feeds, frequently fed to pigs and chickens also contribute to environmental impacts — with soy production also linked to deforestation in Latin America.

Sustainability laggards

The beef industry has been slow to embrace the sustainability agenda. Forest 500’s annual assessment of the companies and financial institutions with the greatest power to end tropical deforestation, for example, has consistently found the cattle sector to be the weakest performer.

Indeed, the majority of the companies sourcing beef from the region do not require their suppliers to avoid farming on recently deforested land. Just 17% of the cattle companies assessed by Forest 500 have a policy addressing the protection of forests for cattle production or procurement.

And there is little sign of progress. In fact, Nike Inc., Burger King and VF Corp’s subsidiary Timberland have taken a step back. All three had deforestation policies for sourcing beef or leather in 2015 but these policies have since disappeared from their websites.

Opportunities for improvement

Study author Joseph Poore points out that replacing the most harmful half of meat and dairy production with plant-based food would have disproportionate benefits, highlighting an opportunity for action by the industry to improve its practice.

Meat processing companies should be implementing policies to minimise the impacts of the products they source — ensuring for example that beef has not been raised on recently cleared forest lands. And they should be engaging with their suppliers to encourage that change.

Local government can also help by enforcing legislation designed to protect the environment, as seen recently in Brazil.

Avoiding deforestation is an important first step for any responsible retailer selling beef or other animal products. And some leading retailers are already moving in that direction, with commitments to source their beef and soy responsibly.

As financial investors are increasingly encouraged to look at the climate impacts of their investments, the meat industry will also be forced to face up to the issue of long term sustainability. Surely it is time to make beef deforestation-free.

And the consumer? It may be too much to expect us all to become vegan, overnight. But by reducing our consumption, and by asking more demanding questions from our retailers as to the source and production of the meat we buy, we can play our part.