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New analysis suggests climate coverage downplays livestock’s impact

Polling reveals a lack of knowledge about the environmental harm done by livestock consumption.

By India Bourke

Despite accounting for the same quantity of emissions as transport globally, only 0.5 per cent of recent articles on climate in top-tier publications in the US and the UK, and in English-language media elsewhere, have mentioned meat or livestock as an emissions source. Of nearly 92,000 articles surveyed, fewer than 450 noted meat’s contribution to climate change, according to an analysis shared with Spotlight.

These are the findings of research conducted by Northstar on behalf of Madre Brava, a sustainable food NGO, which last year polled over 7,000 adults across the five major meat markets. The polling established that there is little awareness about industrial meat production, with 90 per cent of respondents saying they knew very little or nothing at all. Almost three quarters of Brits admitted to knowing nothing about the issue, the highest share among the nations surveyed.

After being provided with a simple definition of industrial meat, a majority in all nations expressed some degree of concern. But still only a quarter of UK citizens said they were “very concerned” or more.

[See also: Seven ways to make leaders act on climate change]

Such research reveals a big disconnect between public perception and the environmental impact of livestock farming. Animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and it is the largest single driver of global deforestation. The industry is criticised for using land inefficiently, overusing antibiotics, spreading infectious disease, increasing water scarcity and driving biodiversity loss.

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“The science is actually quite clear,” Rob Percival, a food policy author and campaigner with Soil Association, told Spotlight. “Average per capita consumption of meat and dairy needs to decline by at least 35-50 per cent if we are to meet our climate and nature targets, but there is still an important role for livestock in nature-friendly farming systems.”

So why the lack of awareness? According to Nico Muzi, managing director of Madre Brava, green campaigners often underestimate the extent of uncertainty created by proponents of the livestock industry. “We have to be very aware of the culture wars, but if we look at where people’s understanding is today, then we see a huge lack of awareness around industrial meat’s impact.”

Percival is similarly unsurprised by the mis-match: “Meat is such a contentious topic and exaggerated claims are made on both sides of the argument – from the plant-based advocates who say that animal-free is the only solution, to the UK farming lobby who falsely claim that mass dietary change can be avoided.”

Nor is this situation new. Just as with climate change before it, major news outlets have been presenting the unsustainability of meat consumption as a debate, rather than a scientific consensus. A study published last year in the journal Sustainability found that articles in major US newspapers between 2018 and 2020 gave equal weight to “both sides” in the discussion, for example by quoting from researchers with ties to the livestock industry.

To help fix this, policymakers must stop playing down science, advises Sparsha Saha, a lecturer at Harvard’s department of government. In the US, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency claims that land management has led to a net carbon sink, but new research using higher resolution satellite data has shown that it remains a net source of carbon emissions.

Untangling government ties to the sector would help. “The meat industry is deeply embedded in state institutions like the USDA [US Department of Agriculture],” Saha says, with crossover among senior staff, raising issues of impartiality. Also important, suggests Percival, is developing new relationships between governments and agriculture – for instance through public procurement schemes that serve “less and better” meat. In these ways, Britain’s schools and hospitals provide a chance to “both normalise more sustainable dietary patterns and to shift what’s happening on the land”.

More expansive and accurate data should also play a part. Resulting media coverage can then raise public understanding and counter greenwashing tactics by the industry, Muzi advises. From methane emissions to deforestation and water shortages, “we need to measure and document meat’s climate and environmental impact with hard evidence”, he says. Only then can new regulation curb the worst practices.

And finally, before the next UN climate change conference in November (Cop28), governments must prepare a “pathway on food” that puts meat’s environmental risk in context with both climate change and land pressures. “Without reversing biodiversity loss, we won't have a hospitable planet earth where all of us can thrive,” Saha warns.

Meat consumption is already falling in the wake of rising food prices. Northstar polling also found that almost 6 in 10 Germans and half of British and French meat-eaters intend to reduce their meat consumption in the next two years (compared with 34 per cent of Brits who told a 2021 New Statesman poll they aimed to do likewise).

The German statistics are also particularly encouraging in light of the fact that policymakers such as Cem Özdemir, the minister for food and agriculture, have championed flexitarianism as a means of combating climate change. This gives Saha and others hope that making meat reduction part of the political conversation can help shift the dial in a positive direction.

Calls in the US for “quiet meat politics” to avoid a “culture war” are deeply misguided, Saha says, especially in the face of public ignorance and uncertainty. “Meat is naturally loud. We should be working on understanding how to make it salient, vote-winning, and less of a 'debate'.”

*A previous version of this article said that respondents to a poll failed to identify livestock as a leading cause of climate change. This has been clarified to reflect that they did not identify it as the leading cause. The headline has been updated and an incorrect chart removed

[See also: Would there still have been climate change under socialism?]

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