What is the greenwashing trick?
Growing up, you may have sang “Old Macdonald had a farm”. For many of us, when we think of animal agriculture we still think of small family farms. Large meat and dairy companies play on this connection by packaging their products in idyllic images of green fields and happy cows. The reality is starkly different: 23 billion chickens, 1.5 billion head of cattle, 1.2 billion sheep, 1 billion goats and 1 billion pigs live in intensive, industrial-scale factories and farms worldwide.
Big Livestock exploits people’s desire to support local farmers and purchase animal products from higher-welfare environments, and uses images of farmers as a marketing strategy to make even more profit whilst they continue selling cheap, factory farmed products.
How is this trick used?
The Big Meat and Dairy companies hide behind a mirage of family farmers to conceal the reality of their supply chain. They proclaim to be helping farmers when in reality they are just helping their profits and benefiting off the hard work of farmers. This is illustrated by the Irish beef industry, where 55% of cattle farmers earn less than €10,000 annually, and only 3% earn more than €50,000 – while a handful of big companies make most of the money.
Why is this bad for the climate crisis?
With business-as-usual, the Big Livestock industry’s growth will rapidly exceed the global 1.5°C carbon budget outlined in the Paris Agreement. Within 10 years, the livestock sector will account for almost half (49%) of the world’s emissions budget for 1.5°C by 2030. To meet the steep and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to avert climate catastrophe global livestock numbers need to fall substantially. We have reached “peak livestock”.
Most of the world’s food is grown by small farmers who need our support. Big Livestock is destroying their livelihoods in the following ways:
- Land use: Intensive animal production requires a lot of animal feed, which in turn requires a lot of land. Growing food to support livestock production gobbles up one third of global cereal production and uses about 40% of global land available to grow crops. This means there is less land available to grow food for both humans and animals sustainably. Research shows that 400 million hectares of cropland produces feed for livestock in a way that competes with food crop production.
- Trapping farmers in an extractive system: Big corporations have turned food into a commodity, meaning small farmers have less control over the food they produce and have to provide what the market demands of them – rather than providing food that is good for people and the environment.
We need a just transition in the livestock sector, but this will never be possible when power is concentrated in the hands of a few corporations.
Workers on the ground in factory farms and meatpacking factories also suffer massively while working for Big Livestock corporations.
The COVID-19 crisis is a bleak example of this reality. As of September 2021, at least 1,466 meatpacking and food processing plants and 438 farms and production facilities across America had had confirmed cases of COVID-19. At least 91,717 workers had tested positive for COVID-19, and tragically at least 466 workers had died. In a particularly stark example of how the industry treats its employees, managers at meat giant Tyson bet on how many workers would contract COVID-19.
As Marion Nestlé, food policy expert, puts it: “Industrial agriculture … is bad for everybody. It’s bad for society. It’s bad for the climate. It’s bad for human health. It’s bad for animals. It’s bad for farm workers. It’s bad for everybody except the people who own the land and get rich off it.”