A colleague attending the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow was in line at an eatery when she observed the man in front of her ordering a beef taco. She saw that his backpack sported the logo of a leading global conservation organization. When she asked if he worked for this group (a household name in many parts of the world), he replied that he did. In Brazil, he added. “My mouth dropped,” she recalled. “And you ordered beef?” she asked. His reply? “It isn’t a problem.”
Those of us who have been trying to alert COP and other international conferences for more than a decade to the outsized role of large-scale animal agriculture in deforestation, biodiversity loss, the epidemic of non-communicable diseases, and the climate emergency would beg to differ. It’s a very big problem—for a multitude of reasons.
The first problem is that too many people think it isn’t a problem—to the extent that, as the taco-eater might have been suggesting, whether you eat beef or not is merely a personal choice that has no effect on the world around you or the person next to you.
The second problem is that international animal welfare groups and, indeed, until relatively recently, international environmental organizations have been late to confronting the ever-growing carbon footprint and the entrenched power of Big Ag and large-scale animal agriculture, in particular. This is ironic since animal agriculture is destroying the habitat upon which the megafauna and ecosystems championed by these conservation groups depend. It’s high time that animal and environmental protection groups recognized that the ideological and conceptual lines they’ve drawn between wild animals and ecosystems on one side and domesticated animals, factory farms, and monocultures of feedstock are no longer viable. As we’ve been arguing for years: You cannot save the former without confronting the latter.
The third problem is that too few people—even those in decision-making positions—understand that the reason why so much of, say, the Amazon Rainforest is being logged, or why farmers around the world are growing so much soy, wheat, and corn is either to graze cattle or to provide feedstock for livestock in factory farms around the globe. This ignorance is both due to deliberate obfuscation on behalf of Big Ag, which doesn’t want you to know what destruction they’re causing, and our own unwillingness to delve too deeply into an industry of mass slaughter. As for policymakers, either they don’t dare touch the issue of meat for fear they’ll be called the enemies of farmers, ranchers, culture, tradition, family, or even God; or, they’re so in thrall to the consumer-choice paradigm at the heart of our economic system that any notion of reducing meat consumption through carrots or sticks remains off the table.
Even in the welcome announcement from COP26 that the U.S. and 104 other countries are resolved to cut methane emissions the “it’s not a problem” psychology is at work. Methane (CH4) is at least eighty times more intensive a greenhouse gas than CO2. Because CH4 lasts less long in the atmosphere, tackling it now would not only offer a greater short-term impact by flattening the rising temperature curve slightly, but would potentially buy human civilization a few more years to set in place systems to drastically reduce CO2 emissions.
Fossil fuels are responsible for 35 percent of human-caused methane emissions, according to the UN Environment Programme’s global methane assessment. But agriculture is the biggest source of methane, and the livestock sector alone is responsible for 32 percent. Yet, in the methane announcement, you’d be hard-pressed to find policies to address a “problem” that generates almost one-third of all these methane emissions. (A joint U.S-China statement just released makes a commitment to measure and mitigate methane from fossil fuel and waste, as well as “incentives and programs to reduce methane from the agricultural sector.” But they shared no further details or, importantly, timelines.)
The final problem lies with the so-called solutions offered by those who actually recognize the problem that animal agriculture poses to the planet. Thus, biogas, seaweed, insect-based cattle feed, “sustainable intensification,” and regenerative agriculture are seen as “solutions.” These may help, but will they end an industry that gulps down 29 percent of Earth’s potable water; uses a quarter of all arable land for cattle grazing and one-third for livestock feed; threatens Indigenous Peoples’ territory and rights; drives deforestation throughout the world; may incubate the next zoonotic pandemic and destroy the effectiveness of our antibiotics; pollutes waterways and fouls the air; may drive 17,000 species extinct by 2050, and already kills 80 billion land and trillions of marine animals each year? And for what? A beef taco?
It’s unclear whether or not governments, industry, and big finance, both private and public, will ever take meat production and consumption seriously enough to find the courage to reduce both significantly. What we do know, however, is that until the majority of us admit “it’s a problem,” the problem will keep getting bigger. There will be no low-carbon economy, no “net zero,” no safe levels of warming, and no ending deforestation (commitments or otherwise) until we face the cow in the room at this year’s and every future climate change conference.
Mia is the executive director of Brighter Green, a public policy action tank in New York that works to raise awareness of and encourage policy action on issues that span the environment, animals, and sustainability.
Carina is the executive director of Feedback, an environmental organization in London that campaigns to end food waste at every level of the food system. She is also the author of Frugal Value (2017).