More than 100 world leaders at this year’s United Nations climate summit agreed to make their farm and food systems a key part of their plans to fight climate change, seeking improvements in a sector that accounts for about a third of planet-warming emissions.
With livestock accounting for over half of those emissions, meat and dairy are at the forefront of many agriculture conversations at COP28 in Dubai. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization added to those conversations with an updated report that included ways to cut those livestock emissions.
“You don’t meet the climate goals without doing something in the system, and in this case on livestock,” said Francesco Tubiello, a senior statistician with the FAO who worked on the report. It briefly mentions eating less meat, but mostly highlights ways the meat industry can improve productivity and efficiency.
Change won't be easy. Like fossil fuel producers, the meat industry turned out in force to protect its interests at the talks, including casting their practices as “sustainable nutrition,” according to one report. A potential competitor, alternative meat, has hit a rough patch after initial enthusiasm and investment.
And then there are consumers themselves, who have shown little interest in changing their eating habits, even as meat's contribution to emissions has gotten more attention.
“The reality is Americans eat just as much meat now as they did 50 years ago,” said Maureen Ogle, a historian and author of In Meat We Trust, a history of the meat industry in America.
Ogle said American producers have pushed back vigorously over the years against anything that threatened their market — from a proposal to include “Meatless Mondays” in national dietary guidelines to research reports that highlighted the health dangers of eating too much red meat.
The Guardian and DeSmog reported last month that the meat industry planned a large presence at COP28, to tout a message that meat is good for the environment. The news outlets cited documents produced by the Global Meat Alliance, an industry-funded group, that they said included such messages as grazing livestock can help maintain healthy soils and meat can help in food-insecure nations.
The alliance told The Guardian that its work “includes visibility on intergovernmental events which are often dominated by an anti-meat narrative.” In an emailed statement to AP, the group said it applauds the focus on food and agriculture on global agendas like COP28.
“We welcome clear rules or standards for reducing agricultural emissions at these moments, and industry is prepared to support these efforts while retaining a place in the value chain,” the statement said.
Many governments around the world have promoted meat for a long time, transforming cultural meat eating habits, said Wilson Warren, a professor of history at Western Michigan University. That has turned meat into an industry fueled by multinational corporations worth billions of dollars. In the United States, subsidies pay farmers to overproduce so meat can be sold more cheaply to an urban population, Ogle said.
Both in America and in the European Union, animal farming receives far more public financial support and lobbying attention than meat alternatives do, a study from Stanford University found this summer. That’s an issue because better consumer options are needed, said one of the coauthors, Simona Vallone, a researcher now with Sustainable San Mateo County.
"We are at this delicate moment in which we need to make decisions at the government level and also global level," Vallone said. If curbing emissions quickly is the goal, she added, “we don’t have a lot of time to change our system."
Food systems were the focus of some demonstrators. Lei Chu, a vegan activist, said it’s important for people to consider how what they eat matters to the world.
"If this action is killing our earth we have to change it,” she said.
Jason Weller, global chief sustainability officer at Brazil-based JBS, one of the world's biggest meat producers, said “the myopic focus on reducing meat consumption does not reflect reality or the science.” Citing the FAO report, he said productivity improvements have the greatest influence in reducing emissions.
When asked whether people in countries like the US need to reduce their meat consumption in order to stay within agreed warming boundaries, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pivoted to discuss nutrition security, product labeling and consumer education, which he said would help consumers “make market decisions which will accelerate and drive change.”
Experts said it's more realistic for people in wealthier countries to eat red meat a little less rather than having everyone give up meat altogether. “It's pretty dramatic, the emissions intensity in the US of beef versus the non-ruminants, pork and poultry,” said Tom Hertel, distinguished professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.
At a sideline event at COP28, Lawrence Haddad, from the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, agreed. He said “people in the global north cannot be lecturing people in the global south about eating less meat.”
Meanwhile, organizations like the FAO and private companies say that making the existing system even more efficient can be part of the solution. The FAO's report includes sections on improving animals with selective breeding and tailoring animal nutrition to reduce their methane emissions. Ruminants like cows emit methane because of how their digestive system works, but changing their diets can help somewhat.
The agriculture declaration signed by world leaders at the beginning of COP28 is a loose pledge, not a binding agreement. Leaders "need to champion change inside the formal climate negotiations," said Ruth Davis, a former adviser to the British government's COP26 team on food and nature.
Policymakers should focus on improving enforcement of potentially misleading sustainability claims, and also on better incentivizing farmers to implement truly green practices, said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.
He said: “Wouldn't it be better if big producers of meat worked with groups like EWG to make sure that those scarce USDA conservation dollars are actually going to the practices that change how we feed animals, how we manage their waste, how we manage their movements, how we fertilize their feed?”
But as much as companies and governments play a role, Hertel, of Purdue, agreed with Ogle that consumers are at the heart of the system.
“For a lot of people it probably does come down to cost,” Hertel said of choosing traditional meat at the grocery store. If meat alternatives were a lot cheaper and tasted about the same, “I think you’d see more movement in that direction,” he said.
Associated Press journalist Joshua Bickel contributed to this report from Dubai.