The false notion of "sustainable meat" depends on deceptive ecolabels, industries underreporting emissions, empty promises of "net zero" emissions and the misconception that meat from small, local farms is more ecofriendly.

“Sustainable meat”: the 3 greenwashing lies of Animal Ag

Desperate to salvage their environmental reputation, the animal agriculture industry has taken to attempting to “greenwash” their products with the idea of “sustainable meat” and animal products. “Greenwashing” refers to the animal agriculture industry’s attempt to downplay the impact of farming animals on the climate through deceptive ecolabels, underreporting emissions, false promises of sustainability projects and claims of “net zero” emissions.

1. Greenwashing Ecolabels on Animal Products

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Despite a lack of understanding of these ecolabels, consumers are more likely to buy products with these terms:

“Regenerative Grazing”

 Those who promote this concept falsely claim that cows capture carbon by grazing on grassing, packing down soil and producing manure for the soil. Although they claim cows raised for meat are a necessary part of the ecosystem, cows are not native to North America and thus are not.

An intentionally ignored but more effective option than “regenerative grazing” is simply rewilding the land. By giving the land back to nature, we would allow wildlife and carbon-trapping plants and trees to return.

“Grass-Fed Beef”

This term means that cows were fed grass instead of or in addition to grain. Marketers claim that it is better for the environment and for your health. From an environmental standpoint, cows raised on pastures actually produce more methane due to a more fibrous diet and somewhat longer lives. If all cows were grass-fed, we would need about four times more pastureland than we have currently.

“Marginal Land”

In an effort to justify using land to graze cattle, some pro-grazing interests have called the land “marginal land.” They argue that the land cannot be used to grow crops, so it is otherwise useless if not used for cattle. But this centers business interests, not environmental concerns. The more sustainable alternative is to “rewild” the land and allow plants, trees and biodiversity to return, which will help sequester carbon and slow the climate crisis.

“Low-Carbon Chicken”

There’s nothing different about “low-carbon” chicken than any other chicken. That’s just a marketing gimmick comparing the carbon footprint of chicken to more environmentally damaging meats like beef and pork. But when compared to plant proteins, chicken is still incredibly inefficient. Every 100 calories fed to a chicken is turned into only twelve calories of chicken meat. We lose almost 90% of available resources by eating meat.

“Sustainable Seafood”

Commercial fishing is inherently unsustainable. Fish play an essential role in the ability of our oceans to be a carbon sink. Additionally, we denigrate the ocean’s ecosystem not only by pulling from the water the actual marine life that we eat, but the huge numbers of threatened and endangered species caught and killed as bycatch. Finally, the fishing industry leaves behind millions of tons of plastic fishing gear in the water each year, killing marine animal and plant life.

“Eat Local”

If sustainable meat can’t come from industrial farms, then surely it can come from small, local farms, right? Actually, small-scale animal farming operations produce more environmental impact, not less. We simply don’t have enough land on the planet to meet current demand for animal products with small-scale farming.

And what matters in terms of carbon footprint is not how far your food traveled, but what you’re eating. This is because the production phase of food typically accounts for a whopping 83% of food’s carbon footprint, while factors like transport distance contribute only about 10% to a product’s carbon footprint. Buying local meat and other animal products from small farms has a much larger environmental impact than eating plant foods shipped around the world.

2. Underreporting Emissions

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Another strategy companies use to support the false idea of sustainable meat is to limit the number of activities and parts of their supply chain they count towards their emissions. Many meat companies exclude the largest contributor to their carbon footprint – land use and land-use change – because it is a type of indirect emissions. For example, the Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA) claims that animal agriculture only accounts for four percent  of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by not factoring in land use.

Several of the multinational meat company giants, like JBS, Tyson Foods, Vion and Danish Crown have attempted to paint themselves in a new light. Each of these giants is guilty of hugely underreporting their annual emissions. The companies’ internal 2019/2020 self-reports estimate 0.18-7.17 megatons of CO2, while the nonprofit GRAIN’s external report puts their emissions at 15.2-280 megatons.

JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, has increased its emissions by 51% in the past five years. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade policy estimated that their 2018 emissions were about half of major oil producers like BP, Shell or ExxonMobil.  

3. False Sustainability Promises and “Net Zero”

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Reeling from bribery and corruption scandals, JBS claimed in 2021 that it would reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. Yet it cited no plans to reduce the number of animals in their supply chain. How can this be? Claiming “net zero” emissions masks growing overall emissions.  This simply means they plan to increase emissions while counterbalancing that with unrealized proposals to sequester carbon through other means.

It states that it will spend a billion dollars on unidentified emissions reductions projects to sequester carbon, mitigate emissions on farms and scale up regenerative farming practices. However, JBS has failed on promises like these before: it failed to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain by 2011, as it claimed it would in 2009.

Tyson Foods goes so far as to claim that their chicken production systems actually help the environment, they are still the number one polluter among agricultural companies and the second-largest greenhouse gas emissions in the meat industry. Despite vague sustainability and net-zero pledges, Tyson has continued business-as-usual and pushed the program to 2025. 

Danone, the second largest dairy company, has also committed to net zero emissions by 2050, while also planning to increase production. They and other dairy companies make this claim by citing reduced “emissions intensity,” or lower emissions per kilogram of milk. These targets do not reduce overall growth in company emissions. Another strategy employed by dairy giant Fonterra is to attempt experimental biotech feeds, supplements and fermentations to eliminate methane from cow guts.

WH Group and Smithfield, the largest pork producers, have also claimed to reach net zero by 2030 in the U.S, without accounting for its large emissions globally. They claim they will use renewable energy and regenerative agriculture to sequester carbon.  

The problem with these net-zero climate goals is that companies are not actually striving to emit zero greenhouse gasses. Instead, they attempt to compensate for it through projects that sequester carbon, like planting forests or restoring soil. The citizen watchdog group Corporate Accountability called net-zero “The Big Con” in a 2021 resort. 

Seeing through the greenwashing of “sustainable meat” 

We must see through these labels and claims that are designed to mislead consumers and allow the industry to deny its environmental responsibility. “Sustainable meat” and other animal products is a greenwashing myth. Don’t fall for it. The fate of our planet hangs in the balance.

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