Big Meat Unveils Battle Plans for COP28

Polluting livestock companies and lobby groups will target pavilions in a coordinated campaign at the UN climate summit, documents show.
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Credit: Andy Carter

Major meat companies and industry lobby groups are planning a large presence at COP28, equipped with a communications plan to get a pro-meat message heard by policymakers throughout the summit, DeSmog can reveal.

Documents seen by DeSmog and the Guardian show that the meat industry is poised to “tell its story and tell it well” in the lead up and during the Dubai conference, which comes on the heels of the world’s hottest ever year.

The files relate how the world’s largest meat company, JBS, is planning to come out in “full force” at the summit, along with other big industry hitters such as the Global Dairy Platform and the North American Meat Institute.

The documents, which were produced by the industry-funded Global Meat Alliance (GMA), emphasise the meat lobby’s desire to promote “our scientific evidence” at the summit, which will run from November 30 through to December 12.

Farming will be front and centre at this year’s COP. Leaders have released a four-point “food and agriculture” agenda that calls for governments and industry to work together to find new solutions to climate change–driven food insecurity.

Members of the Alliance are encouraged to stick to key comms messages, including the idea that meat is beneficial to the environment and will help to “feed the world”.

The revelations come at a time that meat and dairy companies are coming under increasing pressure to clean up their act.

Combined, the emissions of the world’s three largest meat companies are estimated to be significantly larger than those of oil giants Shell and BP, while the dairy industry’s 3.4 percent contribution to global human-induced emissions is a higher share than aviation.

The GMA documents also reveal that the industry will be helped to stay on message in Dubai by the PR firm Red Flag, which has previously lobbied EU regulators on behalf of the US meat industry group as well as for a leading tobacco firm.

Trade groups also give some indication of how they hope to shape conversations. One says it will “push” the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to host “positive livestock content” at COP28. This follows recent revelations that pressure from industry led to censorship of FAO reports on the role of cattle in driving greenhouse gas emissions. 

Animal agriculture is the largest emitter of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide when measured over a 20 year period. Scientists say that unless swift action is taken, methane from agriculture alone will take us beyond a 1.5C rise in temperature that risks tipping the world into irreversible climate breakdown. 

“These companies are stepping up their game because the exposure they are facing is stepping up,” says Jennifer Jacquet, Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Miami. “It used to be that they were caught on the back foot, but now they’re completely prepared.”

The GMA declined to offer a formal comment, however a spokesperson told DeSmog in an email that the group works to “simplify and distil public information” around international events which are “often dominated by an anti-meat narrative”. 

PR Push

The meat industry is planning a concerted PR push at the summit, which it describes as a  “notoriously challenging environment”. 

It offers a comprehensive guide to all areas of the UNFCCC climate conference, highlighting where industry can hope to get its message across, including on thematic days, food and ag-based events and at pavilions where countries and observer groups showcase their climate credentials and hold events.

In one document, the industry acknowledges that the global meat sector has a “job to do” in making sure governments are positioned to push for what it describes as “balanced, science-based outcomes” rather than what it characterises as “ideologically driven solutions”.

To help the industry navigate the complexities of COP28, the controversial PR firm Red Flag will also be at the summit. In 2018, the Irish company came under fire for “astro-turfing” after it was revealed to be employed by pesticide firms to run a pro-glyphosate campaign, which it had represented as a grassroots-led effort by farmers.

Red Flag chief executive Karl Brophy was quoted at the time as saying: “We are grateful to several clients for supporting the project,” adding, “we’re proud to have played a small part in providing the information” to help defeat the proposed ban of the herbicide.

In signs of a PR war being fought online as well as in person, an earlier draft of the GMA documents stated that several groups – including the UK levy-funded group the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) – were planning to work with social media influencers to amplify their messaging around the summit.

A spokesperson for the AHDB informed DeSmog it did not plan to use social media influencers during the summit, and that any documents stating this were incorrect. 

“Throughout the year, including during COP28, AHDB will offer its expertise to promote a balanced and sensible debate about the future of our food system,” they said.

The spokesperson added that food production must increase by 70 percent to keep pace with population growth, and complained that the common narrative on livestock was dictated by “simplistic negative conclusions of livestock’s role within rising global temperatures, nature decline and decreasing human health”.

Past marketing drives run by the AHDB include the £3.5-million “We Eat Balanced Campaign”, which aims to “provide clear facts to help those reducing meat and dairy consumption to reconsider”.

The GMA files also namecheck influential pro-meat individuals such as author and podcaster Diana Rodgers, who has been referenced by the Global Meat Alliance in a previous campaign, which targeted the UN Food System Summit. 

Rodgers defends meat-eating as sustainable and has spoken against measures to curb its consumption in rich countries. (She was listed as an attendee at COP28 in an earlier version of the documents, but has since been removed).

“Any credible action to reduce emissions in the food sector will inevitably lead to a reduction in the total volume of meat and dairy products produced,” says Nusa Urbancic, chief executive of campaign group the Changing Markets Foundation. “The industry is terrified of that and has been deploying multiple tactics to delay the inevitable.”

Turning Out in ‘Full Force’ 

The meat sector’s largest emitters – whose past efforts to obstruct climate action have been documented by DeSmog – plan to be on the ground in large numbers at COP28, the files show.

JBS, the world’s most polluting meat company, will be out in “full force” in Dubai , according to the files. At COP27 in Egypt, DeSmog revealed that the firm gained access via Brazil’s country delegation.

“It is hard to understand why decision-makers would allow companies like JBS to have a seat at the table at climate negotiations,” Urbancic said. “They are simply not credible partners in these crucial talks, especially now when the time for action is rapidly running out.” 

The Brazilian meat giant has come under growing pressure for failing to tackle the outsized climate and environmental impacts of its business. It stands accused of misleading investors over a green bonds scheme and was recently ordered to retract net zero claims by the US ad regulator.

The sector’s second largest emitter – Tyson Foods – is also planning to be at the summit in Dubai.

Companies at the summit will be accompanied by lobby groups that represent them, some of which have a history of obstructive action. They include the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), a powerful group representing large meat producers in the US, which in 2022 was still questioning on its website whether climate change was caused by humans.

While the leaked documents are aimed at the meat sector, they also show that high-emitting dairy companies are planning on sending a “large delegation” to COP28.

Earlier this year a backlash from several countries with interests in meat led to the watering down of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC’s) recommendations on dietary changes needed to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.

Urbancic says producers are aping the tactics of the oil industry: to delay climate action with weak voluntary commitments, all the while pushing industry-funded science. 

Plans to Work Closely With Governments

The documents show that the industry will be collaborating with major producer countries and friendly governments to amplify their message at COP28.

Companies and trade groups are told one of the ways to “to have the most influence” is to “equip delegates with your key messages and solutions”, a list of which is provided in the pack.

The files also detail collaborations planned for the event itself. The North American Meat Institute will host a side event at the US COP pavilion on December 11, the summit’s Agriculture Day, for example.

For its part, the Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), a levy-funded group, plans to hold events at its country pavilion, and says it is also looking to engage with other countries at COP28. It also states that it will hold regular meetings with the Australian government before the summit. 

Australia and the US are the second and third largest beef exporters globally, and their governments have a strong economic interest in supporting the growth of these industries, which enjoy close political ties. In the US, the current secretary of State for Agriculture – Tom Vilsack – is the former head of the powerful dairy industry group: the US Dairy Export Council (USDEC). 

A spokesperson for the Australian government’s Department for Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water told DeSmog:

“The Australian Government is providing the agricultural sector, including the meat industry, support for innovation, infrastructure, biosecurity and building resilience, which OECD [a club of rich nations] characterises as positive areas to invest.”

Some academics believe government support to be a significant factor in determining the continued power of the animal agriculture industry over alternatives.

A study published earlier this year found that meat and dairy farmers in the EU received 1,200 times more public funding than new alternative protein sources, while in the US, they received 800 times more support.

Jennifer Jacquet says addressing the cosy relationship between governments and industry was crucial to bringing diets into line with climate goals.

“Typically, the talk is about demand side interventions, like you can get schools or, or individuals to give up meat,” she says. “But I’m a little worried that some of this [meat] production is so baked into subsidies and policy, that even with decreased demand, this apparatus will just keep flowing.

“We need the animal agriculture equivalent of ‘keep it in the ground’ for fossil fuels,” she adds. “It’s really about production at the end of the day.”

Sponsorship of Pavilions

In the documents, trade groups also reveal their plans to influence the pavilions run by observer groups. They do this via sponsorship, which can cost between $10,000 and $200,000 and is championed as a way to host sessions, receptions and invite guests.

The US Dairy Export Council are confirmed sponsors of a COP28 pavilion hosted by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), an intergovernmental body with close ties to industry. Other sponsors include NAMI, pesticide firms Croplife and Bayer, along with the industry-sponsored Protein Pact initiative.

USDEC anticipates that sponsorship will “help to ensure side event opportunities and make strategic sense for guaranteeing a presence at the event”. The Council also shares plans to promote the target-free initiative known as Pathways to Dairy Net Zero, whose members are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

A section on NAMI’s plans in the documents also confirms its support for the IICA, which last year hosted an online panel featuring UC Davis professor Frank Mitloehner, a high profile defender of the meat industry, which also funds his research.

NAMI relates that Mitloehner will be coming in person to COP28 where he is signed up to speak on two panels, so far. It encourages other meat sector groups to “plug” Frank into other events at the summit, describing him as a “top expert in animal ag GHG emissions”.

Mitloehner has helped popularise a controversial way of counting methane emissions known as GWP*, which effectively penalises new sources of methane from the Global South but lets pre-existing high-volume emitters from the Global North off the hook. He has used GWP* to claim that the US meat and dairy sector can become “climate-neutral” by the late 2040s by reducing emissions only two percent a year.

Professor Mitloehner told DeSmog: “GWP* is a metric that measures methane’s impact on warming. In conjunction with others, it can be used in a way that drives further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

He added: “Reducing emissions from livestock requires involving farmers, ranchers, and companies and organizations across animal agriculture. Like many of the more than 70,000 delegates expected to attend COP28, I’ve been invited to share my expertise through the events planned in pavilions hosted by governments and international organizations.” 

In its comment to DeSmog, the AHDB spokesperson also used GWP* to claim that “methane from UK livestock since 1990 has not caused global warming”.

‘Positive Livestock Content’

The documents also include a messaging summary with key talking points, which present meat as “sustainable nutrition” and suggest that meat production can be beneficial to the environment.

In a four-page set of arguments, the Global Meat Alliance claims that producers can “play a key role in environmentally sustainable food systems” and that the sector is “continuously driving towards carbon-friendly farming”.

Several of these arguments reference the idea that grazing livestock can help maintain healthy soils which can store carbon. This is often described as ‘regenerative agriculture’, a phrase that featured among six greenwashing terms for the agriculture sector reported by DeSmog in September.

It’s a term favoured by many food companies, despite the fact that scientists have said that soils are not a reliable way to store carbon in the long term, and that removals can be easily undone. 

In its messaging, industry also heavily references the role of meat in relieving hunger and in the Global South, claiming that it “plays a key role in reducing food insecurity and malnutrition”.

However the UN-linked Committee on World Food Security has repeatedly pointed out that hunger and malnutrition is not caused by a lack of food, pointing instead to problems with access, distribution and power.

Meat eating globally is very unequally spread, Europeans eat more than twice the global average, and North Americans’ and Australians’ consumption levels are even higher. One study released in the academic journal Nature in 2018, found that Western countries would have to reduce their meat intake by 90 percent to limit climate change to acceptable levels.

The full set of documents – which add up to 23 pages – make only passing, discursive reference to cutting methane, which is mentioned twice in the context of carbon-storage and “feeding the world”, and to encourage participation in events where methane is on the agenda.

This is despite the fact that emissions from beef production globally are roughly equal to those of the entire nation of India, with science pointing to a shift in diets as the one surefire way to cut emissions.

The Food4Climate pavilion, which aims to promote plant-based food, is labelled by the meat group as “extreme”. The GMA also shows displeasure at the COP28 presidency’s choice of a vegan menu, which is one of just two passing references to changing diets.

At no point does the industry acknowledge the serious and public health and environmental harms of livestock, which are also the leading cause of biodiversity loss worldwide.

Meat lobby groups will share a different message at pavilions at COP28. NAMI says it will push the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to host “positive livestock content”.

Elsewhere in the documents, industry stresses the importance of sharing “our scientific evidence” at the summit.

As well as plans to present meat as “positive for the environment”, it will promote the Dublin Declaration, a document signed by over 1,000 scientists, which has been criticised as meat “propaganda” by climate experts.

The meat industry has long been engaged in efforts to present its industry as green, from selling the idea of climate-friendly cows to ‘greener cattle’ initiatives, which will also be promoted at COP28 through the US-led AIM for Climate initiative. 

Missing Perspectives

While the Global Meat Alliance promotes itself as supporting an “aligned global meat sector” the group’s membership is skewed heavily toward producers in the Global North.

Fourteen of the group’s 16 partners come from either Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland or North America. Its remaining two partners are global lobby groups representing large companies and multiple countries.

Of the 21 companies and trade groups who appear to have coordinated with the GMA on their attendance for COP28, more than half are the countries listed above. One (JBS) is from Brazil, and the rest are transnational.  

This follows a wider trend in multi-stakeholder climate initiatives, where smallholder groups are sidelined. A November report found that small-scale farmers, who produce a third of the world’s food, receive just 0.3% of climate finance.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Global Meat Alliance described itself as an “international networking group with an aim to support a better connected, aligned global meat sector by providing industry with accumulated insights, best practice, and collaboration opportunities.”

The major dairy industry initiative – Pathways to Dairy Net Zero – has also publicised itself as a global effort welcome to companies from across the dairy supply chain, but a DeSmog analysis shows that Global North groups dominate the group.

In 2022, DeSmog’s analysis of the major sustainable farming initiative AIM for Climate (or Aim4C) found that more than two thirds of some 300 partners were located in the United States or Europe. Just seven percent are based in Africa.

Livestock experts with a focus on the Global South have repeatedly stressed the importance of including a range of perspectives. Ian Scoones, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies argues that often discussions “lump all livestock in together” – forgetting over 200 million herders, shepherds and small-scale producers who live mostly in Africa and Asia.

It’s notable that the solutions pursued by some of the GMA members are not always in the interests of Global South producers. Beef + Lamb New Zealand, for example, is pushing the UN to adopt the new methane metric GWP*, which punishes the new and growing sources of methane outside the Global North.

Scoones says: “My big fear in all of this debate is that the likes of pastoralists who we work with around the world will get stuffed because they don’t have a voice.”

All named parties were contacted for comment.

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Rachel is an investigative researcher and reporter based in Brussels. Her work has been covered by outlets including The Guardian, Vice News, The Financial Times and The Hill.

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