Organisations dedicated to protecting the financial interests of farmers are downplaying the role that animal agriculture plays in contributing to climate change.

Whilst many NGOs, charities, and activist groups are using COP26 – the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Glasgow – as an opportunity to pressure governments into reducing carbon emissions, the animal agriculture industry seems more concerned with maintaining the oh-so-profitable status quo.

This has led certain organisations which are dedicated to protecting the financial interests of farmers, to embark on a public relations campaign to downplay the role that animal agriculture plays in contributing to climate change. The UK’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has created a series of infographics to be used as weapons in this key battle for public opinion, asking that they be shared with the hashtags #BackBritishFarming and #COP26.

Although infographics can be useful tools for conveying information in an easily digestible and engaging way, they are also the perfect tools for spinning the narrative. As Alberto Cairo argues in his book “How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information“, charts and statistics have an undeserved air of objectivity and respectability, but it’s just as easy to mislead with numbers as it is with the written word. Since infographics typically only contain a small amount of information, it’s easy for a lot of important contextual information to be “missed”, and for the messaging to be biased.

The argument presented essentially amounts to a “lesser evil” fallacy – the fact that UK beef production causes less emissions than, say for example, US beef, would only matter if you were faced with a binary choice between the two. But when you can in fact choose to produce a plethora of plant foods instead, UK beef’s carbon footprint becomes impossible to justify.

Furthermore, these global average figures are heavily skewed by data from developing countries like Brazil, where calculated emissions from beef production are much higher because they account for the widespread deforestation that occurs in order to create grazing land, cattle lots, and soybean plantations (which are primarily devoted to growing soy for animal feed). Given this fact, it’s especially disingenuous for UK beef producers to point to their (relatively) low emissions, since a recent joint investigation by ITV News, Greenpeace and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that soy beans grown on recently deforested land in Brazil were being exported to the UK for use as cattle feed! In fact, the UK imports 2.6 million tonnes of soy each year for use in animal feed, 30{85424e366b324f7465dc80d56c21055464082cc00b76c51558805a981c8fcd63} of which comes from Brazil. Whilst most of these soybeans are of course certified as “sustainable”, it is arguably a distinction without meaning, since the greater the demand for “sustainable” Brazilian soybeans for export, the more deforestation will need to occur to create soybean plantations for Brazil’s domestic animal feed market. There are no “good” options.

This importing of Brazilian soybeans for use in UK cattle feed closely mirrors the way developed nations have in recent decades essentially exported their carbon emissions by outsourcing heavy industry and manufacturing to developing nations like China. But of course, the products of those emissions ultimately end up in our homes. It’s a cynical game of pass the carbon buck that does nothing to actually reduce emissions on a global scale.

Ruminant animals will always emit large quantities of methane. If the British agricultural sector can create a plan to achieve net zero by 2040 (whilst accounting for methane emissions from tens of thousands of ruminants), then why not aim to make the sector a net carbon sink instead by also eliminating emissions from cows and sheep?

The planet is hurtling towards climate catastrophe, and developing nations will inevitably take longer to transition away from reliance on fossil fuels and animal agriculture. It is simply not enough for us to do the bare minimum; to stop contributing to the problem (i.e. net zero). We have to be part of the solution.

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