By now, we all know that raising meat is one of the most unsustainable endeavors in the world, requiring massive amounts of land, energy, and water to produce a relatively small amount of food. As consumers grow more and more conscious of the heavy toll that the meat industry takes on the environment, you’d think that the companies that raise meat would want to become more transparent, sharing their practices in order to show that they’re making an effort to innovate and make less of an impact. But, according to a new, comprehensive report on the industry, the world’s largest meat and fish companies are doing exactly the opposite, instead failing to report emissions so high that, according to the report, they’re “putting the implementation of the Paris agreement in jeopardy.”
Released earlier this week by the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) group, the Protein Producer Index is the first comprehensive examination of the environmental and social practices of the world’s largest meat producers, and what it reveals is not pretty. Three out of four of the companies provided little or no evidence that they report their emissions, and might well not even measure them—despite the fact that livestock production represents a whopping 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. According to Aarti Ramachandran, Head of Research and Corporate Engagement at FAIRR, it’s an issue that meat eaters should be concerned about.
“There is growing demand among consumers to better understand the provenance of their food,” Ramachandran told MUNCHIES. And yet, she said, the companies consumers buy from are failing at almost every level. “These companies need to significantly improve their approach to sustainability issues from water to waste, food safety to worker safety.”
The report examines 60 of the world’s largest meat and fish producers, from the Australian Agricultural Company, which has the largest cattle herd in the world, to the US-based Sanderson’s, which processes more than 10 million chickens per week. It takes a look at a wide range of production practices, from use of water to animal welfare, and finds that the majority of the companies, with a combined worth of $152 billion, are “high risk” when it comes to overall management of sustainability.
One of the most concerning findings of the report concerns the routine administration of antibiotics to fish and livestock. An increasingly important public health issue, antibiotics in our food have been shown to contribute to increased resistance to prescription drugs as well as negative impacts on the gut microbiome. According to the FAIRR report, antibiotics overuse is the risk most poorly addressed by meat producers; of the 60 companies assessed, 46 worth a combined $240 billion have no plans in place to eliminate the routine use of antibiotics.
According to Ramachandran, such flagrant mismanagement of resources is not only an environmental issue—it’s a social issue, too. The companies that occupy a central role in our lives, producing the food that most of us eat every day, are not being forthright about the harm they’re doing, in spite of increasing public pressure for increased sustainability and transparency.
Because the average consumer doesn’t have the time or ability to challenge the big meat and fish companies—and likely isn’t willing or able to completely cut those foods from her diet—Ramachandran believes that getting the producers to be more transparent will come down to one thing: money.
“I’d say that any food company that does not take these issues seriously is not a viable one over the long term,” she said. “Of course, these issues are about companies being socially responsible, but these are also risks to their business.”
When a company doesn’t consider the long-term impact of greenhouse emissions and how it will have to adapt to a changed environment, investors get nervous and might not want to support a company that’s not forward-looking. “Investors are concerned about companies that aren’t thinking now about how these risks play out for their business in the mid-to-long term.”
Ramachandran believes that all of the risky practices outlined in the report—from deforestation to waste management—each carry their own set of problems, with no one issue standing out from the others but rather combining to set us up for a none-too-bright future as meateaters on this planet.
“We think these risks are equally material and important,” she said.
But things are changing. With increased consumer interest in vegetarian alternatives and more eco-friendly foods, shareholders will increasingly follow suit, directing their dollars away from traditional meat companies—especially if their track record on the environment remains so poor.
As Ramachandran said, “Meat and fish companies that do not improve their management of sustainability risk getting left behind.”