Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy study warns the ‘climate footprint of Europe’s big meat and dairy companies rival the fossil fuel giants’

Europe’s biggest meat and dairy companies stand accused of operating with “impunity” over their sizeable impact on the climate, after fresh research this week calculated that the 35 largest firms in the sector accounted for almost seven per cent of total EU emissions in 2018.

The report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) estimates that the emissions generated by Europe’s 20 biggest meat and dairy firms – including Danish Crown, Nestlé, Danone, and Tönnies – outstrip those produced by entire countries, such as the Netherlands or Denmark.

Yet only three of the companies assessed have targets in place to reduce their overall emissions from livestock, and the majority have in fact seen their climate footprint increase in recent years, according to the report, which was published yesterday by the research and advocacy non-profit.

The combined emissions of the 20 biggest meat and dairy firms in Europe are equivalent to 60 per cent of the emissions generated by French oil and gas giant Total, and almost all the emissions from Italian fossil fuels major Eni, IATP estimated.

Shefali Sharma, European director at the IATP, accused the biggest firms in the meat and dairy sector of failing to tackle their significant greenhouse gas emissions, and of relying too heavily on carbon offsets and clean tech fixes in a bid to decarbonise their businesses.

“The climate footprint of Europe’s big meat and dairy companies rival the fossil fuel giants yet they continue to operate with impunity,” she said. “The handful of companies that have climate plans rely on accounting tricks, greenwash, and dubious offsets to distract from the fundamental changes needed to cut emissions, while offloading many of the costs and risks onto farmers in their supply chains.” 

The study analysed the climate targets and plans of the 20 biggest firms in the sector, looking in particular at factors such as ‘greenwashing’, offsetting emissions, under-reporting on supply chain emissions, the strength of green targets, and level of reliance on unproven tech fixes, it said.

It found none of the companies’ plans and targets included any commitments to embrace agro-ecological farming techniques, or the production of less and better meat and dairy, which the IATP said offered the greatest potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions from farming.

Moreover, the study indicates agriculture emissions are still rising in several key EU countries, with animal farming emissions ticking up six per cent between 2007 and 2018.

The uptick in emissions has come as beef and pork exports from the UK have increased 10 per cent between 2005 and 2018, and poultry emissions soared 38 per cent over the period, leading to a “steady increase in meat and dairy production and emissions”, according to IATP, despite growing levels of vegetarianism among the domestic population.

Just 10 countries – Germany, France, Spain, Poland, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Belgium, and the UK – together produce the majority of Europe’s meat and dairy, and IATP warned there was an urgent need to tackle emissions by reducing meat and dairy demand, and by promoting more sustainable, regenerative farming practices

Andoni Garcia Arriola, a farmer in the Basque country and European Coordinator of farmers’ organisation Via Campesina, said more people should be encouraged to take up agro-ecological farming, but warned that support was needed to make the change. “For the agricultural sector to participate in climate change mitigation, we need concrete support for the activities of small and medium-sized farms, action to encourage more people – especially young people – to start farming and more support for an agro-ecological approach to farming,” she said. “The advantages given to agribusiness are counterproductive to the climate emergency in which we find ourselves.”

However, a number of companies named in the IATP study hit back at criticism over their commitment to climate action, and disputed the calculations and figures outlined in the non-profit’s report.

Nestlé said the report gave a “misleading characterisation of our climate roadmap” by only assessing the firm’s meat and dairy activities, without taking into account its larger “diverse portfolio” of food and beverages including coffee, confectionary, and plant-based foods.

Nevertheless, the firm conceded it still “needed to make progress across our business” in order to reach its target to halve its emissions by 2030 and then reach net zero emissions by 2050. “For dairy and livestock specifically, we expect to reduce our absolute emissions by around 15 per cent by 2030 versus 2018, even as our company grows,” Nestle said in a statement.

A spokesman for Tönnies also disputed the report’s emissions calculations, criticising “weaknesses” in the methodology, and explaining that various company structural changes in recent years – including takeovers and mergers with other companies – had not been taken into account in the report. “We would have liked the authors to contact us beforehand,” Tönnies said in a statement. “In this way, misunderstandings or deliberately false statements arise that do not help to promote the transformation of the sector through a factual debate.”

Danish Crown and Danone have also been contacted by BusinessGreen for comment on the new report.

But regardless of the inevitable disagreements over the precise level of the meat and dairy industry’s carbon footprint and the effectiveness of leading agricultural companies’ net zero strategies, the report’s core conclusion stands. The meat and dairy sector has a massive greenhouse gas impact that does not get the same level of attention as the fossil fuel industry’s footprint and efforts to curb methane and carbon emissions across the sector are decidedly patchy. There is some interesting policy thinking underway – most notably in the form of the UK’s farming subsidy reforms – and some crucial pilot projects are exploring how low emission agriculture could work in practice. But it remains early days and both policymakers and industry appear reluctant to embrace the demand reduction measures that could have the most immediate impact on emissions.

However, the IATP report makes clear that pressure on the industry and its customer to deliver on their net zero promises and actively embrace more regenerative farming techniques is only going to increase over the coming decade.

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