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‘More emissions than Exxon’: Is meat the next target for divestment?

Big Oil in North America and Europe has been shocked to discover in the past year that the finance sector, under pressure from climate activists, is increasingly reluctant to fund further expansion. With campaign action heating up, and following a recent decision from bellwether city Berkeley, CA to divest public employee pension funds from factory farming, could ‘Big Ag’ be next in the divestment campaign firing line?

Calls for financial institutions to divest from fossil fuels have become a cornerstone of NGO climate campaigning over the past decade. Direct targeting of oil and gas companies, consistently high since 2011, drove a surge in campaigns from 2019 onwards calling for investors to divest initially from coal, followed by ‘dirty’ oil and gas like oil sands, then finally all fossil fuels. This trend shows little sign of abating and has seen major successes, with financial institutions such as Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley taking action after intense NGO pressure to reduce their fossil fuel portfolios.

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As NGOs realise the effectiveness of divestment campaigns – SIGWATCH data shows campaigning actions mentioning divestment have quadrupled from 2015 to the present – it is unsurprising that they are now employing the same strategy to target another ‘climate criminal’, the meat industry. Riding on the coattails of campaigns from the likes of Stop the Money Pipeline coalition, come ever louder calls for financial institutions to divest from industrial agriculture across the board, with meat producers drawing particular attention.

Criticism of industrial agriculture and meat producers is certainly not new for NGOs. Traditionally, they have focused on industry links to deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as consumer-centred demands to eat less meat, which has been a major contributor to the rise of green veganism in Western countries. Just as criticism of oil and gas majors gave rise to fossil fuel divestment calls, campaigning on industrial agriculture and meat has sparked demands for investors to support a global transition towards ‘agro ecological’ food production.

Media outlets began taking note of this trend in mid-2020, highlighting greater traction for meat divestment campaigning after two consecutive summers of Amazon fires and a global pandemic with origins linked to animal consumption. Summer 2020 also saw major Nordic financial group Nordea divest $45m from meat producer JBS, following a Fair Finance Guide report criticising the bank’s links to “Amazon deforestation”.

As SIGWATCH data shows (see graph above), while campaigning on meat divestment has a way to go before it reaches the dizzying heights of carbon divestment, it is seeing a sustained increase that correlates with greater attention on industrial agriculture’s contribution to climate change and environmental degradation.

Overall, NGO meat divestment campaigns are derived from four key criticisms of the industry: carbon emissions, deforestation for animal feed crops, community impact of livestock, and animal welfare.

A commonly repeated refrain from NGOs is that the agricultural sector emits more greenhouse gases than ExxonMobil. Not only is this statement indicative of the shift of attention from fossil fuels to industrial agriculture, it is also a powerful and persuasive point when oil and gas companies are seen as the principal drivers of climate change. Major sources of agricultural emissions cited by NGOs include land use change, animal manure, and digestive processes.

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Deforestation campaigning has seen a rapid increase over the past five years, with peaks around the time of the 2019 and 2020 Amazon fires. The blame for these fires, attributed to climate change and land clearing for cattle ranching and soy cultivation (the by-products of which are used as cattle feed), was quickly laid at the door of agribusiness and its financiers.

Agriculture’s impact on local communities is a pertinent issue in South America and Southeast Asia where land conversion seriously impacts Indigenous peoples. NGOs accuse agribusiness of making land grabs to expand cattle grazing and feed cropping, encouraging states to crack down on human rights defenders, and allowing forced labour in supply chains.

NGO opposition to animal agriculture because it involves killing sentient creatures is not new, but it has been gaining impetus as animal rights campaigners make common cause with environmentalists. In mid-July, Animal Rebellion blockaded a McDonald’s supplier to protest meat-eating as damaging to the climate. Investors are already under pressure too, with Dutch coalition Eerlijke Pensioenlabel (Fair Pension Label) warning pension funds about the ethics of investments in chicken and pig production.

As we enter the third quarter of 2021, and pandemic-driven campaigning trends either fade away or become a permanent part of NGO agendas, it seems likely that calls for divestment from meat and industrial agriculture will see a significant rise, and could eventually overtake fossil fuel divestment as the key climate demand for financial institutions and investors.

Charlotte Moore is head of research at Sigwatch.

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