The world’s biggest farms pollute more than any oil company

An industry that leaves its mark.
An industry that leaves its mark.
Image: Reuters/Jeff Green
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The world’s biggest meat and dairy operations combined pump more greenhouse gas into Earth’s warming atmosphere than any one of the largest fossil-fuel giants.

A report published this week by the nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) shows the top five animal agriculture companies emit more greenhouse gases than Exxon-Mobil, Shell, or BP.

Researchers drew information from JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill, Dairy Farmers of America, and Fonterra. The number researchers came up with—more than 578 metric tonnes—was conservative, as much of animal agriculture does not make available data about their environmental footprints, the report states.

The report is a significant at a time when nearly every nation on the planet, with the exception of the United States, has agreed to keep the global temperature increases to “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” with the goal of limiting it to 1.5°C. And major animal agriculture companies expect to be doing more business in the near future, which stands to work against efforts to scale back emissions. The demand for meat is on the rise, particularly in developing parts of the world such as China, where a rising middle class is eager to spend more on meat and dairy.

As the researchers point out, massive meat and dairy companies have for years managed to escape much criticism of their collective environmental impact, unlike petroleum companies such as Exxon-Mobil and Shell. That’s, in part, because most of them don’t make public data on their greenhouse gas emissions.

“We found the publicly available data on their emissions to be incomplete, not comparable between companies or years and, in the majority of cases, simply absent,” the report states.

In fact, only four companies—one Japanese and three European—of the 35 largest provided detailed data that the IATP considered credible. Fourteen companies have announced emission-reduction targets. How they plan to do that remains unclear.

The world’s biggest farming companies contribute to emissions in three ways. Some are direct emissions from their facilities, machinery, and even methane that literally comes from the digestive systems of grazing cows. Then there are indirect emissions, such as the power it takes to generate enough energy to keep the facilities up and running. Finally there’s the larger supply chain—the emissions that come from shipping animals, meats, and milk, as well the energy it takes to grow and transport the food that feeds the animals.

A large portion of the emissions are from a small handful of countries. The report calls out the United States, Canada, the European Union, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. Together, they account for 43% of animal agriculture’s global greenhouse gas emissions.