Fostering collective climate action against the meat industry

January 22, 2016
The film Cowspiracy targets the meat industry to highlight the climate effects of animal agriculture.

The latest advertisement from Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) depicts the military “rescuing” Australians from overseas so they can eat lamb on Australia Day.

It has attracted more than 600 complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau — a record number. Critics are outraged at its depiction of violence towards vegans, for appropriating the Indigenous word boomerang on a day of mourning for Aboriginal Australians and for promoting the militarisation of Australian nationalism. All are important issues.

But one voice was mostly absent in the controversy — the climate movement. Animal agriculture is a major contributor to Australia's greenhouse gas emissions. The main causes are land clearing and methane from ruminants' digestion. Indeed, animal agriculture's contribution to climate change is often understated due to controversy about accounting for methane emissions. Typically figures are based on methane's global warming potential over 100 years. However, if considered over 20 years, methane's effect is about three times higher.

According to a US report, lamb is the most emissions-intensive food — 39.2 kg CO2-e emitted per kilogram of lamb consumed — based on the 100-year global warming potential of methane. Beef is also emissions intensive — 27 kg CO2-e per kilogram. In comparison, chicken produces 6.9 CO2-e per kilogram and plant proteins about 2 kg CO2-e per kilogram.

Climate activists, in the main, focus their campaigns on fossil fuel emissions. The 2014 movie Cowspiracy highlighted the massive emissions from animal agriculture and claimed that the environment movement — at least in the US — was too afraid to talk about it.

In Australia, animal liberation activists and vegan groups have been pushing the climate movement to also focus on animal agriculture.

The approach taken by most animal liberation activists and vegans is to promote individual action, that is, for individuals to adopt a vegan diet. This is at odds with the collective action approach taken by much of the climate movement. Certainly, governments and their agencies have focused their climate messaging on urging individuals to “take action” by reducing their personal emissions.

But this approach deflects responsibility away from government and business, which have been failing to act effectively on climate change. Moreover, this individualistic approach may lead to people feeling guilty, which may in turn cause some people to disengage.

Many climate activists now focus on building social movements, and targeting governments and the fossil fuel industry. Some tactics combine individual and collective approaches, for example, fossil fuel divestment. Others are based on collective action, for example, blockading fossil fuel projects. Clearly individual and collective approaches are not mutually exclusive — many climate activists also try to live sustainably. But effective climate action requires both.

How can collective approaches be used to tackle emissions from animal agriculture? Certainly climate activists can target the industry; however, the structures of the fossil fuel industry and the meat industry are quite different. For the fossil fuel industry, climate activists target the big players, while trying to keep fossil fuel industry workers onside by pushing green jobs and a just transition.

Much of the meat industry, however, comprises small farmers. Cattle and sheep farmers have been prominent players in the anti-coal seam gas movement, and the environment movement is keen to keep them onside. How then do we bring farmers and farm workers along in tackling emissions from animal agriculture? This is undoubtedly an important issue for the environment movement to grapple with in the coming period.

In the meantime, there are some more obvious targets for climate activists, and advertising by meat industry bodies is one of them. The MLA advertisement promotes meat eating in a country that already has the highest per capita meat consumption in the OECD, and depicts people who reject meat-eating as not only unpatriotic but as almost the enemy.

This is an ideal moment for the climate movement to target the tactics of the meat industry and to highlight the climate effects of animal agriculture.

[Andrea Bunting is a member of the Socialist Alliance and Climate Action Moreland.]

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