When Brazil’s populist president Jair Bolsonaro tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this week, he breezily brushed concerns for his health aside, cheerily telling supporters he was “fine”, “that’s life”, nothing to see here. Never mind the 1.6m positive cases in Brazil – including many in meat processing plants – and the tragic death toll of over 66,800, and counting, making South America one of the epicentres of the pandemic.
In Brazil’s rainforest, another tragedy is unfolding, no less deadly for Bolsonaro’s compatriots – and for all of Earth’s citizens. Deforestation is running rampant: the Amazon experienced an estimated 2,248 separate wildfires in June alone, a 13-year high for the month.
Like for Covid-19, Bolsonaro is not taking the decisive action that would avert this ecological and climate catastrophe. Quite the opposite: for Bolsonaro, forest conservation is tantamount to economic sabotage. Forget that the Amazon absorbs roughly 5 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Trees, in his view, are a barrier to industrial development and development. His environment minister recently said Covid-19 presented an opportunity to “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon.
Taking its cue from Brasil, big business has announced open season on the most biodiverse-rich area of the planet. Leading the charge is the $2trn global meat and dairy industry. It’s a new offensive in an old war. According to the World Bank, cattle ranching has been behind almost 90 per cent of the forest clearances in Brazil since the 1970s.
From a climate perspective alone, immediate action is imperative. To keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C, in line with the 2015 Paris climate commitment, every industry will need to radically decarbonise. Big livestock, which accounts for the bulk of the 25 to 30 per cent of global emissions attributed to the food system by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, appears wilfully deaf to such warnings. Indeed, if its ecologically destructive growth model continues unchecked, it will single-handedly use up almost half (49 per cent) of the available emissions “budget” for a 1.5°C future by 2030.
When it comes to forcing multinational meat and dairy firms to put on the breaks, legal and regulatory interventions will only get us so far, as recent history from Brazil to Borneo woefully reveals. Consumers aren’t likely to gain much traction either. Shifting the human race away from its culture of carnivorism won’t happen soon – or, at least, not within the timescale required by today’s climate emergency.
Better instead to ask who, in the cut (literally) and thrust world of international commerce really makes the big livestock sector sit up and listen. The answer is simple: those who bankroll them. The expansion of mega-industrial agriculture is financed in two basic ways: first, by companies avoiding the tab for the environmental carnage they cause; and, second, by financiers turning a blind eye.
The scale of the financial sector’s involvement is revealed in new research released by Feedback[OW1] . In April alone, 3,000 investors backed the world’s 35 largest meat and dairy corporations to the tune of $228bn. On the list are a host of well-known UK-based financial institutions, from highstreet banks like HSBC and Barclays through to pension and savings firms like Prudential and Legal & General. Mega-meat is today’s unrivalled cash cow.
Whichever way you look at it, financing a forest-destroying, climate-accelerating industry is a risky business. After all, this is capital that invariably traces bank to individual savers and pension holders. You don’t have to be a vegan to object to hamburgers that rob indigenous communities of their homes or that is driving orangutans, and other species, including our own, to the brink of extinction.
Then, there’s the small matter of “stranded assets” to consider. Recent months have seen oil giants Shell and BP write down their proven assets by billions of dollars. As it turns out, digging up fossil fuels during a climate emergency turns out not only to be a bad idea, but also a terrible investment. We’re reaching Peak Livestock just as we are Peak Oil – a reality that will cost investors dear if they prove slow to act.
Not all financiers are blind to the dangers. Indeed, our research shows efforts by some to “engage” the worst offending corporations. In a recent move, for example, a group of seven major European investment firms has threatened to pull out of the Brazilian beef and grain markets entirely if Amazonian deforestation isn’t curbed.
Far from making substantive changes, however, the sector’s mega-producers seem more intent on greenwashing. Take Brazilian food processing giant JBS’s climate footprint. Independent research estimated it to generate 280m tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2016, roughly the same at that of Taiwan. JBS’s own calculation: a piffling 8.9m tonnes.
Engagement clearly isn’t working. Once the world’s rainforests are gone, they’re not coming back. Cut down many more trees and runaway climate change will become inevitable. Now is the moment for the bankrolling of Big Livestock to end. For lenders’ own financial health as much as the planet’s wellbeing, divestment and defunding is the only rational option left on the table.
Let’s hope Bolsonaro’s illness is benign. Let’s also hope it spurs the urgent action needed to protect lives and livelihoods, including saving the Amazon from the flames. Meanwhile, financial institutions should also learn from the pandemic. Business-as-usual is no longer an option: it’s time to cut meat and dairy corporation’s financial fodder.
Carina Millstone is executive director of Feedback, regenerating nature by transforming our food system
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