The facts are stacked against the animal agriculture industry when it comes to climate change, so why aren’t we more informed?

It seems like dozens of scientific reports and studies have come out lately showing that eating way fewer animals and way more plants is absolutely crucial for curbing climate breakdown. But apparently, the connection between animal agriculture and the climate has barely filtered through to the British public.

Climate Change and Net Zero: Public Awareness and Perceptions, a research paper published by the government in April, found that 83 per cent of people surveyed think climate change is a concern, yet only 22 per cent “perceived agriculture (such as crops, livestock, and farm machinery) as contributing ‘a great deal’” to the climate crisis. All other sectors described in the survey – transport, manufacturing and producing goods, disposal of waste, heating/cooling homes and commercial buildings, and electricity usage – were, respectively, considered to contribute more to the UK’s emissions than agriculture.

The research, conducted between September and October 2020, surveyed 6,947 members of the UK public to determine how they perceive climate change and the UK’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

According to government data, it is true that transport, including cars, planes, trucks, and ships, accounts for the biggest share of the UK’s emissions at 27 per cent. Energy supply makes up 21 per cent, industrial activity (described as ‘business’) 17 per cent, and energy use in homes 15 per cent. Agriculture is the fifth biggest contributor to the UK’s emissions, making up 10 per cent, with only waste management (4 per cent) and ‘other’ (5 per cent) taking a smaller share.

Based on these figures, the public perceptions of which sectors are the most emissions-intensive is almost correct. But that does not mean it is correct to perceive agriculture as not contributing “a great deal” to the country’s emissions. At 10 per cent, agriculture is a significant source of emissions, particularly of methane and nitrous oxide, which are both more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Not to mention, the impact of agriculture is of course larger than just the emissions alone – land use, water pollution, soil erosion, habitat loss, species extinction and more – agriculture is a multifaceted issue.

The mismatch between public perception and agriculture’s role in climate change could be partly explained by the lack of coverage the topic has received in the media. A recent study by researchers from UK and U.S. researchers found that the volume of coverage between 2006 and 2018 by ‘elite’ British newspapers (the Guardian and Telegraph) and American newspapers (the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal) was low. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Guardian had more extensive coverage than the Telegraph over the time period studied, with 113 articles on animal agriculture and climate change compared to 41 in the Telegraph.

What was the focus of the reporting on this topic? What aspects of animal agriculture’s climate impact did they highlight? Who did they identify as bearing responsibility for changing the sector? What solutions did they promote? The study also sought to answer these questions.  Direct emissions from “the digestive process of cows and other ruminants (burping, belching and farting)” got more column inches than “indirect emissions from animal agricultural production systems (animal feed, fertilizer, energy, transport, and land use change).” The study’s authors note that this reflects the reality of the biggest sources of emissions from animal agriculture.

But when we look at the outcome of focusing so heavily on the GHGs emitted from cows – that the production and consumption of alternatives with a supposedly lower climate impact, particularly chicken, has shot up – it’s clear that reporting on the impacts of animal agriculture in this narrow way is dangerous. A billion chickens are slaughtered in the UK every year, and many of them are fed on soy that comes from deforested parts of the Cerrado in Brazil.

It should be noted that the Guardian helped to reveal this fact last year in a joint investigation with Greenpeace Unearthed and others. Indeed, the Guardian’s launch of its ‘Animals Farmed’ section in 2018 has, as the study notes “increased the volume of media scrutiny of factory farming, food production, as well as animal welfare.”

As for who is responsible for this state of affairs and how to fix the problem, consumers were mentioned by the newspapers most often – twice as frequently as major meat-producing companies like Cargill. Changing consumer behaviour was the most commonly identified solution. Plant-based protein alternatives “were hardly mentioned”, whereas changes to agricultural practice including “a wide range of options such as grass-fed cattle, animal breeding such as genetic modification to reducing belching and farting, and other animal feed crops” – solutions that are perhaps best described as putting tinkering while Rome burns – were second most frequently mentioned. Taxes and regulations got a handful of mentions each. Again the Guardian dominated on the frequency and range of solutions it covered.

Media coverage matters for the importance that the public attaches to an issue. As the study notes: “media attention a specific issue attracts has an important “agenda-setting” effect on audience members; the more attention an issue gets, the more likely it is to seem important to an audience.”

With that in mind, it’s clear that not only could the media do better in communicating the climate impacts of different aspects of animal agriculture, but also the impacts on wildlife, on communities, and on the exploited farmed animals themselves.

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