Major financial institutions are handing eye-watering sums of money to companies responsible for causing and accelerating planetary-scale destruction. In March 2020, a report by an international group of six NGOs revealed that 35 banks have handed trillions of dollars to the fossil fuel industry since the Paris Agreement was signed. A few months later, a report by UK-based organization Feedback showed that, between 2015 and 2020, banks like JPMorgan Chase and HSBC and investment managers like Blackrock funneled $478 billion into the 35 largest meat and dairy companies, despite warnings from scientists that production of animal products must be drastically reduced to protect the environment and the climate.
With their shared exacerbation of climate breakdown, ecological collapse, and environmental injustice, there are clear similarities between the animal agriculture and fossil fuel industries, as well as material interdependencies. The Feedback report reveals for the first time that many of the financial institutions bankrolling fossil fuel companies also fund industrial animal agriculture companies. Access to such data presents an opportunity for climate campaigners who have long focused their energy on stemming the flow of money into fossil fuels to expand their attention to industrial animal agriculture, and for those working to make food systems more compassionate and less destructive to use finance as a new lever for change.
Divestment and finance campaigning
For years, climate campaigners have targeted financing for the fossil fuel industry. There are two prongs to this effort, as Bill McKibben outlined in a 2019 article for the New Yorker. First, the fossil fuel divestment movement, represented by groups like 350.org, which McKibben co-founded in 2012. This has focused on the fossil fuel companies responsible for driving up emissions and perpetuating climate and environmental injustice, damaging their reputations and encouraging both individuals and institutional investors to dump their stocks in them.
As Fossil Free UK puts it: “The aim of the fossil fuel divestment campaign is to weaken the political influence of the fossil fuel industry, which keeps holding back action on climate change.” The movement has now secured divestment commitments from universities, churches, and other institutional investors with combined assets worth $14 trillion. It has made oil executives shake in their boots, describing divestment as a “material risk” to their business.
The second prong of this effort focuses on the financial actors themselves – the banks, insurers, investors, asset managers, and pension funds – to expose their role in financing the fossil fuel industry and therefore the climate crisis. Off the back of financial research by NGOs, numerous campaigns have sprung up to pressure financial institutions to stop funding fossil fuels. US bank JP Morgan Chase, for example, has come under fire for being the biggest fossil fuel funder in the world, while insurance companies have been hammered by campaigners for continuing to insure coal companies. This is what can be described as ‘climate finance campaigning’.
There is no firm separation between this type of campaigning and divestment, but climate finance campaigners have certain kinds of expertise that they could apply to industrial animal agriculture, such as in-depth financial and policy research and behind-the-scenes work with financial institutions themselves. This could give campaigners a powerful way to tackle the industry’s contribution to the climate crisis – as well as to environmental injustice and animal abuse – at a systemic level, rather than at the level of individual diet choice that has largely characterized the public discourse around meat and dairy production.
But are meat and dairy companies really as bad as major fossil fuel players?
The common ground between meat and fossil fuels
Burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation is generally believed to account for the vast majority of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, at around 74%, with a small amount of that coming from agricultural transportation. A 2013 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) put the GHG footprint of animal agriculture at 14.5%, making it comparable to the direct emissions of the entire transportation sector as calculated by IPCC, though some researchers think this is an underestimation.
In addition, experts have warned that if the livestock industry continues with business-as-usual, by 2030 it will take up 49% of the remaining emissions budget to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees. The continued growth of the global livestock industry risks exceeding emissions budgets, “limits the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through restoring native vegetation and threatens remaining natural carbon sinks where land could be converted to livestock production.”
Meanwhile, a 2018 report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and GRAIN found that the world’s top five meat and dairy corporations emit more greenhouse gases annually than the largest fossil fuel companies.
Despite the scale of this impact, emissions are only one part of the problem with either the fossil fuel or the animal agriculture industries; climate campaigners have been successful at tarnishing the image of fossil fuel companies not just by highlighting their impact on the climate, but also by showing the other harms and injustices they create.
The world over, fossil fuel production creates environmental injustice. Lands belonging to Indigenous nations are exploited for oil and gas without consent; people of color are burdened with polluting power plants disproportionately sited near their communities; coastal communities have their waters poisoned by oil spills.
Similar injustices also play out in industrial animal agriculture. Industrial animal production facilities are often sited near low-income, minority communities who are subjected to significant air and water pollution. Work in meatpacking facilities, on intensive animal farms, and in abattoirs is tough, low-paid labor, often carried out by vulnerable members of society. In the US, for instance, it is often carried out by women, people of color, and immigrants who have fewer employment opportunities and, as a result, are afraid to speak up about exploitative work practices
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the systemic exploitation of these workers; they have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 outbreaks due to unsafe working conditions. Moreover, industrial animal production facilities themselves are a pandemic risk, with perfect conditions for zoonotic diseases to make the jump from humans to animals.
Industrial animal agriculture also threatens thousands of species with extinction by converting their habitat to agricultural land, while industrial agriculture overall is now a primary driver of environmental destruction in the world. And then there are the livestock animals themselves, brutalized and slaughtered by the billions every year.
Who is already focusing on finance for industrial animal agriculture?
There are several groups working on industrial animal agriculture divestment. Pivot Food supports ‘stakeholders’ such as students to pressure their universities and colleges to divest from companies that operate factory farms. Sinergia Animal runs a divestment campaign targeting development banks such as the World Bank. A campaign called Defund Factory Farming aims to “stigmatize investment in factory farming”. These groups are asking institutions to invest instead in sustainable forms of agriculture or plant-based food companies.
Several NGOs are also looking at finance for industrial animal agriculture and agribusinesses generally through the lens of deforestation. In 2019, research by Global Witness revealed the banks and investors financing agribusinesses responsible for massive deforestation, and a report in 2020 focused on the beef producers like JBS which are causing deforestation in the Brazillian Amazon and the financiers supporting them. Global Witness is focusing its campaigning on this issue on strengthening legislation “to hold businesses and those who finance them to account, requiring them to address and mitigate the deforestation risks of their activities.”
Last year, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) launched its Keep Forests Standing campaign to expose the companies and banks driving deforestation through logging and the expansion of industrial agriculture, calling on them to immediately end these practices.
Feedback launched its Big Livestock Vs. The Planet campaign prior to its report on the banks backing the world’s biggest meat and dairy companies. Its focus is more broadly on industrial animal agriculture, with deforestation as one of several harmful practices of meat and dairy companies that it highlights, and wants to make “funding Big Livestock both unacceptably risky and socially toxic.”
Climate finance campaigning tactics for defunding industrial livestock
Climate finance campaigning has gathered such momentum in no small part because campaigners have known exactly which financiers and investors to target. But this knowledge is not readily available. Finding out which companies a bank is loaning to or an insurer is insuring often requires access to financial databases and rigorous analysis of the information found in them.
For example, the Banking on Climate Change reports by Rainforest Action Network, BankTrack and others, which have been used by campaigners and activists across the world to target major fossil fuel financiers like HSBC and JP Morgan Chase, are the result of trawling through databases such as the Bloomberg Terminal, which requires an expensive subscription, and careful analysis of figures by specialist organizations such as Profundo. This is the sort of in-depth financial research that also went into Feedback’s report. Seasoned climate finance campaign groups are already beginning to use their expertise to conduct more of this kind of research on the funders of industrial livestock companies, which they could expand even further to continue building a picture of those financial flows and monitoring trends.
This does not mean that the methodologies used in reports like Banking on Climate Change can be mapped directly onto the animal agriculture industry. “When we talk about [funders of] the fossil fuel industry, we’re talking big, big targets,” says Mia Watanabe, Big Livestock Campaigner at Feedback. “One institution can be a huge target, whether that’s a university, whether that’s a pension fund. But you’ll see from research in our report that a lot of the financing that goes into the big livestock industry is quite diffuse and quite disparate.”
New methodologies will need to be developed, but there is plenty of experience in climate finance campaigning to draw on. The more this information is made public, the better equipped NGOs will be to mobilize activists against those institutions.
Climate finance campaigners have also delved deeply into the policies that banks and other financial institutions have regarding fossil fuels or to identify which ones have plans in place to reduce or end their support for that industry. Deforestation campaigners have also made policy analysis a focus of their work. While usually publicly available, policies of financial institutions are not always straightforward to understand; analyzing and comparing them can be a complex task.
Articulating Measurable Targets
Giving activists targets to focus on is also only one part of the work that can be achieved with this sort of information. Climate finance campaigners have sat in the offices of the major fossil fuel funders and explained to them why they need to stop supporting the industry. They have learned how to make the case that fossil fuels present a financial risk to their business—language that bankers and investors can understand. Fortunately, groups like Pivot Food and FAIRR are already highlighting the risks of investing in industrial animal agriculture, providing crucial resources to campaigners in the process.
Changing the “Infinite Growth” Narrative
“I think the thing that we really successfully challenged in fossil fuels,” says Charlie Kronick, Senior Climate Advisor at Greenpeace, who has worked on climate finance for years, “was the idea that there was this unlimited demand, would fuel unlimited growth, the financial prospects for that were irrefutable, and therefore, you know, financial actors would always back expansion.”
To replicate that shift successfully for industrial animal agriculture, an industry that similarly aims to keep growing, Kronick suggests that campaigners would need to undercut the industry’s narrative that they are a safe financial bet because there will always be high and growing demand for animal protein. As the alternative protein market grows, cell-cultured meat reaches price parity with meat from animals, and an increasing number of people turn away from industrially produced meat for reasons such as animal welfare concerns and worries about zoonotic disease, this argument will grow even stronger.
Making Emissions Data Public
Financial institutions that want to reduce their climate impact by excluding or scaling back their exposure to industries with high emissions first need to know the GHG footprints of their clients in those industries. But they don’t always have a complete picture of their clients’ emissions, since the clients themselves don’t always do proper emissions accounting. This is beginning to change in the fossil fuel sector, but industrial animal agriculture companies still largely under-count their own emissions by ignoring parts of their supply chains where the majority of emissions are generated.
Reports like the one by IATP and GRAIN can help to fill in this information gap for campaigners to use in their advocacy to financial institutions. They can also evaluate the climate action plans of industrial livestock companies—or point out the lack of any such plans—to use as an additional argument for why financiers should cut ties with those companies, if they are unable to cut their emissions enough. The theory of change is the same for fossil fuels as for industrial animal agriculture, says Kronick, as the banks and other funders “really only have two choices: they either have to get the carbon out of their portfolios by not funding companies that have hugely disruptive impact, or those companies are going to have to change.”
Helping Food and Animal Welfare Campaigners Find New Pressure Points
Divestment and finance campaigning are not the exclusive preserve of climate campaigners who have traditionally been focused on fossil fuels and can be used as a tactic by any group that sees the harms of industrial animal agriculture and wants to change the system, whether that’s for the sake of farmed animals, meatpacking workers, or to protect wildlife habitat from destruction.
There are many routes to achieve those ends, from campaigning for legislative and policy change to educating the public to organizing protests or direct action. For those looking for an additional lever for change, they can always use the tried and tested strategy of following the money.
As more financial institutions are adopting “Paris compliant” targets for reducing the emissions they finance, it makes sense for climate finance campaigners to look not just at fossil fuels, but at all the major activities they fund that are not compatible with climate goals. Moreover, the concern of those campaigners with entangled issues such as environmental justice and Indigenous rights makes industrial animal agriculture a natural target for them, sharing such harmful impacts as it does with the fossil fuel industry.
Finance for industrial animal agriculture is also a significant lever for change for campaigners working to transform the food system on the basis of animal welfare and food justice. As with fossil fuel divestment, the more campaigners and activists challenge the systems supporting industrial animal agriculture, the more likely we are to see the meat executives shake in their boots too.
Written by contributing author Claire Hamlett. A version of this post appeared originally at Sentient Media.
Claire Hamlett is a freelance writer covering animals and the environment. Her writing can be found at clairehamlett.weebly.com.
 Rainforest Action Network (RAN), “Banking on climate change: Fossil fuel finance report 2020,” (2020), https://www.ran.org/bankingonclimatechange2020/.
 Feedback, “Butchering the planet: The big-name financiers bankrolling livestock corporations and climate change,” (July 2020), https://feedbackglobal.org/butchering-the-planet/.
 O. Edenhofer et al., “Summary for Policymakers,” in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. IPCC Working Group III Contribution to AR5 (Cambridge University Press, 2014), http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_summary-for-policymakers.pdf.
 Helen Harwatt et al., “Scientists Call for Renewed Paris Pledges to Transform Agriculture,” The Lancet Planetary Health 4, no. 1 (January 1, 2020): e9–10, https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(19)30245-1.
 GRAIN and IATP, “Emissions Impossible: How Big Meat and Dairy Are Heating up the Planet” (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, July 2018), https://www.iatp.org/emissions-impossible.
 Global Witness, “Beef, Banks and the Brazilian Amazon,” (December 2020), https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/forests/beef-banks-and-brazilian-amazon/.