By Clair Hamlett

Money makes the world go round, as the saying goes, but follow its flow and you’ll often end up at the door of a company responsible for causing and accelerating planetary-scale destruction. In March this year, a report by NGOs revealed that 35 banks have handed trillions of dollars to the fossil fuel industry since the Paris Agreement was signed. Now, a new report by UK-based organization Feedback shows that the world’s largest meat and dairy companies have also received billions from financial firms in the past five years, despite warnings from scientists that consumption of animal products must be drastically reduced to protect the environment and the climate.

For years, climate campaigners have targeted the financial sector—banks, investors, insurers, and pension funds—for bankrolling the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuel divestment movement has made a huge impact, having 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. Off the back of financial research by NGOs, numerous campaigns have sprung up to pressure financial institutions to stop funding fossil fuels.

With many of the same culprits pumping money into agribusinesses, and clear connections between the meat and fossil fuel industries—including their shared exacerbation of climate breakdown, ecological collapse, and environmental injustice—it’s time for climate finance campaigners to expand their scope beyond fossil fuels.

The common ground between meat and fossil fuels

Michael Shank, communications director for Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, recently shared his views in The Hill about how to launch a factory farming divestment movement. He recommends putting the pandemic risk at the forefront: “It’s the human health threat that’ll win the hearts and minds,” he writes. Even if climate messaging needs to take a back seat, there are compelling reasons for climate finance campaigners to stem the flow of money to the meat industry.

Animal agriculture is a major driver of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, and its contribution to climate breakdown is clear. But the ways in which agriculture relies on the fossil fuel industry are discussed less often. Fossil fuels are featured in the entirety of the meat supply chain, powering machinery, transportation, processing, and packaging. The fertilizers and pesticides that industrial agriculture depends on are made using fossil fuels; producing them is both energy-intensive and polluting. There is no way for the world to go fossil-free without overhauling the way food is produced, and without a global shift towards plant-based diets.

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. Many climate finance campaigners are pushing for justice for those hurt by the fossil fuel industry and the chaotic climate it’s helping to create. But if they took a look at the meat industry, they would see similar injustices playing out there too. Factory farms are often sited near low-income, minority communities who are subjected to unhealthy environmental conditions. Work in meatpacking facilities, on factory farms, and in abattoirs is tough, low-paid labor, often carried out by immigrants. As Shank and plenty of others have pointed out, the exploitation of these workers has been highlighted by the pandemic: they have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 outbreaks due to unsafe working conditions. And then there are the animals, brutalized and slaughtered by the billion every year.

Why follow the money?

Several of the agribusinesses with the worst COVID-19 outbreaks featured in the Feedback report, such as Tyson Foods and Smithfield, are the biggest greenhouse gas emitters within the meat industry, as well as the biggest beneficiaries of support from financial institutions. They receive significantly less support from these financiers than the fossil fuel industry does ($478 billion since 2015, according to Feedback, compared to at least $2.7 trillion for fossil fuels over about the same time frame). But the meat industry, like the fossil fuel industry, wants to keep growing. One of the asks of campaigners to financial institutions is for the institutions to stop funding fossil fuel companies that are developing new sources of fuel. The same logic should apply to the meat industry: no support for new farms or growth of existing ones, as a first step to scaling back the industry.

Financial institutions believe they can use their money as leverage over dodgy companies to make them less dodgy. When I was a climate finance campaigner, I often heard banks say “engagement with fossil fuel companies is better than exclusion.” In her Guardian piece on Feedback’s report, Sophie Kevany writes: “Many financiers argue that it is better to be involved and influential.” But that only works for companies that can diversify away from the destructive industry and phase it out completely in a fast enough time frame. Those that can change their business model, to produce renewable energy or plant-based foods, for example, could be supported by financiers to do so within a specific time frame. But that does not describe the majority of fossil fuel companies, nor the majority of agribusinesses covered in the Feedback report. Divestment and defunding campaigns have helped strip the social license of fossil fuel companies and make them reputational liabilities for financiers. The same must be done for factory farms.

As more financial institutions are adopting “Paris compliant” targets (aiming too low, I know) 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. Some groups, such as Rainforest Action Network, have begun to pull the threads of finance, deforestation, and agriculture together. Outside of finance campaigning, animal and climate activists are also beginning to join forces. Can this nascent alliance grow enough to bring factory-farmed meat onto the chopping block next to fossil fuels? If financiers continuing to pump money into agribusinesses were to receive the full fossil fuel treatment, I expect we would soon see the meat executives shaking in their boots too.