Hide table of contents

Nonprofit research organization Faunalytics has released a new study in partnership with Sentient Media: Animal Agriculture Is The Missing Piece In Climate Change Media Coverage. We analyzed recent climate articles from top U.S. media outlets to determine how often the media makes the connection between animal agriculture and climate change when reporting on climate issues, and how reporting on animal agriculture in relation to climate change misses the mark.

Key Findings:

  1. Only 7% of climate articles mentioned animal agriculture and they rarely discussed its impact on climate change. Across the 1,000 articles we examined, only a handful of stories reported in depth on the connection between consuming animal products and climate change. Most articles that mentioned animal agriculture failed to discuss the emissions and environmental degradation caused by the industry, let alone the importance of reducing meat consumption or switching to a plant-based diet to fight climate change. When diets were discussed, the effectiveness of plant-based diets was sometimes downplayed or, more often than not, presented almost as an afterthought rather than a legitimate strategy to mitigate climate change.
  2. The animal agriculture industry is often portrayed as a victim of climate change rather than a significant cause. Our qualitative analysis revealed that instead of citing animal agriculture’s negative environmental impact, climate articles that discussed the industry in any depth generally focused on how climate change is impacting animal agriculture. Multiple articles discussed how flooding, drought, and heatwaves have caused livestock losses both in the U.S. and abroad, and how this affects the livelihoods of farmers, while failing to mention the role that the animal agriculture industry plays in the climate crisis.
  3. There are countless missed opportunities to discuss animal agriculture in the context of climate change. Energy, transportation, emissions, and fossil fuels were given the spotlight in climate coverage: These topics were mentioned in up to 68% of climate articles but were rarely tied to animal agriculture, despite the connections and parallels between them. For instance, transportation is responsible for roughly the same amount of emissions as the animal agriculture industry and is part of that industry, yet just 8% of climate articles mentioning transportation also referenced animal agriculture.
  4. Impactful subsectors of animal agriculture are also not given enough attention by the media. Cattle farming is responsible for about 62% of animal agriculture emissions (FAO, 2022), yet cows were mentioned in just 30% of animal agriculture articles. Similarly, methane came up in 22% of animal agriculture articles despite accounting for 54% of the sector’s emissions. 

Background

For many years now, climate researchers have been warning that the world can’t meet its Paris Agreement climate goals of limiting global warming to 1.5°C without reducing meat consumption. Multiple studies have affirmed that between 11.1% and 19.6% of global emissions come from meat and dairy production, and leading global food and climate agencies are also in agreement, recommending that people, particularly those in the Global North, reduce meat consumption in favor of a plant-rich diet.

The effects of animal agriculture on the environment and climate are vast: It is a leading cause of deforestation, it’s responsible for significant biodiversity loss and pollution, and emits large amounts of greenhouse gases, particularly methane. Methane alone is the cause of over 25% of global warming, for which reason reducing methane emissions is critical. If emissions continue as they are now, the food sector alone is enough to push global warming past that 1.5°C limit, while just reducing meat consumption could get the world much closer to our emissions goal. In the United States, this reduction would mean that the average person would consume about 70% fewer animal products on a daily basis, with the greatest reductions coming from red meat and chicken—92% less red meat and 81% less chicken, according to EAT-Lancet Commission recommendations.

Despite the extensive research supporting the reduction of animal product consumption, there’s long been a disconnect between what the research shows and what the public understands. According to a recent consumer study conducted by Purdue researchers: “The belief that ‘eating less meat is better for the environment,’ which is strongly supported by many climate and environmental researchers, is at an all-time low” (Lusk & Polzin, 2023). The reason for this disconnect is multifaceted, but at least one factor is the information the public receives regarding the connection between animal agriculture and climate change.

Given the role of the media in informing the public about important issues like climate change, this partner project between Faunalytics and Sentient Media sought to understand how the media communicates the environmental implications of animal agriculture to readers. 

Research Team

The project’s lead authors were Constanza Arévalo (Faunalytics) for the quantitative analyses and Jenny Splitter (Sentient Media) for the qualitative findings. Dr. Jo Anderson (Faunalytics) reviewed and oversaw the work.

Conclusions

Not Enough Attention Is Given To Animal Agriculture’s Role In The Climate Crisis

Although all news outlets covered animal agriculture to some extent, the vast majority of climate reporting included in this study—93%—made no mention of animal agriculture. Even the small percentage of stories that did cover animal agriculture mostly failed to make the connection between meat consumption and rising climate emissions and environmental degradation. Most articles only briefly mentioned animal agriculture and, if discussed in greater detail, more often than not it was in terms of how climate change is affecting the animal agriculture industry rather than the other way around. In fact, of all the climate stories analyzed in this study, only a handful explicitly covered animal agriculture’s effects on climate change.

In most stories that touch on animal agriculture, news outlets are missing a critical opportunity to inform readers about the impact of what they eat. The themes most covered by all news outlets were mining, manufacturing, and energy production, emissions, fossil fuels, and transportation, yet these also happened to be the themes that were least likely to be discussed alongside animal agriculture in climate articles. And it isn’t due to a lack of relation between them — for instance, agriculture is the number one source of methane in the world, most of which comes from livestock production, and it’s estimated that 20% of animal agriculture emissions come from the use of fossil fuels along supply chains (FAO, 2013). Furthermore, at a global scale, animal agriculture is responsible for a similar percentage of greenhouse gas emissions as the transportation sector, yet it receives far less coverage in the media.

Although research on this topic is lacking, previous research supports and expands on our finding that there is a tendency for the media to give little attention to how animal agriculture contributes to climate change. 

In addition to finding low coverage of animal agriculture in climate media in the U.S. and United Kingdom, one study found that governments and the large-scale animal agriculture industry are not held as accountable as consumers. In other words, they found more mentions of the need for individual dietary change than to reform government policies or agricultural practices (Kristiansen et al., 2020). 

Another study found that despite scientific consensus on the connection between animal agriculture and climate change, the media often treats it as a debate, presenting both “sides” to an argument that doesn’t really exist (Fry et al., 2022). Consequently, there is evidence that the media is downplaying the role of animal agriculture even when it is discussed in relation to climate change. Research shows that false balance reporting—when journalists present both sides of an issue, even when one side has greater evidence to back it up—can cause people to doubt the scientific consensus on issues like climate change (Imundo & Rapp, 2022), making this a particularly dangerous approach given the seriousness of the issue.

Misinformation And Missing Information In Climate Coverage

Overall, animal agriculture tended to be covered rather briefly, and almost always in the context of another cause of climate change, such as transportation or mining, manufacturing, and energy production, for example. In many of these stories, outlets covered animal agriculture as part of general agriculture or, in some cases, regenerative agriculture—often in ways that included inaccuracies or missing key facts and context about emissions from meat. For instance, in the case of regenerative agriculture, the purpose is to mitigate climate change and environmental degradation. Despite the clear scientific evidence that most agricultural emissions come from livestock farming and that it has detrimental consequences on the environment, over half of regenerative agriculture articles mentioned livestock farming, often in the context of incorporating it into these “climate-smart” practices, without presenting any data about the negative effects of animal agriculture.

In another missed opportunity, many articles brought up the effects of climate change on farmers around the world but failed to consider the global repercussions of U.S. consumption of animal products. For example, meat consumed in the U.S. is often imported, so an increase in demand for beef in the U.S. can result in an increase in deforestation in the Amazon to make room for more cows, increasing emissions in South America and reducing a very important global carbon sink.

The Media’s Role In Communicating Climate Change Information

A study by the Reuters Institute (2022) found that in the U.S., 24% of people pay attention to major news organizations for climate change news, though roughly the same percentage of people say they don’t pay attention to climate change at all. As the researchers from the study acknowledge, polarized politics and media coverage play a role in “driving down interest in and attention to climate change as an issue.” As we saw in this study’s results, political leaning may also play a part in whether animal agriculture is brought up when communicating about climate change—left-leaning media outlets tend to discuss animal agriculture more often than right-leaning ones. However, all news outlets, regardless of political leaning, failed to give enough attention to animal agriculture, let alone discuss its consequences on the environment in depth.

Evidence recently came to light about the meat industry’s influence in blocking the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from recommending plant-based diets to fight climate change. With reports of global significance like this excluding the influence of animal agriculture from their narratives, along with the media failing to properly cover this issue, it’s not surprising that very few people around the world are aware that animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change. They instead think that other human-derived causes of climate change, like transportation, are of much greater concern. 

Through their role in communicating important issues to the public, news outlets have the unique ability to bridge the gap between climate science and public knowledge. However, as this and other studies show, more needs to be done in terms of informing readers about how animal agriculture impacts the environment and the importance of shifting global diets to mitigate climate change.


 

24

0
0

Reactions

0
0

More posts like this

Comments3
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:18 PM

I upvoted this, but I am a bit confused as to the key claim.

It seems you are making an argument about "animal agriculture's contribution to climate is systematically underplayed" but that does not seem super clear from the data.

E.g. 7% media coverage seems about the right ballpark in terms of the significance of the issue (I would wager that there are far more under-represented sectors, such as maritime shipping, steel, or cement), probably there are also many articles on climate change that do not mention sectors at all (e.g. it is not 7% of 100%).

I guess, put differently, what would you see as the right amount of attention on the issue?

All contributing sectors should receive media coverage in some way - at the end of the day we need to be reducing emissions from all contributing sectors. I'd say the main issue is that other than animal ag getting little coverage in climate articles, when it is brought up, there's generally a lack of information regarding how animal ag contributes to climate change. 

We know that animal ag is not only responsible for about 11%-20% of global emissions, but is also a leading cause of deforestation and land degradation. There's also evidence that the food sector alone is enough to put the world past the 1.5C limit, and a significant aspect of this is the consumption of animal products. Yet these are things that were rarely discussed in articles. As a result, any improvement in terms of providing more context about the relation between our diets and climate change would be a step in the right direction.

There were some articles that didn't refer to any particular sectors, but even if we excluded those articles from our calculations, the percentage of climate articles mentioning animal ag would still be quite low. Ideally we'd see animal ag receiving at least as much attention in the media as it's responsible for in emissions.

What do you think about using this research as a basis of a grant application to try and make an LLM that turn out articles that highlight more of the animal agriculture industry's negative environmental/economic impact on the global south?

I wrote about this grant opportunity here

TLDR: The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is offering up to 100k of grant funding per project led by people in Low/Middle Income countries that leverages ChatGPT4 in novel and impactful ways. Proposals are due by June 5, 2023 (window of application is only 2 weeks so likely a much smaller than normal group of applicants)

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities