It’s slightly scary to realise that once we’ve seen off the Evil Empire of Big Oil (and we will – but just not soon enough to avoid cataclysmic climate disruption), that there’s another Evil Empire lurking in plain sight which will also need to be seen off – just as fast as is politically possible. The Evil Empire of Big Ag – and Big Meat in particular.

Meat and Dairy sit at the heart of today’s food production system, which is indisputably the greatest force for destruction on Planet Earth today – in terms of:

  • Emissions of greenhouse gases (especially methane and nitrous oxide);
  • Loss of biodiversity (through continuing land and forest conversion);
  • Environmental pollution (both water pollution and impacts on air pollution; particularly through ammonia from manure and fertilisers spread on fields)[1];
  • Poor diets (both through the excessive consumption of animal-based protein and people’s growing dependence on Ultra-Processed Food);
  • Threats to public health (through the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production and heightened risks of various zoonotic diseases);
  • Intolerable levels of cruelty to hundreds of billions of animals reared in factory farms and intensive feedlot systems);

And – not to be forgotten – the erosion of democracy through a nexus of corrupt relationships between global agricultural companies and today’s politicians, epitomised by the scandal of today’s agricultural subsidy system.

That’s some balance sheet. Just to summarise: there is no sustainable future for humankind unless we can dramatically reduce consumption of both meat and dairy products over the next 20 years.

Yet very few politicians are prepared to engage with these issues – even those who have a notionally progressive position on addressing climate change in general.

In that context, think back to Rishi Sunak’s disgraceful (and politically incomprehensible) speech in September, backtracking on a number of important elements in the Government’s “Net Zero” strategy: electric vehicles, heat pumps, energy efficient housing and so on…

As if that wasn’t bad enough, he then grandiosely declared that he would be withdrawing a number of existing government policies – including proposals for a “meat tax”. And doing that specifically to protect all UK consumers wrestling with today’s cost of living crisis.

So dishonest! There is no government policy for a meat tax. There’s been some limited discussion about the idea of different policy interventions that could – theoretically – be introduced to reduce per capita meat consumption, which the Committee on Climate Change has commented on as an aside in one of its reports. But there is no policy. And there have been no official consultations.

The media promptly picked up on this. Why tell such a gratuitous lie in such an important policy announcement – knowing that you’d be picked up on it?

Part of the answer is that Ministers in this Government (including the Prime Minister) don’t care about lying – even if they know that people will go on pointing out that yet another pair of ministerial pants are on fire.

Beyond that, it’s about signalling. Not to consumers, only a fraction of whom will have heard the lie. Not to policy makers, who are all very familiar with such political posturing. At one degree removed, it’s all about reassuring “Big Ag” (made up of meat, dairy, feed companies, processors and so on) that their profit expectations (from so ruthlessly laying waste the planet and undermining public health the world over) are safe in Rishi Sunak’s hands.

(It’s also a bit of signal to Kier Starmer’s chronically risk-averse advisors: “go there at your peril”).

This is juvenile politics at its worse – as in not grown up, deceitful (nothing here for the little people to worry about, and deeply irresponsible – as in let’s see if we can turn meat-eating into the next climate-related political football. But I fear this is the merest skirmish in the wars ahead to defeat the Evil Empire of Big Ag.

A few weeks before Sunak’s ill-advised attempt to weaponize the non-existing policy of a meat tax, a fascinating study from Stanford University was published in the journal One Earth, analysing EU and US agricultural policy-making between 2014 and 2020. Its overall conclusion was simple: “powerful vested interests exerted their political influence to maintain the system unchanged and to obstruct competition created by today’s technological innovations”.

One of its co-authors (Professor Eric Lambin) was quoted at length in the Guardian on August 19th (“Powerful livestock lobbies in US and EU “blocking greener options”):

“The power of the animal farming sector, both in the US and in Europe, and the political influence they have, is just gigantic. We found that the amazing obstacles to the upscaling of the alternative technologies relates to public policies that still massively fund the incumbent system.”

Specifically, the study found that of the huge amount of taxpayers’ money spent on meat and dairy in that period (around £34 billion), just 0.1% went to support plant-based alternatives to the incumbent meat and dairy industries. And that applied to all research and innovation: 97% went to animal farmers, with almost all of those funds aimed at improving production. Only 3% was left over for all those innovators trying to find plant-based and cell-based alternatives to today’s meat and dairy industries.

This extraordinary imbalance confirms analysis by the Food and Land Use Coalition and by the B Team back in 2019, looking at total global subsidies, estimated at “somewhere between $700 billion and $1 trillion a year” – that’s about $1 million a minute! For every dollar spent on measures to reduce the impact of meat and dairy on the environment, $1,200 in the US (and $800 in the EU) are being ploughed into subsidies promoting increased production and consumption of meat and dairy.

The Stanford University report also looked at national dietary Guidelines which have a huge influence on hundreds of millions of meals served in schools, hospitals and prisons. “The researchers found no mention of environmental impact of meat and dairy in US dietary guidelines, nor in all of the EU’s 27 member countries, with four exceptions.”

Which may explain the growing frustration of the World Cancer Research Fund, which recently called not just for changes in those Guidelines, but for “mass media campaigns” (along the lines of the kind of tobacco awareness campaigns that we’re very familiar with) to alert citizens to the dangers of high levels of meat and dairy consumption. Unfortunately, Rishi Sunak must have missed this expert advice as he went to war on woke anti-meat campaigners.

All of which tells me that too narrow a focus on Big Oil may prove very unwise. These two Evil Empires are intricately connected, in terms of the way today’s global economy works, and both are striving with equal determination (with an equally strong hold on corrupt and compliant politicians) to prioritise the interests of shareholders before the interests of the vast majority of humankind.



[1] In one of his typical hard-hitting articles for the Guardian, George Monbiot spells out the full extent of this source of air pollution: “Why do we Keep Voting to be Poisoned?”, Guardian, 23/9/2023