For the last several years Big Agriculture has tried, with some degree of success, to bamboozle the public into believing it's all in when it comes to combating climate change when, in fact, it ain't.
It's nothing new. Big corporations have been playing the misinformation game for a long time.
Big Tobacco spent billions of dollars to saturate the public with propaganda that denied, deflected, and obfuscated the health risks of smoking. It wasn't until 2017 that a court order required Big Tobacco to air television spots proclaiming smoking kills. But even then Big Tobacco wiggled off the U.S. Justice Department hook by winning concessions. Among them included not having to admit the industry deliberately lied to the public in promotional and advertising campaigns or show lurid pictures of what smoking does to people's lungs and body.
Big Oil took the Big Tobacco playbook and ran with it, efforting to deny the impact of burning fossil fuels on the environment. In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute created the Global Climate Science Communications Team. The plan called for a coordinated effort from Big Oil and pro oil activists to single out the media, demanding in the name of balance they report on uncertainties in climate science. Big Oil provided their own contrarian scientists as expert media sources so that the public would learn the “truth” that climate change was nothing more than a left wing hoax.
In short, by demanding journalistic balance Big Oil turned climate change into a partisan issue.
It was a brilliant PR strategy. In the name of journalistic balance the media were played as suckers, regurgitating Big Oil spin on climate change with little or no pushback.
Polls in the early 1990s showed that roughly 80 percent of Americans accepted human involvement in climate change and that something needed to be done. A 2010 Gallup poll indicated that just 55 percent of Americans thought climate change was a threat.
Big Oil also added a few chapters to the Tobacco PR playbook including making the public believe the corporations responsible for the release of massive greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere were themselves pure and wholesome. For example: In 1998, British Petroleum Amoco shortened its name to BP and in 2000 rolled out its green and yellow sun logo. BP wanted the public to believe the company was leading the charge into a greener world but by and large that hasn't happened.
Now it's Big Ag – mostly led by Big Meat – looking to convince they are all that and a bag of chips when it comes to fighting climate change.
A United Nations 2006 report, “Livestock's Long Shadow,” listed numerous global impacts that could be traced directly to Big Meat. In response, Big Meat has spent billions of dollars trying to convince the public that its environmental footprint isn't responsible for climate change.
And Big Meat, just as Big Oil had before, targeted the media to do its dirty work. Big Meat also roped federal climate change deniers and skeptics into its scheme.
But one of Big Meat's favorite ways of denying its culpability in climate change is greenwashing.
Look no farther than Big Meat behemoth JBS as a prime example. In the spring of 2021, JBS took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times proclaiming that the company will achieve net-zero emissions by 2040. The promise is long on spin and short on details.
And JBS isn't alone when it comes to greenwashing. Meat and dairy want to keep lawmakers focused on sustainability campaigns designed to downplay impacts of carbon dioxide and methane while shouting to the rafters renewable energy efforts to run their operations. Big Meat wants Congress to know farmers and ranchers are increasing food production and using fewer resources.
But what Big Ag is desperate to keep secret from Congress and the rest of us is just how invested the nation's food producers are in green technologies. The Security and Exchange Commission is floating rules that would require large publicly-traded companies – including Big Ag – to reveal the impacts of climate change on their businesses.
One proposed rule would require Big Ag to report to the SEC all Scope 3 greenhouse gasses they emit directly from their operations. Scope 3 emissions include energy purchased and energy from their supply chains. Scope 3 emissions account for roughly 90 percent of all Big Ag greenhouse gas emissions but it largely goes unreported to the federal government.
In order to comply with the SEC rule Big Ag would need to provide an accurate assessment of the energy consumption of the farmers they work with. For Big Ag, that's a bridge too far. Since at least March, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council have been twisting SEC staff and lawmakers’ arms to get Scope 3 reporting requirements tossed on the trash heap.
The Farm Bureau went so far as to publish a post on its website, saying the disclosure rule would put farmers out of business. Big Ag lobbyists and sympathetic congressmen also sent the White House a letter, claiming to President Joe Biden that Scope 3 reporting would somehow limit farmer access to credit. But emission reporting is highly unlikely to impact farmers and ranchers.
The Farm Bureau and farmer-led commodity trade associations are threatening to sue to prevent finalization of the SEC Scope 3 rule suggesting the magnitude of the disclosure requirements requires congressional legislation in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court's major questions ruling this past term in EPA v. West Virginia.
So it's fair to say Big Ag is in an all-out blitz to prevent transparency when it comes to its energy consumption as it relates to climate change. The why is unclear.
Congress needs to ask.
Drag the heads of Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, ADM, Cargill and a few more Big Ag CEOs into a congressional fact-finding hearing. And if they won't come voluntarily, subpoena them.
Far too long Big Ag has misled the public when it comes to fighting climate change.
That must end. Now.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at email@example.com.