Banks, investors and pension funds have poured billions into the world’s largest meat and dairy companies over the past five years, a new report has found. It compares the environmental impact of “‘big ag” to that of big oil.

The report, published on Thursday, said private financial backing for the world’s 35 largest meat and dairy companies totalled an estimated $478bn (GBP380bn) between January 2015 and 30 April this year.

The financing came in the form of loans, bonds and share ownership from the likes of BNP Paribas, Barclays, HSBC, Prudential UK, Standard Life Aberdeen, Legal & General and UK pension funds, including the Universities Superannuation Scheme and the Railways Pension Scheme.

Scientists have repeatedly expressed alarm over the environmental impact of large-scale food and dairy production and are calling for a transformation of the global food system. They say the current model is responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of freshwater use, with huge reductions in meat-eating essential to avoid climate crisis.

The report by the UK-based campaign group Feedback describes meat and dairy production as a “fundamentally extractive business model” propped up by “vast flows of private finance”. It adds: “There is no version of industrial animal agriculture that is compatible with climate justice and a zero-carbon future.”

Feedback’s executive director, Carina Millstone, said the environmental and biodiversity damage from intensive meat and dairy production was “as bad if not worse” as that of major oil and gas companies.

Dr Tara Garnett, an Oxford University food systems analyst, said “a sole focus on individual consumption practices” was totally inadequate. She called the funding and production of intensive animal protein to provide cheap food “a systemic problem created and maintained by powerful financial interests and by absent, unhelpful and damaging governance”.

Better to be involved and influential, argue financiers

Feedback’s report found that over the past five years HSBC had loaned Brazilian meat companies Marfrig and Minerva more than “$1.8bn and as of April 2020 held shares to the tune of $9m in JBS”. JBS, Marfrig and Minerva have been linked to cattle practices that lead to Amazon deforestation.

An HSBC spokesperson said the bank took its “agricultural commodities policy very seriously” and regularly assessed clients “for commitment to sustainable business practices”. Its agriculture products policy “sets our minimum standards related to the impact on forests from palm oil, soy, rubberwood and cattle farming”.

BNP Paribas, the report points out, has a net-zero deforestation commitment yet Feedback found it was the largest lender to the top 35 animal protein companies.

A BNP Paribas spokesperson said it was difficult to comment without seeing all the data but the bank “regularly strengthens its policies linked to at-risk sectors, ie in the sectors of palm oil, wood pulp and agriculture, to meet the bank’s commitment to zero net deforestation”.

Barclays, said the report, was a “prolific funder of US agribusiness”, providing an estimated $5bn since 2015 in loans and underwriting to companies such as meat producers Tyson Foods and Cargill.

A Barclays spokesperson said it was a “longstanding supporter of the agriculture sector”, that it used its “expertise to support the diversification of the sector”, and that it had made “a firm commitment to align our entire financing portfolio to the goals of the Paris agreement”.

Many financiers argue that it is better to be involved and influential. Asked about its Marfrig investment, a Standard Life Aberdeen spokesperson said that in the past 12 months it had “spoken with Marfrig management twice, specifically on sustainability issues”.

A Prudential UK spokesperson said that it was actively engaging with Amazon fire and deforestation issues and sent a document explaining specific strategies with Marfrig and Minerva Foods. Separately, Minerva Foods said in a statement that despite the challenges of indirect cattle supply chains, it has been part of the Indirect Suppliers Working Group since 2015 and acting to improve risk management. JBS has said it takes a zero-tolerance approach to deforestation in its supply chain.

Pension funds were also singled out for criticism in the report, with Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG), often known as the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth fund, listed as one of the largest shareholders in meat and dairy corporations.

Line Aaltvedt, spokesperson for Norges Bank Investment Management, which manages the GPFG fund, said it had regular dialogues with Brazilian soya and meat companies and with banks in Latin America and south-east Asia about lending policies to any companies that contributed to deforestation.

At a UK level, the report found that the Universities Superannuation Scheme and the Railways Pension Scheme invest in Hormel, which produces Spam.

A spokesperson confirmed by email that RPMI Railpen, the railway pension scheme’s asset manager, had an interest in Hormel Foods. The email said that as a “responsible asset owner” it believed “companies with robust corporate governance structures” were more likely to perform better financially over the long term.

Railpen, it added, was part of a global investor engagement run by investor group FAIRR that encourages the world’s largest food companies to move away from an overreliance on animal proteins.

The Universities Superannuation Scheme said it was actively engaged in Hormel’s animal welfare benchmarking but admitted there was work to be done on its carbon footprinting.

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