9th Dec 2023


How 'Big Meat' lobbies Brussels to keep carnivore status quo

  • While Big Pharma firms spend some €36m a year in Brussels, according to Corporate Europe Observatory, Big Agri spends over €50m (Photo: Chris Isherwood)
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"It's not about banning meat — that's not the point," says Marco Contiero, who works in Brussels on agriculture for Greenpeace, an NGO and leading advocate of more plant-based food.

"But in China, they're building skyscrapers of pigs. It's insane. That's where things are headed, so we need to change direction," he added.

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  • Marco Contiero: 'It's not about losing something we love. That's really not the point. It's about reducing the quantity and improving the quality of meat in European diets' (Photo: Greenpeace)

Contiero grew up in Padua, in northern Italy, where meat is a time-honoured part of native cuisine. His favourite recipe is canederli (a kind of meatball) and he and his family eat organic meat once every 10 days or so, he told EUobserver.

But for all the Paduan's love of traditional food, the scientific verdict is in: eating meat once or twice a day — the way many Europeans do and Chinese people aspire to — is ruining the planet due to the methane, ammonia, and nitrogen emissions of the dystopian-scale farming required to feed our appetite.

And that's on top of damaging your health and causing animal suffering.

It's been proved in studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Oxford University in the UK and Wageningen University in the Netherlands. And it's been written about ad nauseam by the World Health Organisation and in prestigious titles such as The Lancet, a British medical journal.

That makes the 'Big Meat' lobby in Brussels just as toxic as Big Tobacco or Big Oil and climate-change denial.

But if you thought oil and tobacco were influential, Big Meat is in a league of its own.

Only one of the world's top 10 meat producers, Brazil's Cargill, has an office in Brussels. It spends up to €500,000 per year.

Most other meat-producers lobby the EU via trade bodies such as Beef and Lamb New Zealand, the Dutch Meat Association, or the Danish Bacon and Meat Council.

There are about 40 of these in Brussels with combined spending of more than €5m a year — an Italian sausage group, the Istituto Salumi Italiani Tutelati, spends €500,000 alone.

But that's just the beginning.

Big Pharma companies, which make the chemicals and medication that enable industrial farming, such as Bayer and BASF, are broadly pro-meat. Big Agri also generally lobbies for EU diets to stay the same.

Big Pharma firms spend some €36m a year in Brussels, according to Corporate Europe Observatory, an NGO. Big Agri spends over €50m.

"All of industry suddenly goes up in arms if anyone says there's a scientific problem with meat," Contiero said.

Taken together, the meat-axis message to EU officials, diplomats, and MEPs is that there would be economic devastation and famine if Europeans switched to plant-based foods.

Just like Big Tobacco and Big Oil, they "greenwash" their sector via minor investments in sustainability, while at the same time paying scientists-for-hire to attack the IPCC or Lancet findings in industry-funded media.

And it's working.

Most MEPs in the European Parliament's agricultural committee are keen to water down an industrial-emissions directive that would impose new restrictions on cattle farmers and smaller pig and poultry producers.

And a revision of the European Commission's "promotion policy", which dictates what kind of food it can advertise, has been delayed for over a year, meaning the EU's still paying for projects such as the 2020 "Become a Beef-atarian" campaign.

The lobbying is working not just because of the PR millions or the substance of pro-meat propaganda, which is easy to debunk.

One Big Meat line-to-take, for instance, is that the Ukraine war means the EU should protect vulnerable meat producers for the sake of food security. But numbers show the war has had a minimal impact on the sector — the EU uses 38.2m tonnes of wheat a year for animal feed, but imported just 1m tonnes of this from Ukraine before Russia invaded.

The lobbying is working because it's preaching to the converted.

Several MEPs on the agricultural committee are themselves farmers or land owners, despite the "blatant conflicts of interests" that creates, Contiero noted.

The biggest political group in Brussels, the European People's Party, has also "clearly taken a decision that the farming and rural community are an important electoral base", he added.

They represent the EU establishment and their influence on Europe's power structures is as old as its aristocracies.

"Europe's principle landowners are some of the same noble families that date back to feudal times. For more than 1,000 years these same people have had direct contact with power," Contiero continued.

The entrenched sense of entitlement is why when dairy farmers vandalise EU buildings in Brussels in boozy demonstrations, the Belgian police treat them with kid gloves, he said.

And Europe's rightwing populists are even more carnivorous, pushing an ideology that bakes meat-eating into the same pie of identity politics that also contains nationalism, xenophobia, and homophobia.

Woke culture wars

In Contiero's home country, the populist government of prime minister Giorgia Meloni proposed a ban on lab-grown meat in March — in the name of protecting the Italian way of life.

"They portray new ideas [such as plant-based food] as an attack on traditional lifestyles, using the same rhetoric that hammers migrants or LGBTI people," he said.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, China opened its first vertical (26-storey) pig farm last November.

But if that's not the direction you want the EU to keep following as populations grow, then you're labelled a "vegan radical" in today's culture wars, Contiero said.

"It's not about losing something we love. That's really not the point. It's about reducing the quantity and improving the quality of meat in European diets," he said.

"Speaking of tradition, we need to go back and value livestock farming the way we used to, instead of eating bad, cheaply produced meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the year," the Greenpeace campaigner said.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, Alt-Protein: Eating away climate change?, which you can now read in full online.


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