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An extra helping of scrutiny

Tomato inspected with magnifying glass

Some food businesses are starting the feel the heat of climate change activists and are committing sustainability pledges, but not enough. 

One curious thing about climate debates is the relative lack of attention paid to food and ag. It might not feel that way if you work in the sector, but consider the numbers involved. Agriculture alone generates 10 percent of U.S. emissions, about as much as all the nation’s passenger cars combined. Yet tailpipe emissions are more often blamed for the climate crisis than those from fertilizer or burping cattle.

There are multiple reasons for this, but whatever the causes, it’s clear that this era of inattention is ending. Food companies are beginning to have their emissions plans — or lack of them — scrutinized in far more detail. There will be more naming and shaming. For organizations that are lagging on sustainability, this shift presents a major reputational risk. 

Last month, for instance, a team of New York University researchers released the results of their analysis of 35 large meat and dairy firms from multiple countries. The team found that:

  • Only four of the 35 have committed to achieving net-zero emissions. (Although at least one more, Brazilian meat giant JBS, has done so since the data was collected.)
  • Mitigation efforts in the sector focus on carbon dioxide, not methane emissions — even though the latter drives more global warming. 
  • All 10 U.S. companies in the analysis have lobbied to undermine climate-related policies.

"U.S. beef and dairy companies appear to act collectively in ways similar to the fossil fuel industry, which built an extensive climate change countermovement," the authors concluded.

This kind of analysis can seem overly general, because companies are not monoliths. Here at GreenBiz, we’ve worked with people from several that are singled out in the report, including Tyson and Cargill. I know how committed these individuals are to sustainability. We’ve highlighted the work they and their companies are doing on regenerative agriculture, for example. But that shouldn’t stop anyone involved from asking tough questions about the overall impact of these companies and the industry itself. And it’s that kind of questioning that we’re going to see more of.

Another example comes from Morgan Stanley, where the team ranked five large aquaculture companies on emissions, antibiotic use and other environmental metrics. Then the analysts named names: Norwegian company SalMar got the best scores on almost all metrics; its compatriot Mowi had the lowest scores across the board. Analysts at the nonprofit Planet Tracker have done related work in a series of reports on the progress and shortcomings of seafood companies.

U.S. beef and dairy companies appear to act collectively in ways similar to the fossil fuel industry, which built an extensive climate change countermovement.

A growing number of public databases track environmental performance. CDP, a nonprofit that runs a global disclosure system for companies and other organizations, releases an annual "A list" of companies it defines as leading on sustainability. (Danone was the only food company to get top marks in 2020.) But the CDP database also can be used to identify companies that appear to be falling short. For example, two major U.S. food brands — Dean Foods and Post Holdings — have no recent disclosures in the CDP database.

Food companies have long been attacked by Greenpeace, Mighty Earth and other activist organizations. But this newer criticism is different in nature: more analytical; less attention-seeking; and with greater emphasis on policies and business strategies. This scrutiny has been ramping up since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced a special report on land use in 2019. And we’ll see more as we approach two big events this fall: the UN Food Systems Summit and the UN Biodiversity Conference. Activist campaigns catch the attention of the press and the general public. This newer work makes less of a splash but reaches an influential audience of investors and policymakers. 

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