Big Meat leaves ‘a huge cow-shaped hole’ in big banks’ climate commitments, new report finds

On meat and milk packaging in the grocery store, you’ll see red barns and fields of grass and country lanes. But most of the animal products we buy actually come from a few enormous multinational corporations that reap billions in profits as small-scale farmers lose money.

Although you’ve probably heard of a few of these companies, most of the meat, dairy, and feed corporations operate largely out of sight of the public. Big Meat and Dairy is a $1.5 trillion global mega-industry; and like other global industries, it depends on financing from enormous U.S. banks for its expansion.

Big banks make Big Meat and Dairy possible. And U.S. banks’ financing of industrial livestock production is not only fueling the climate crisis, it’s also undermining the banks’ own stated commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s time for the banks to get serious about their own climate goals–and pull their money from giant meat, dairy, and animal feed corporations.

During the past year, we and a group of our colleagues studied U.S. bank financing of global meat, dairy, and feed corporations and the associated climate impacts. We just released our findings in a new report, Bull in the Climate Shop: Industrial Livestock Financing Sabotages Major U.S. Banks’ Climate Commitments.  

Our research shows that between 2016 and 2023, the top 58 U.S.-based financiers poured more than $134 billion into meat, dairy, and feed corporations. More than half of that money came from just three banks–Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase.

Bank of America responded to our request to discuss the report and its findings, and we have since engaged in a dialogue with the bank. Neither Citigroup nor JPMorgan Chase have responded to our request. None of the three have announced financed emissions reduction targets for livestock or the agriculture sector more broadly.

These banks could easily end their support of this climate-damaging industry. Meat, dairy, and feed corporations take up just a tiny fraction (about 0.25%) of the banks’ lending portfolios all while causing almost 11% of their climate pollution. In other words, banks could take a giant step toward meeting their climate commitments by making a minuscule change in their overall portfolios.

The major banks say they’re committed to doing their part for the climate and have joined initiatives like the Net Zero Banking Alliance. With respect to some sectors, they have committed to reducing the emissions generated through their financing. But they’re ignoring a huge cow-shaped hole in their climate commitments by continuing to fund Big Meat and Dairy.

Citigroup, for example, recently announced the bank was declining to set emissions reduction targets for agriculture, citing the “complexities” of the sector. This is despite their existing commitment to set targets for agriculture by the end of 2024 and widespread acknowledgment that climate risk is financial risk. The time for hand-wringing and stalling is over.

The climate impact of these banks’ choices is significant. Together, the 56 largest global corporations involved in meat, dairy, and feed production generate more carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions (CO2e) each year than the entire country of Japan, the world’s eighth largest emitter. Not to speak of pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, land and labor rights violations, providing breeding grounds for infectious diseases, increasing antimicrobial resistance, and, of course, causing intolerable cruelty to animals.

The U.S.-based lenders reviewed for our research helped drive 63.1 million metric tons of CO2e emissions in 2022 alone through their financing of meat, dairy, and feed corporations–as much as all the cars registered in California. On their own, Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase financed 24.4 million metric tons of these CO2e emissions. And that’s actually undercounting, since many meat, dairy, and feed corporations don’t report their emissions at all, leave indirect emissions (the vast majority) out of their totals, or even allegedly tout fake emissions reduction claims to boost sales.

What’s more, meat and dairy emissions are actually much worse for the planet than those from other sectors because a large portion of these emissions are methane (which is produced by animals belching and manure), and methane has unique properties. It’s easy to joke about cow burps, but, in fact, methane is extremely harmful to the climate, with 80 times the impact of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

The solution is actually quite simple: U.S. banks should stop funding the expansion of Big Meat and Dairy to give the world a significant boost toward meeting the emissions targets that will help our children and grandchildren weather the escalating climate crisis.

Monique Mikhail is the agriculture and climate finance campaigns director at Friends of the Earth U.S. Ward Warmerdam is a senior researcher at Profundo.

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The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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