Inside big beef’s climate messaging machine: confuse, defend and downplay
The US beef industry is creating an army of influencers and citizen activists to help amplify a message that will be key to its future success: that you shouldn’t be too worried about the growing attention around the environmental impacts of its production.
In particular, it would like you not to be especially concerned about how meat consumption needs to be reduced if we are to avoid the most violently disruptive forms of planetary heating (even if all fossil fuel use ended tomorrow).
It definitely does not want you to read scientific papers showing wealthy nations must reduce meat consumption to keep below the average global temperature rise of 2C, a threshold to stop systems collapse, mass extinctions, fatal heat waves, drought and famine, water shortages and flooded cities.
I know about these industry priorities as I am one of more than 21,000 graduates of a free, by-admission-only, online training course created by the US beef industry called the Masters of Beef Advocacy (MBA) program.
The course is the creation of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the beef industry’s main lobby group, and on completing it I can tell you that you don’t actually get a master’s degree, despite its name.
What you get is multiple misleading – but scientific sounding – narratives about beef industry sustainability and repeated appeals for students to engage proactively with consumers online and offline about environmental topics. Via a private Facebook group for graduates, the NCBA also distributes infographics and industry talking points to deploy in online conversations.
MBA-trained “advocates and spokespeople help educate consumers and influencers about the role of beef in a healthy diet and how beef farmers and ranchers raise beef responsibly and sustainably”, according to one document the Guardian has seen from the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, which earmarked $572,700 for the initiative for 2023.
The Cattlemen’s Beef Board is the organization that oversees the federally enshrined beef checkoff program, which funds industry marketing and promotion through a fee ranchers pay on every head of cattle.
“These advocates also help to respond when there is misinformation in the public about beef production and other beef-related issues,” the document says about graduates of the MBA courses.
My interest in doing the course was to better understand cattle industry messaging at a time when beef’s outsized role in climate crisis is under scrutiny. My experience as an MBA student, in addition to other details I uncovered as I reported this story, led me to conclude that the beef industry is engaged in an all-out public relations war to pre-empt environmental criticisms of its products – and that those PR efforts are increasing.