In vintage films, deadly cigarette smoke wafts through the glitz, glamour and gray tones like a poisonous fog. But that was considered normal. Smoking was once a popular activity endorsed by doctors. Times change—but not without resistance.
The world’s biggest tobacco companies notoriously conspired to deceive the public about the health risks of smoking and secondhand smoke, distorted the addictiveness of nicotine and even claimed that some cigarettes were safer than others.
Taking a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, the global meat industry is downplaying its role in the climate catastrophe and is denying the adverse health effects of consuming animal flesh, a new investigation has revealed.
Environmental news organization DeSmog pored over hundreds of documents and statements and found that the global meat industry is waging a greenwashing PR campaign, underreporting its greenhouse-gas emissions, attacking science that links factory farming to climate change, disparaging vegan meat and more.
In other words, Big Meat is behaving much like Big Tobacco. Eating meat is the new smoking.
DeSmog isn’t the only whistleblower. Research from New York University also shows that U.S. meat and dairy companies have spent millions of dollars campaigning against climate action and propagating doubt about the links between animal agriculture and the climate catastrophe.
Yet, climate experts have spoken. According to the United Nations (UN), the meat industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all of the world’s transportation systems combined. And figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that animal agriculture is the single largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.
Plus, using land to grow crops for animals is inefficient and unsustainable. It takes almost 20 times less land to feed a vegan than a meat-eater, since plants are consumed directly. Think of all the forest reserves we could have instead of cultivated crops for animal feed.
The meat industry also uses an enormous amount of water. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of beef—but just 244 gallons to produce 1 pound of tofu. By going vegan, one person can save approximately 219,000 gallons of water a year.
No wonder the UN says a global shift toward vegan eating is essential to combating the worst effects of the climate catastrophe.
And just as tobacco companies once denied the adverse health effects of smoking—even as the evidence stacked up against cigarettes—Big Meat is now following suit.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report listing processed meat as a group 1 human carcinogen. This classification also includes tobacco smoking. In addition, red meat was labeled “possibly cancer-causing.” The meat industry, using the same tactics as Big Tobacco, condemned the WHO report. Yet research suggests that vegans are between 25 and 50% less likely to get cancer than meat-eaters.
Tons of peer-reviewed research published in the most respected scientific journals has shown that vegans also have a decreased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, diabetes and other health conditions. In addition, a recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School and King’s College London found that consuming a high-quality vegan diet can even help protect against COVID-19.
The meat and tobacco industries have a vested interest in preserving their profits instead of investing in change for the benefit of public health. But times do change, and sales of vegan foods have grown by 45% in the last two years alone—with no signs of slowing down. Brands like Beyond Meat, Gardein and MorningStar Farms are proving that eating vegan can be easy and delicious.
Perhaps one day, our descendants will watch films from our era and cringe at all the meat consumed.
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Rebecca Libauskas is a Staff Writer in the PETA Foundation’s Written Communications department.