Dan Murphy: De-Funding Factory Farms

Large-scale animal production is being targeted by some investor groups. ( FJ )

As animal agriculture fast forwards toward a future in which we’ll all be subsisting on shamburgers and soybeans, the leading cheerleaders won’t be activists, but ‘enlightened’ investors.

After a brief hiatus of sorts, the double f-word is back.

With a vengeance.

Talkin’ about “Factory Farms,” and their (alleged) devastation of the environment at a level, to believe the rhetoric of an entire generation of activists, exceeded only by the collective destruction of the world’s tropical rainforests or perhaps the meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.

In the larger context of blaming livestock producers for raising cattle that are killing the planet, calling out large-scale production facilities for their eco-impact is simply doubling down on the idea that animal agriculture ranks right up there with Hitler, ISIS and the music of Nickelback as a scourge the world could do without.

Supposedly, according to Forbes, a religious text among the investor class, a new breed of private equity investor is going to force industry leaders into a production makeover as a way to forestall the onset of environmental Armageddon.

Putting on the pressure

As Forbes framed it in a recent article titled, “Move Over, PETA: Meat Companies Have a New Thorn In Their Side,” a “growing cadre of investors” now look beyond the bottom line in terms of providing capital to the agricultural and food industries and will soon be marginalizing factory farming by pressuring the downstream players in the retail and foodservice sectors.

One of the leaders in this movement — if that’s an appropriate term — is FAIRR, a consortium of more than 80 investors controlling some $12 trillion in assets. The goal is to start planning for a world where “meat and dairy are no longer the darlings of the food world.”

FAIRR was launched in 2015 by one Jeremy Coller, a private equity manager, ie, a hedge fund boss, who has decided that the environmental impact of meat and dairy are no longer tolerable.

So how is Coller leveraging the $12 trillion he supposedly controls? For starters, he is “sending letters” — presumably strongly worded memos — to such fast-food operations as McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Domino’s encouraging them to set targets for cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions attributed to their meat and dairy supply chains.

Coller’s focus, to be clear, isn’t on the fast-food operators themselves; it’s directed at animal agriculture, demanding that the burger, chicken and pizza chains demand that their suppliers set targets to reduce GHG emission targets discharge into water sources; publicly disclose progress toward those goals; and undertake a climate scenario analysis aligned with the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.

None of that, to be sure, is inappropriate or unwarranted. Every company involved in animal husbandry and/or meat and dairy processing could and should be assessing their operations to ensure that they are pursuing significant reductions of GHG emissions, as well. Further, the growing threat and the emerging effects of climate disruption on farming are serious existential concerns that cannot be ignored.

But the issue with so-called concentrated agriculture, or confinement production, if you prefer, isn’t the size scale or configuration of production facilities. Yes, there are concerns about wastewater discharge, manure management and agricultural runoff impacting surface and groundwater resources.

The solution, however, isn’t to break up larger farms or ranches into multiple smaller operations — research shows that some of the most egregious violations in agriculture occur at small-scale operations, where capitalization is often insufficient to install appropriate water management technologies.

The answer to the legitimate concerns of both these enlightened investors and their activist cheerleaders is implementing improvements in how farms are managed, how manure is stored, handled and processed and how farms and ranches can become energy self-sufficient through utilization of both crop and animal wastes.

Maybe Coller could cough up some of his trillions to help with that.

In the interim, he’d be well-served to work toward a world where meat and dairy remain essential food products for the seven billion-plus people who rely on them for nutrition and in many cases for sustenance.

Even as “influential” investors, such as the members of FAIRR, take aim at reducing (or eliminating) livestock production as their idea of a forward-thinking solution to climate change, there’s virtually zero discussion of how the world is supposed to supply the massive increase in plant protein that they’ve penciled in as a net zero carbon-contributing alternative to animal foods.

You’d think a smart guy like Jeremy Coller would not only have figured out how to do that, but as he demands of the food industry, would be totally transparent about sharing that plan publicly.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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