The media is underreporting the link between factory farming and climate change

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The co-author of a new study speaks to The Vegan Review about how the UK and US media is underreporting the link between factory farming and climate change.

Leading media outlets in the UK and US underreport the link between animal agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions, the drivers for global warming, a new study shows. Only around 4% of the articles about global warming analysed in the paper mention animal agriculture.

“We know that in many countries, public awareness of the link between animal agriculture and climate change is low. One of the reasons for that is that the media, until recently, have not paid the issue much attention,” James Painter, one of the study’s authors told The Vegan Review. He is an external collaborator on the LEAP project in Oxford Martin School.

The study reveals that the media mentioned consumer responsibility more than governments’ or industries’. In the same fashion, media solutions regarding meat consumption were related to personal choices such as diet or shopping habits. Nonetheless, the main cause mentioned is greenhouse gas emissions, over three times higher than land use or animal killing.

The study, published in the Routledge Studies in Environmental Communication and Media, analysed articles published between 2006 and 2018, which firmly mentioned climate impacts due to animal farming emissions. The researchers chose four media outlets — two from the UK and two from the US — one left-leaning and one right-leaning in each country. Those were the Guardian and the Telegraph, and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, respectively.

“These two titles are two of the most used and trusted online sites for news in the UK”, Painter said. “So we can be pretty sure that we are getting a pretty good picture of what is happening in media coverage amongst elite news consumers.”

As the saying goes, the media is effective in setting what people think about, not so much their opinions. Another paper mentioned in the study highlights the weak connection between farming and climate change, compared with other sectors. In a survey of 1,000 participants in 12 countries, over two-thirds of respondents identified direct transport emissions as a contributor to climate change rather than meat and dairy production.

It’s worth saying that, in both countries, the left-leaning newspapers covered the link between farming and greenhouse gases emissions almost in a ratio of one to three. Also, in the UK, the Guardian mentioned it more than twice the number of times as the Telegraph. Therefore, the peaks seen in 2009, 2015 and 2018 are mostly driven by the Guardian.

climate change underreportingThe Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN estimates that the global impact of animal agriculture in emissions of GHG is 14.5% — more than the transport sector worldwide. And that’s leaving aside consequences such as land use, biodiversity impact, water use, et al.

The solutions that the papers propose are mostly individual. Following academic literature guides, the report sorts them in 13 categories: with an overwhelming majority mentioning personal dietary changes such as reduction of meat consumption or switching to veganism. Those are mentioned many more times than, for example, taxes, laws or industry changes.

Nonetheless, Painter thinks that the media camping has changed — at least a little — the general behaviour: “I am aware that some surveys suggest that particularly young people are eating less or no red meat.”

PETA director Elisa Allen says: “The media isn’t doing enough to help the public connect the dots between animal agriculture and environmental issues. This is why PETA uses colourful displays — like melting ice sculptures — to support vegan-friendly meals in schools, hospitals, and prisons.”

She adds: “We encourage the public to reduce — or better, eliminate — their consumption of animal-derived foods”. 

The Vegan Society, on the other hand, says: “Many organisations have released reports calling for a global shift towards a plant-based diet. As veganism continues to gain momentum globally, the media are beginning to make the connection between animal agriculture and the climate emergency.”

Painter thinks that the reason for such poor coverage by the major media outlets is a lack of will for change. He mentions a reluctance from quoting sources like governments, politicians and environmental NGOs to advocate policies in this area. Perhaps, the paper says, a dietary change is harder to “sell” than changes on energy sources or transport.

However, environmental affairs have risen in the media lately, and people have changed their interests. If coronavirus and Brexit will too, we’ll see more coverage about veganism and climate change.

Juanele Villanueva
Juanele Villanueva
Juanele Villanueva is a freelance journalist passionated with Environment Affairs. He is originally from Spain and started to be interested in the Environment and sustainability when he was in his masters at the University of Salford. His goal is to share stories which change the general belief that being eco-friendly is just for wealthy people. Moreover, the vegan diet is the easiest step that everyone can do to reduce its environmental footprint. He is also interested in conservationism, recycling, renewable energies and environmental policies