Cow on a factory farm looking into the camera.

Mooove On: The World Bank Needs a Climate Change Reality Check



The World Bank, one of the largest public finance organizations helping to fund economic development around the world, has issued a climate plan for food. Sadly, the Bank’s narrow focus on addressing cow production is telling an outdated story that will keep the harms of factory farming in place.

Let’s be clear: when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector, cows exploited for meat and dairy are a big part of the problem–but far from the single culprit. Sadly, discussions addressing the impacts of intensive animal agriculture on climate change and global emissions levels continue to single out just one factory farming sector. This severely limits the scope of the problem and, thus, inhibits the development of truly meaningful solutions.

Most recently, a major report released in early May by the World Bank—an international agency tasked with directing money from participating governments to projects that alleviate poverty, help feed the world, and promote local livelihoods—issued a call for wealthy nations to reduce financial support for livestock farming in order to help tackle global pollution. Unfortunately, this call includes promoting the intensive raising and slaughter of billions of other farmed animals, such as pigs and chickens, instead.

In a nutshell, the Bank is focusing solely on urging governments to reduce spending on cattle farming while leaving other environmentally destructive forms of animal agriculture out of the conversation. This narrow framing that singles out cows alone distracts from the many intersectional impacts and harms of intensive animal agriculture, regardless of the species.

Yes, milk and beef from cows are extremely emissions intensive and should be significantly reduced, if not eliminated.

It is estimated that producing 100g of beef from cows emits over 20 times the greenhouse gas levels compared to 100g of veggie burger. A glass of whole cow’s milk emits nearly four times the GHGs of a glass of almond milk. It is clear that governments should not continue directing resources to these sectors and establish policies that instead support the production of less harmful foods.

All animal products are emissions-intensive relative to most plant-based whole foods. 

But products from intensive farming of cows are not the only animal products currently produced and consumed in enormous quantities and causing immense damage. Factory farming of chickens, pigs, fishes, and other animals is taking an enormous toll on our climate and ecosystems and cannot be ignored. An estimated 77% of global farmland is used to feed and raise farmed animals. This includes land used to grow crops—primarily corn and soybeans—as feed for the millions of pigs and billions of chickens suffering in factory farms around the world. This feed supply chain is the primary source of emissions and deforestation attributed to chicken and pig production. In contrast, plant-based foods are actually a low emissions and low resource food. A plant-based hot dog, for example, emits six times less GHGs than a chicken-based hot dog and 60 times less GHGs than a cow-based hot dog.

Focusing on emissions fails to account for the myriad ways factory farming is destroying our planet and communities.

As noted above, the full supply chain from feed production through slaughter and consumption for all animal-based products has many negative impacts along the way. Corn and soy plantations growing animal feed use massive amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers that leach into soil and waterways, threatening local wildlife. The enormous volumes of waste generated by factory farms pollute the air and water of nearby communities, often communities already marginalized by systemic injustice who are put at higher risk of certain illnesses and cancers by the noxious particles. And, of course, this system is causing horrendous suffering for all animals forced into it, regardless of whether that sector has the highest relative emissions or not. 

Adding billions of animals to the system is not an acceptable tradeoff for achieving climate goals.

The greatest risk from The World Bank and others over-spotlighting and narrowly focusing on the emissions intensity of factory farming cows is that food companies will view increasing other animal-based products as a viable solution. Referring to chickens and fish as “lower-emissions” foods is not only inaccurate, but it could also mean confining and killing billions more individual animals every year. Each of those lives is a sentient, unique, and sensitive individual who does not deserve to suffer the stress, pain, and terror of factory farming.

The real climate solution is plants and other innovative animal-free options!

This Bloomberg article perhaps says it most clearly:

“There’s no question that vegans and vegetarians have a smaller food-related carbon footprint than people who consume meat and dairy.”

Learn how to make small changes for your own plate and big changes for your community by signing up to be a Plant-Powered Changemaker.

Act Now 

More about