World Bank tiptoes into fiery debate over meat emissions

The bank has advised wealthy nations to cut subsidies for high-emissions foods but stopped far short of promoting veganism

A chicken farm in Switzerland. The World Bank tip toed into the meat emissions debate.

A chicken farm in Switzerland (Photos: Greenpeace)


The World Bank has called for governments in wealthy countries to shift subsidies from high-emitting to low-emitting foods in a landmark new report, but stopped short of criticising meat or telling people what to eat.

While scientists have long recognised that vegan and vegetarian diets are far better for the climate than typical Western meat-eating ones, governments and international bodies have often shied away from explicit calls for the public to consume fewer animal products.

Experts told Climate Home that diets are an emotive issue. Western politicians and lobbyists opposed to climate action have spread disinformation about green policies that affect food, falsely claiming that governments will limit hamburgers, tax T-bones or make citizens eat low-carbon forms of protein like insects.

Shift subsidies

The bank’s new “Recipe for a Livable Planet” report outlines a “menu of solutions” governments can take to reduce their planet-warming emissions from food production, including using more renewable energy, harvesting food from trees instead of cutting them down, and restoring forests.

It calls on high-income countries, whose diets are most polluting for the planet, to take the lead by providing finance for green measures to low and middle-income nations and by shifting subsidies away from high-emitting food sources like cattle for beef. This “would reveal their full price and help make low-emission food options cheaper in comparison”, the report says.

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Report author William Sutton, the bank’s lead on climate-smart agriculture, told Climate Home an example of a subsidy that is “not necessarily helpful for the environment” is providing free or cheap land for grazing livestock. While Sutton declined to single out countries, the US government, for example, allows cows to graze on public land for a knock-down price.

If subsidies for meat were reduced in line with its “true cost” to the planet, prices would be 20-60% higher, Sutton said. “Allow the price of meat to more accurately reflect its true cost and let consumers decide whether that’s what they want to consume or whether they would rather consume lower-emissions, lower-cost alternatives,” he added.

Options not prescriptions

Despite its report, the World Bank is not keen to be seen telling people what to eat or arguing for veganism. “The approach that we’ve taken is not to be prescriptive – not to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do – but to provide options on what they could do if they should so choose,” Sutton said.

The report contrasts high-emitting foods like red meat and dairy with “low-emission foods like poultry or fruits or vegetables”. While poultry meat, which is mainly chicken, is much less emissions-intensive than lamb or particularly beef, it is more polluting than plant-based proteins, as the report’s data shows.

This table from the report shows that vegan diets are the lowest emissions (Screenshot/World Bank)

Sutton said that changing to a more sustainable diet “doesn’t mean eliminating meat necessarily. It could be switching from beef or lamb to something like chicken or even pork.” But, he added, people “could also switch to soy or other types of beans… That will reduce emissions even more but we don’t think it’s useful to prescribe that.”

Greenpeace EU food campaigner Sini Eräjää agreed that promoting full vegetarianism or veganism is too “black and white”. But, she added, encouraging poultry consumption gives out the wrong message. “I know that there are different kinds of calculations between different kinds of meats,” she said, but “first and foremost we need to change to more plant-based diets”.

Paul Behrens, an environmental change professor at Leiden University, agreed, telling Climate Home that chicken farms drive zoonotic disease and antimicrobial resistance and pollute rivers and air, while poultry feed causes deforestation.

The World Bank still has investments in the meat and dairy sector. Last year, its International Finance Corporation arm loaned $47.3m for a company to develop a pig-rearing complex in China and invested $32.6m in a Brazilian dairy producer, despite opposition from environmentalists.

Asked about this, Sutton said the organisation had to “walk the talk” and had increased its support for adapting farming to climate change and reducing its emissions.

But, he added, the bank does support some investments in livestock “after careful consideration”, if it thinks it can improve a company’s approach by increasing efficiency, cutting emissions, and providing jobs and nutritious food to the poor.

Political hot-potato

Other international bodies have avoided criticising meat too explicitly. Former officials of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have said their employers censored them when they tried to criticise livestock. Meanwhile scientists have accused the FAO of misusing their research to underplay the role that changing diets can play in cutting climate-heating emissions.

In 2021, scientists working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change faced pressure from Brazil and Argentina – two major beef and animal feed producers – to remove from a report a mention of plant-based diets and reduction of meat and dairy consumption as being good for the climate.

Edward Davey, an advisor to the Food and Land Use Coalition, said that national governments in particular “tend to be quite shy about talking about this issue because they fear the political repercussions of being perceived to be telling people what to eat”.

The US government has made no moves to reduce meat consumption but right-wing media outlets like Fox News have falsely claimed that “Biden’s climate requirements” will restrict Americans to “one burger per month”.

The Australian government likewise has no policies to curb meat-eating. But opposition politicians there have spread misinformation that the country signing up to a global methane pledge amounts to a “T-bone tax” and the end of the Australian barbeque.

Greenpeace EU’s Eräjää said she had seen early drafts of European Commission documents that included warnings about red meat’s health impact before those warnings were stripped out of the final version. “Meat is a four-letter word,” she said.

David Powell has researched the issue for Climate Outreach, a group that specialises in communicating effectively on climate change. He said that “what we see as normal to eat is closely linked with our identities and is very personal”.

“For most people, climate arguments alone won’t help persuade them to change what they eat,” he said, adding it is better to talk about the health benefits of eating less meat and dairy in a positive way rather than shaming people.

High-income countries eat more servings of animal-sourced products than the global average

Both Sutton and Davey stressed that the debate over meat-eating is largely a wealthy country concern. People in higher-income regions eat three times as many servings of meat, seafood, eggs and dairy per day than their counterparts in South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Many, many people in the world – typically richer people in wealthier societies but also in unequal middle-income countries – need to eat much less meat for the purpose of their health, as well as for the climate, and many of the world’s poorer people need to eat more animal  protein for their health, well-being and nutrition,” said Davey.

(Reporting by Joe Lo; editing by Megan Rowling)

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