Despite its own increased climate ambitions and net-zero emissions commitment, the EU has spent some €143m to promote European meat products in the past five years alone.
That’s according to data provided by the European Commission and analysed by EUobserver.
Yet calls to stop promoting meat consumption, both across the bloc and abroad, have only increased since the commission started revising the EU’s agricultural promotion policy — expected in the next few months.
The EU’s promotion policy is funding campaigns run either by trade associations or the EU itself to promote agricultural products in member states and further afield.
One-third of the cash for the period 2017-2021 (€271.4m) was spent on the promotion of “baskets” of products — of which almost all included meat products.
By comparison, around €117m was used for ads of fruits and vegetables.
The €3.6m ‘Proud of Beef’ campaign from 2019, for example, supports the idea of becoming a “Beefatarian” to promote “balanced, healthy diets”.
But reducing or abandoning meat consumption has become one of the touchstone issues of the climate crisis in Europe, as the impact of a high meat-intake and livestock farming on climate change becomes ever more apparent.
“Without reducing and cutting down on meat consumption and the associated high-intensity agriculture systems, we will not be able to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees. That is very clear,” the scientist and co-chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Hans Poertner, told a group of MEPs in March.
Overall, red meat consumption in the EU is estimated to be twice as high as the recommended levels for the environment.
In 2020, the EU announced a revision of the agri-food promotion policy under the Farm to Fork strategy to shift towards a more plant-based diet that would be beneficial for both human health and the planet.
One option would be to stop using EU funds to promote food products that are not produced sustainably — with wine and meat in particular under the spotlight.
But 11 EU member states have been lobbying against a more climate-oriented policy, arguing that the promotion policy should above all support industry competitiveness.
Earlier this year, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal and Spain said that the promotion policy should not exclude any products, or sectors such as meat or wine.
“If we stop promoting EU products such as for example meat or wine, consumers will reach for similar products outside the EU of significantly lower standards,” they said.
The same message was also echoed by the agriculture ministers of 19 EU member states shortly after. And EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski recently said that the EU is not planning to reduce meat production in the bloc.
“Dietary choices remain a personal matter,” Wojciechowski said in a tweet that was deleted shortly after — without any explanation.
Meanwhile, internal documents show that 80-percent of citizens and organisations taking part in the public consultation run by the commission on its policy review asked to exclude products not in line with sustainability goals or plant-based diets.
Fact and figures
The EU’s promotional programmes are divided into two categories: ‘simple’, meaning they were requested from one or more organisations in a single EU member state, and ‘multi’, i.e. cross-border.
In 2017, some €15m from the EU budget for simple projects were allocated to meat programmes annually. That increased to €22m in 2018 and €20m in 2019, before being reduced to €14m in 2020 and €10m in 2021.
For cross-border projects, some €17m were granted to meat programmes annually. That decreased to €8m in 2018 but jumped to €18m in 2019, before being reduced to €5m in 2020 and €8m in 2021.
Among the EU budget for simple projects, campaigns promoting fruit and vegetables in 2018 (€30m) and 2019 (€22m) received slightly more funding than any other category. In 2017, cross-border campaigns promoting only meat also received slightly more funding than any other category.
Overall, the EU is spending more on campaigns targeting countries outside its borders — a trend that also applies to campaigns promoting European meat.
Simple and cross border meat-eating campaigns targeting non-EU countries outside the internal market received €77m in the past five years, while those targeting the EU market received only €66m.
Some of the most-targeted countries include China, the United States, Canada and Japan.
‘No subsidies for meat consumption’
Experts and campaigners argue that funding meat consumption is incompatible with EU climate goals, since livestock is estimated to produce 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“There is no justification for using EU funds to prop up meat sales,” Nick Jacobs, head of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, told EUobserver.
The EU, Jacobs said, should stop sending “mixed messages” and instead accelerate the transition toward less but better meat consumption in Europe.
“What’s needed is targeted support for sustainable livestock farming — not blunt tools like meat promotion,” he added.
For his part, Linus Mattauch from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School and the Technical University of Berlin says that “there is no rationale to use subsidies for meat consumption in 2022”.
He argues that the trajectory of meat production and consumption in high-income countries is unsustainable and solutions such as a ‘meat tax’ could help reduce consumption.
The EU’s promotion policy plan for 2022 for the first time makes a reference to plant-based diets as a criterion for awarding promotional grants inside the EU.
This innovation came after the EU cancer plan acknowledged that red and processed meat is linked to cancer risks.
Nevertheless, this only applies within the EU, which means that campaigns targeting non-EU countries are still not subjected to this criteria — which campaigners for animal welfare dubbed “double standards”.
“Different criteria seem to run the risk of creating loopholes and a double standard which seems difficult to understand,” said Camilla Björkbom, a campaigner from Eurogroup for Animals.
She added that standards should be aligned for products on the internal market and beyond the EU borders.
Björkbom said the revision of the promotion policy should be used to boost ads for plant-based protein for human consumption as well as meat and dairy alternatives.
Nine million tonnes of meat
The PR campaigns seem to achieve tangible results. The EU ranks first in the global export of pork, eighth in the global export of beef and third in the global export of poultry. These exports have been steadily increasing during the last decade, but especially in the last two years.
The EU annually exported more than 9m tonnes of beef, pork and poultry, as well as meat from sheep and goats in 2020 and 2021 — over a 30 percent increase in exports compared with 2019, according to data provided by the commission and analysed by EUobserver.
This is especially the case for pigmeat, the EU’s bestseller, representing more than 60 percent of all EU meat exports. Exports of pigmeat reached an all-time high in 2021, with almost 6m tonnes being sold to the rest of the world.
China is one of the most attractive markets for European meat-exporters, although countries such as Ukraine, Ghana, Japan and the Philippines are also among the most important buyers of EU meat.
These exports were worth almost €23bn in 2021.
That revenue also exceeds spendings on imported meat — by far. Last year, the EU achieved an export surplus of almost 520 percent, showing the power of European livestock producers in the global market.
This has severe consequences for the climate because the production of meat is much more carbon-intensive than other food products.
Pigmeat exports from European countries in 2021 caused greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to about 72.2 million tonnes of CO₂. The whole city of Paris had a carbon footprint of 78 million tonnes in 2013.