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Cows, climate, and the media

CSS Publication Number
Full Publication Date
May 15, 2015

With the shift toward large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), media coverage of livestock production has focused on issues ranging from livestock-borne diseases to worker’s rights to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The latter is particularly important given growing evidence for anthropogenic climate change and its connection to livestock production (Steinfeld et al., 2006). Continued public uncertainty about anthropogenic climate change, however, threatens the adoption and enforcement of appropriate mitigation and adaptation policies (Leiserowitz, 2006; Boykoff, 2007). As media representations of climate science have in part fueled climate skepticism, analysis of how the media portrays different climate-related issues is required if scientists and policymakers are to improve their engagement and communication with the public. Doing so will help secure broader-based public support for climate policy. Yet despite livestock production’s sizeable contribution to GHG emissions, academic literature lacks systematic media content analysis of how the media cover the livestock-climate change connection. This chapter addresses this gap by comparing media coverage of livestock production’s contribution to climate change with broader coverage of other livestock-related issues. This is followed by a deeper analysis of how the media has represented the livestock-climate change connection. The food system’s contribution to climate change is often framed in terms of food miles. However, the global transportation sector emits less than livestock production, which contributes up to 18 percent of world GHG emissions and accounts for nearly 80 percent of all agriculture-related emissions (Steinfeld et al., 2006). Deforestation associated with grazing and feed production (e.g. corn and soy) underpins livestock’s climate change impact (Gill, Smith, and Wilkinson, 2010). Additionally, livestock’s digestive systems and manure produce GHGs such as nitrous oxide and methane (Steinfeld et al., 2006). CAFOs also have large heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation and waste disposal energy demands, which also increase GHG emissions (Lappé and McKibben, 2010). Cattle (including beef cattle and dairy cows sent to slaughter) are the largest livestock-based source of GHG emissions. These emissions vary considerably according to type of animal, method of production and the geography of where the animals are raised and slaughtered. The livestock industry faces growing pressure to mitigate these emissions and has responded with an array of preventative and ‘end of pipe’ approaches that further intensify the livestock production process (Clemens and Ahlgrimm, 2001), while allowing them to continue to expand operations and sell more meat. In concert with the livestock production industry, bioengineering and pharmaceutical firms have developed measures such as increasing animal productivity through improved genetics, greater use of growth hormones, antibiotics, steroids, disease control, controlled grazing and altering animal feeds. ‘End of pipe’ measures include better manure management and use of manure or litter for biogas production. The industry warns that ‘productivity-enhancing technologies’ are necessary for limiting deforestation and GHG emissions from beef production (Capper and Hayes, 2012). Livestock production’s impacts are not limited to climate change, but include additional environmental, public health, socio-economic and animal welfare costs. Other environmental impacts associated with intensive beef production include water pollution and water use, biodiversity and aquatic system threats, air pollution and land degradation (Gerbens-Leenes, Nonhebel, and Ivens, 2002; Mallin and Cahoon, 2003; Koneswaran and Nierenberg, 2008; Emel and Neo, 2011). Livestock production consumes nearly three-quarters of all agricultural land globally, as well as 8 percent of total water use (Steinfeld et al., 2006, xxii). Livestock production and consumption each have their respective public health impacts. CAFOs are responsible for public and worker health issues associated with increasingly antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the spread of infectious diseases, including influenza (Gilchrist et al., 2007). Increased meat consumption has been linked with health maladies including obesity, cancer, heart disease and diabetes (Chao et al., 2005; Micha, Wallace, and Mozaffarian, 2010; Michaelowa and Dransfeld, 2008). Industrial beef production is representative of the wave of corporate consolidation in the broader meat industry. Four corporations (Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill and National Beef) produce approximately 80 percent of the beef products sold in the US. Concerned scholars write of the industry’s close interconnections with government subsidies, financialization, industry group advertising, (e.g. ‘Beef, it’s what’s for dinner’) and pharmaceutical companies (Bonanno et al., 1994; Morgan, Marsden, and Murdoch, 2006). Specific socio-economic concerns include family versus corporate ownership of farms, living wages and livelihoods for farmers and farm workers, sourcing food ‘locally’, and supply chain transparency. In theoretical parlance, differences between beef production systems parallel those of ecological modernization and agro-ecology (Marsden and Sonnino, 2005): that is, sustainability through intensification and efficiency as opposed to sustainability through reimagined (and reconstituted) urban and rural food provisioning networks that attempt to undo social and economic inequalities. Last but not least, CAFOs create significant animal welfare issues. Concerns over animal welfare relate to cases of slaughterhouse animals so injured or sick that they cannot stand up unassisted (so-called ‘downer’ animals) and conditions that deprive animals of social interaction, limit time outdoors, restrict normal behaviors and result in a range of serious health and behavioral problems (Mader, 2003; West, 2003). Media coverage of these issues contributes to public awareness and can support or impede structural changes such as developing more sustainable food systems and policies that address the wide range of impacts of livestock production. Despite widespread media coverage of livestock-related issues and growing scientific evidence linking meat production and climate change, systematic content analysis of this relationship in media coverage has been surprisingly minimal. This chapter extends previous research that combines actor-network theory (ANT) with framing theory to develop the basis for ‘story-networks’ – networks of actants and artifacts that shape how a media report or ‘story’ is framed (Lee et al., 2014). We do this by coding livestock-related articles from a major US newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, over the 1999 through 2010 period to understand how various actants and artifacts shaped different story-networks. 

Specifically, we address the following questions:

1 What livestock-related themes did the Los Angeles Times cover from 1999-2010?

Jennifer Wolch
Keith Chun Leem Lee
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli
Research Areas
Food & Agriculture
Food Systems and Consumer Products
Climate Change, Livestock, Meat Production
Publication Type
Book Chapter
Full Citation
Lee, K., J.P Newell, J.R. Wolch & P. Joassart-Marcelli. (2015) “Cows, climate, and the media,” Chapter 12 in Political Ecologies of Meat, eds. Jody Emel and Harvey Neo. New York: Routledge. 392 pages.