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Cows on Trial in New York

New York lawsuit against beef producer JBS is doomed to failure.

New York Attorney General Letitia James has filed suit against the world’s largest beef producer, JBS USA Food Company, claiming its false advertising of climate-remediation efforts induced consumers to purchase products that are not environmentally friendly. Essentially, an attorney is leveling climate science allegations against cows and livestock, claiming JBS can never achieve “net zero” in its operations. The issues raised by this case will put bovine grass-munchers center stage.

The JBS Suit

The crux of the lawsuit is the allegation that JBS “repeatedly assured the public … that they are taking substantial and definitive actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions … ” and yet engaged in beef farming. The suit alleges:

“Industrial animal agriculture … has a substantial environmental footprint. Beef has the highest total greenhouse gas emissions of any major food commodity, and beef production is linked to large-scale deforestation, especially in the Amazon rainforest, which further drives climate change by releasing greenhouse gases and eliminating trees and plants that absorb and store carbon dioxide (referred to as ‘carbon sinks’).”

Some cow facts will now be on trial. Not all of JBS’ cows are in the Amazon – one pilot project of 30,000 cows in Colorado was apparently grass-fed.

The lawsuit goes on:

“Even if it had developed a plan to be ‘Net Zero by 2040,’ the JBS Group could not feasibly meet its pledge because there are no proven agricultural practices to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero at the JBS Group’s current scale, and offsetting those emissions would be a costly undertaking of an unprecedented degree. As of 2021, the JBS Group’s estimated annual greenhouse gases were more than those of the entire country of Ireland, and the JBS Group plans to substantially increase its meat production over the coming years.”

Countering Carbon With Cows

The allegation that “there are no proven agricultural practices” to reduce JBS Group’s emissions is false, and yet the whole case hangs on it. There is no question that industrial agriculture harms the environment – especially from chemicals, erosion, and water loss. Major food producers such as Perdue, Tyson Foods, General Mills, and others are moving quickly to respond not only to consumer and regulatory demand but also to environmental urgency: It is not in their interests to destroy their own assets. And in the effort to reverse soil and environmental degradation, no player is more key than cows. The bovines attacked by James as environmentally destructive are actually the solution to the problems she raises, and JBS is way ahead of her in taking steps to implement that transition.

The cows themselves are in court now, in a tug-of-war between the world’s largest beef-producing corporation and the might of New York’s attorney general. But this is not Greta Thunberg’s bully pulpit – facts are required. Ample studies and entire books establish that cows rotationally grazed on grass rebuild soils and preserve water, supplant synthetic fertilizers with their manures, and sequester both carbon dioxide and methane in the soil. If JBS shifted enough of its existing industrial CAFO (concentrated animal feed operations) to grass-fed or rotational systems, it could sequester more carbon than its operations have released in the last five decades and offset some of New York City’s greenhouse gases to boot.

Clearly, James and her cow-slandering cohorts did not confer with soil scientists or evaluate the regenerative farming impacts of JBS’ plans to shift its grazing methods. Chickens and pigs, raised in massive industrial facilities, cannot be returned to the land effectively, but cows can.

Cows are the quickest path to restoring soils and sequestering carbon, which is why JBS and others are focusing there (and in reduced tilling practices) first. New York has set itself an impossible legal burden against JBS – it lacks the facts to win its case, however much faux environmental puffery is on display.

Climate Change and Farming

For Americans truly interested in reversing environmental damage, the JBS complaint offers an opportunity to delve more accurately into the loosely bandied notions that all cows are climate culprits, or that plant diets will help the ecosystem. Synthetic meats are made from mono-cultured GMO crops that destroy the soil microbiome and toxify humans – perhaps New York’s attorney general should file suit against the claims of that industry. Instead, she has leveled her legal sights at gentle, soil-nurturing cows.

It will be a challenge for JBS Foods to achieve net-zero by 2040, but it is possible with rotational grazing: it is not possible with EV cars, solar panels, or heat pumps that mine the earth, burn coal, and pollute yet again on disposal. None of those fraud-dependent schemes sequesters an iota of carbon dioxide like cows. The case is weakened by these factual problems, but, still, the state must prove that JBS acted willfully and not in good faith. All this without proving actual damages – the state has no consumer victims harmed by the alleged malfeasance that it vaguely alleges increased profits, a second factual hurdle. But it is the plaintiff’s burden to prove damages. Government-as-plaintiff cases without proof of actual harm seem to be trending in the Big Apple lately, as seen in the massive award against Donald Trump in his New York civil fraud trial.

Punishing Good Behavior?

The public must also ask, if James succeeds in this case, would JBS be barred from advertising its environmental clean-up efforts in the future? If so, will it help consumers (or the environment) if the company abandons legitimate regenerative farming transition efforts because there is no market return? Consumers want companies to try to make their products less environmentally destructive. James is punishing this company for that very effort.

The burden is not on JBS to prove that it can achieve its emissions goals by 2040  — only that it is trying to, in good faith. James and the state of New York, on the other hand, hold the burden of proof to establish the impossible: that JBS cannot meet its goals, and that cows cannot heal soils destroyed by decades of errant agricultural practices.

Read More From John Klar

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