For many companies, it likely feels like ESG popped up overnight. And in many ways, it did. Google Trends data shows ESG was hardly a blip on the radar before 2021. Today, it is dominating many decisions corporations make.
But in the rush to acquire ESG standards, few companies have stopped to confirm if the ESG standards they’re feeling pressured to adopt are actually better for the environment.
Policies claiming to benefit one prong of ESG often have consequences on the other two. This is especially true of animal “welfare” pledges and their negative environmental impact.
At no other time in world history have farmers been able to produce more food on less land, drastically reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture. But the many demands being levied by ESG activists could derail these achievements.
These changes don’t happen by chance. Generations of data, innovation, engineering, and wisdom made it possible for Americans to have affordable, nutritious food from increasingly smaller pieces of land.
But many policies promoted by the animal rights activists targeting food companies would undermine this progress.
Bigger barns require more clearing of the land, more steel to build, and more natural gas to heat – all of which release more greenhouse gas emissions. And birds that take longer to raise to maturity require more food, water, and housing over their lifespan. Raising free range birds requires an average of 13 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional methods.
Milk – the real kind from cows – has been demonized by the environmental movement. Instead, activists such as PETA have promoted plant-based alternatives.
But many milk alternatives have serious environmental consequences. Almond milk provides a great example.
Unlike dairy cows, almonds can only grow in limited climates. In fact, 80 percent of the world’s almonds are produced in California – and then transported globally.
But to grow just one pound of almonds requires roughly 2,000 gallons of water. When demand for almond milk surged a few years ago, the drive to grow almonds placed a serious drain on California’s water supply. Some have blamed California’s annual droughts on increased water demand due to almond production.
Today, many farmers choose to proactively treat animals for common illnesses using antibiotics. This helps to save animals from suffering illnesses. It helps stop illnesses from spreading between animals. And it saves resources from being wasted on animals that die prematurely because of fatal – but preventable – diseases.
It’s an effective method of saving both animals and the resources needed to raise them.
But some advocates want to flip the order in which things are done. They want antibiotics to be deployed only after an animal has started to suffer from an illness—and has become a risk to infect other animals in a herd. This is backwards. Activist proposals to restrict antibiotic use would lead to more animals suffering and dying, and antibiotics would still be used to treat sick animals, anyway.
Solar panels and wind turbines are the poster children of the green energy revolution, but they’re not free of environmental or animal welfare consequences.
The preeminent problem with solar or wind power is efficiency. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. In turn, both require either fossil-fuel powered back-up energy sources or massive batteries.
The batteries — and the photovoltaic cells used to generate solar energy – require many rare earth minerals. Harvesting these metals, including cobalt, bauxite, and silver, can pollute nearby lands, waterways, and communities. Cobalt mining threatens wildlife, including the Okapi, an endangered African “unicorn” related to the zebra. And the labor standards in these mines can be dismal, sometimes including slave labor, as is the case for some solar panels made in Xinjiang Province, China.
Wind power, meanwhile, has been attributed to both deforestation and deaths of at-risk animal populations. Landlocked wind farms must be located where the wind blows, even if it results in the clearing of trees. These massive structures invade some natural habitats. Between 140,000 and 328,000 birds are killed each year by wind turbines, including bald eagles. Wind farms have also been tied to the deaths of whales.
These examples are not to show that there’s no room for debate on the benefits or drawbacks of renewable energy, antibiotics, or milk alternatives. Rather, it goes to show that no change happens in a vacuum. But when many of these decisions are painted as simple, win-win changes, companies should be skeptical and consider the unintended consequences of their choices.