20. Is there a 'revolving door' between Big Oil and Big Meat?
An analysis by Giving to Strangers reveals 10% of Big Meat execs have ties to oil, and 25% have ties to oil-intensive industries.
Welcome back to Giving to Strangers, a newsletter about what matters in social good. Every issue I offer sane donation advice (and a new, just-for-fun quotes section at the bottom).
Giving to Strangers is written by me, Anya Marchenko (👈 click for new website). Helpful research assistance for this post was provided by the diligent Lea Hadzic.
How it all started
Two weeks ago, Vox released a piece detailing what Big Oil and Big Meat have in common: they both spend millions of dollars lobbying against climate change regulation.
For example, in 2009, Tyson and other meat companies got nervous about the American Clean Energy and Security Act, also known as Waxman-Markey, which would have established a cap-and-trade system. They worked alongside the fossil fuel industry to stop the bill. Had it passed, it would’ve been the first congressional bill to directly tackle greenhouse gas emissions. But it never made it past the House.
And it turns out that as a percentage of revenue, meat companies like Tyson actually spend more on lobbying than some oil companies since 2000.
Individual meat companies likewise spend millions on lobbying. Tyson, for example, has spent $25 million since 2000. Now, that may not sound like much if we compare it to what individual companies in the fossil fuel industry spend — Exxon alone spent over $240 million during the same period. But the study notes that we have to look at these amounts in proportion to each company’s bottom line. Taken as a share of total revenue over the past two decades, Tyson has spent 33 percent more on lobbying than Exxon has.
These common lobbying efforts imply that the bottom line of Big Oil and Big Meat is served by very similar things: fewer environmental regulations, Congressional examinations, and journalistic investigations. In short, fewer people mad about the companies’ emissions and pollution. You can read the full study here.
Thinking about this piece, I was curious to understand whether companies with similar anti-environment interests are — to put it plainly — in cahoots with one another. In other words, do these companies learn from one another about how to best lobby against climate bills and environmental regulation? And finally, is a ‘revolving door’, or hiring executives from one another’s industries, one thing that brings these companies closer?
To answer that last question, research assistant Lea Hadzic and I compiled a list of board members at Big Meat companies and their current and former industry jobs. And we started to look for patterns.
Analysis shows ties between former oil execs and current Big Meat leaders
According to this new analysis by Giving to Strangers, 10% of the executives across the top five Big Meat companies have ties to oil — meaning they are either currently or formerly sitting on the board of an oil or energy company.1 And this number goes up to a whopping 25% if one includes ties to other oil or pollution-intensive industries: steel, mining, heavy manufacturing, airlines/shipping, and automotive.2
The analysis includes board members at the five biggest meat companies in America: Tyson, JBS USA3, Perdue, Sysco Corp, and Smithfield. While we exclude the company’s C-suite, these positions often overlap with the board, and anecdotally, I noticed multiple C-suite members with oil ties (such as Scott Spradley from Tyson, who served 15 years at Chevron).
One source of undercounting is that past experience at a holding company, law firm, or financial firm may really have been a secret oil job, but that’s hard to track. We consider only direct experience, like if a former CEO of Chevron is on the board of Cargill (true fact). But if a meat executive was a partner at a law firm whose clients are mostly oil companies? Our analysis misses these relationships.
Other common industries feeding the C-Suite of Big Meat are food and pharmaceuticals. If pharmaceuticals is surprising, consider the fact that ~80% of all antibiotics sold in the US are sold for animals in factory farms, and 60% of those given to animals are medically important to humans (a key statistics when considering increasing alarm around antibiotic resistance).3 Of course, there are many other factors that are influencing the heavy representation of pharmaceutical and healthcare industry executives on these boards. But it is a reminder of the fact that our current factory farming system would not exist without the involvement of the pharmaceutical industry through the use of antibiotics.
Let’s take a step back to think about why experienced executives from Big Oil and Big Meat are finding common ground. I’m not an HR expert, but companies are likely looking for leaders with deep knowledge of their industry, an understanding of strategic growth opportunities, and threats to their business. It makes that many of the executives we looked at have experience at another meat company or food company, like PepsiCo or Walmart. But why would experience in oil and energy be relevant to meat companies, and vice versa?
My hypothesis is that it’s not about anything the industries produce, but about dealing with the consequences of what they produce: carbon emissions, pollution, and environmental degradation (source). And by “dealing with”, I mean regularly defending themselves against public outcry and lobbying against environmental regulations.
Of course, the 10% and 25% numbers from our analysis are not very informative without also knowing what percentage of other large companies’ boards seats are occupied by former oil execs. If a lot of executive boards have around 10% of people coming in with oil experience, then, well, what’s the big deal?
My contention — the gauntlet I’m throwing in this post — is that even if Big Meat doesn’t have more ties to oil than the average S&P 500 company, the presence of those people might mean something different for Big Meat. If an oil executive joins the board of Lululemon, I’m not too concerned that Lululemon is suddenly going to start buying up drilling rights in Texas. But what if they join the board of an industry with a similar history of bad behavior? Does that same revolving door mean something different in the context of industries that share common anti-environment interests?
I can’t say to what extent these relationships are significant. But as someone working in economics and academia, I want to see more studies about not only the extent and effects of lobbying, but to what extent companies learn from or collude with each other.
When I say collude, I don’t mean that Cargill is asking BP for their favorite tips and tricks for getting around the feds.4 But (as I’m constantly reminded by Big Meat’s jaunty websites), the culture of a company and the values of the group making decisions matter. This kind of corporate ethos is hard to summarize succinctly, but it affects what kinds of corporate practices are considered within the pale. Where America’s corporate leaders come from, and the normative and ethical education they receive there, shape the decisions they make in meaningful ways. And it’s a bit scary to think about what this might mean for the relationship between Big Meat and Big Oil.
Which strangers should you give to?
A study published in Nature (Meng and Rode, 2019) calculated that lobbying had decreased the chance of passing America’s foremost climate change regulation (the Waxman–Markey bill) by 13 percentage points. The authors write that lobbying by the firms who wanted to kill the climate bill was more effective than lobbying by the other side.
GivingGreen, a climate charity evaluator I reviewed here on GTS, recommends the Clean Air Task Force and the Sunrise Movement Education Fund as successful pro-climate lobbyists:
I love quotes, so each newsletter I share some of the quotes I’ve written down over the last two weeks.
Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.
— Michelle Obama, Becoming
If we know in what way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter scale — Simone Weil
— quoted in Lacy Johnson’s essay, I Want a Reckoning
There’s an austerity to thinness, to having a hard body, to being closer to the solidity of bone than the softness of flesh. It’s as though you’re removed from the messy, squishy, leaky business of life, as though you’re looking on from the outside, from someplace less mortal, less malleable. As though you disdain mortality and the pleasures the flesh. It’s an irreproachably stern way to show up. Which is to say that thinness is a literal armor against being reproached for being soft, a word that means both yielding, cushiony flesh and the moral weakness that comes from being undisciplined. And from consuming food and taking up space.
— on expectations of women’s thinness, “Recollections of my Nonexistence”, Rebecca Solnit
A species of hope resides in the possibility of seeing one thing, one phenomenon or essence, so clearly and fully that the light of its understanding illuminates the rest of life
— Bill deBuys
Many, many, many Big Meat executives graduated from the University of Iowa or University of Arkansas. I now know that the Arkansas mascot is the Razorback, a type of wild boar, and the Arkansas teams are often referred to as the Hogs. You can’t make this up.
“Of the more than 121 medically important antimicrobial products approved for use in food-producing animals that were actively marketed in 2019, only 12 of these products are approved for use in both food-producing animals and companion animals” - Makes you wonder why? (Source: FDA)
What’s more, the FDA doesn’t even have data on what they’re giving drugs to animals on factory farms for - just which drugs, in what quantity, through what method, etc: “the available animal sales and distribution data are not reported to the FDA by each use indication and, thus, do not allow the FDA to distinguish between or among the different types of uses. The data, therefore, do not allow a direct comparison of the amounts of antimicrobials sold for certain human uses with those sold for certain animal uses.” (FDA Report 2017, page 10)
I’ve been watching a lot of The Wire recently.