Growing up, Glenn Hurowitz believed he could save the planet. Now, the founder of climate action group Mighty Earth is taking on Big Meat, which he feels does more environmental harm than any industry

Glenn Hurowitz was a climate-anxious child long before the term climate anxiety was coined. He remembers his early childhood, growing up in New York State, as a time that would eventually inspire him to pursue a career in environmental campaigning.

“When global warming first hit the headlines, it freaked me out”, the Mighty Earth founder says. “I didn’t know what to do about it so I would carry around a big bag of cans that I would recycle when recycling wasn’t even considered cool. I was like a little Greta Thunberg, but without the following.”

These days he can brag both about being considered cool – environmental activism has permeated from the underground to the mainstream – and having the following. Mighty Earth, an NGO he founded in 2016 to protect vulnerable biomes such as rainforests from the agricultural sector, has more than 30 staff in offices across the UK, Brazil, Ghana and other countries. After years of being involved in climate campaigning back home in the US, the Yale University political science graduate saw an opportunity to take the learnings he gathered at environmental group Green Corps to a global level. He was frustrated that there wasn’t “sufficient political leverage in rainforest nations to drive the policy” needed to protect natural resources.

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Source: Mighty Earth

‘There is no better salve for climate anxiety than working out solutions’

Mighty Earth started by taking on palm oil companies in south Asia, co-ordinating advocacy and lobbying campaigns that targeted different levels of palm oil supply chains, from suppliers to western buyers and consumers, as well as government officials.

Name: Glenn Hurowitz

Potted CV: Graduated from Yale with a degree in political science. Developed a strategy to tackle deforestation linked to palm oil, then applied this to the rubber and steel industries. Still working on changing the meat industry.

Most embarrassing professional moment: At my first meeting as a grassroots environmental organiser, only one person showed up.

What I’m currently reading & listening to: The Napoleon biography by Andrew Jacobs, for the third time, and The Rest is History podcast.

My happy place: Swimming long distance in a cold lake.

Death row meal: Cold fruit soup, and my wife’s seitan piccata. I’ll save dessert for the first meal of my next life: if I’m a blue whale, krill; if an elephant, leaves; and if a beetle, orangutan dung.

Its efforts garnered success, with Mighty Earth claiming it has helped bring about a 90% decline in illegal deforestation for palm oil. Hurowitz credits some of Mighty’s success to his fascination with French military commander Napoleon Bonaparte. “I try to apply principles of classical military strategy to environmental campaigns,” he says, which is why the group tends to focus its efforts on one issue or sector at a time.

It’s that approach that has seen Mighty Earth help persuade Singapore-based agribusiness Olam to stop clearing land in Gabon, and French supermarket Carrefour cut ties with Brazilian meat giant JBS over its alleged links to Amazon deforestation. The latter is part of Hurowitz’s recent strategy change, with Mighty Earth shifting aim to the global meat and dairy industry. Livestock uses the majority – 83% – of farmland and produces a seventh of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“Just because government isn’t doing its job doesn’t mean the job doesn’t need to be done”

Mighty Earth is taking on powerful and politically influential companies such as Cargill, JBS and Bunge, all of which source the majority of their commodities from Brazilian rainforests. In Brazil, the agrifood sector is known for cosying up to government, adding another layer of complexity to Mighty Earth’s mission.

The sheer magnitude of the task at hand doesn’t seem to faze Hurowitz. He has found that “one of the most consistently powerful levers has been asking consumer-facing companies to tell their suppliers they only want sustainably sourced goods”, and so has vocally condemned western supermarkets that continue to do business with those companies – including Tesco.

A Mighty Earth report published this year found links between chicken and pork on Tesco’s shelves and illegal deforestation in the Amazon. The research claimed that soy sourced from illegally burned areas of the Amazon by Cargill ended up being used to feed animals reared in Britain and sold in Tesco. The retailer has promised to investigate the situation and asked Cargill to cut ties with the farm linked to deforestation.

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Source: Mighty Earth

Growing up, Glenn Hurowitz believed he could save the planet from George Bush. These days the founder of climate action group Mighty Earth is taking on Big Meat by the horns

Cultural resistance

Hurowitz says Mighty Earth always tries to engage with companies before filing official complaints or publishing potentially denigrating research. However, he has found leaders in the meat industry to be some of the hardest to crack, adding there is still “enormous cultural resistance” inside meat and dairy companies.

“If it was just greed, we could realign the financial incentives to make it worthwhile for these companies to protect the climate. But inertia is a bigger impediment.”

This is why tackling the destruction of our planet’s most biodiverse regions is also dependent on legal frameworks that support full supply chain transparency. He points out there has been progress on this front, such as the rolling out of the EU’s new anti-deforestation law (EUDR) and proposed amendments to the UK’s Environment Act, both of which will require businesses trading commodities such as soy, palm oil and cocoa to prove their supply chains cannot be traced back to illegal deforestation. He’s been involved in the drawing up of both regulations.

“Sometimes it seems they’ll never change”

Hurowitz agrees that, in addition to climate anxiety, there is now a new wave of climate hopelessness, which is a real hindrance to environmental campaigning.

“Sectors like meat and dairy thrive on this idea that these issues are so complex they are unsolvable”, he says. “Government and business don’t always move fast enough, and sometimes it seems that they’ll never change. But I had a sense early on that huge changes in the face of powerful financial and political opposition were possible.”

And his childhood uneasiness has turned into pragmatism: “There is no better salve for climate anxiety than working out solutions.”