For the longest time, eating meat was seen in a positive light — often, even as a symbol of status and affluence. But in recent years, especially within some parts of the population, beef (and to an extent, red meat in general) is getting a bad rap. Part of that is the ethical side of it: the billions of animals we’re slaughtering every year, and in the vast majority of cases, holding in inhumane conditions. Beef has also emerged as an unlikely culprit in our climate problems, as beef production takes up way more water and land and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than other types of food. Plus, recent studies have also shown that red meat may not be all that good for you. The meat industry has also taken note of the bad name it’s given itself and is pushing back against it.
The meat industry has developed quite the powerful lobby and is constantly fighting against low-meat diets and products it deems a threat — as well as climate legislation. Sometimes, this happens through smear campaigns against meatless alternatives; other times, by pushing for legislation to protect its products. But, as new documents show, sometimes it also happens in a very insidious way.
Documents obtained from the University of California Davis show that nearly all the funding for The Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research (CLEAR) Center, one of the most prominent research centers, comes from agricultural sponsors. Given that CLEAR is one of the most prominent pro-beef voices in academic circles, this is more than just a little suspicious.
Beef is the new smoking
By now, there’s so much evidence that flat-out denying climate change is basically impossible to justify; some still do it, but most climate deniers have taken a different approach: casting doubt on climate action rather than climate change itself. We see it with the groups that tout natural gas as a “green bridge”, and we also see it with beef. Beef produces 100 kgs of CO2 per kilogram.
That’s why, increasingly, researchers highlight giving up on beef (or at least reducing consumption) as one of the most impactful things you can do to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, large-scale reports have showcased that if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, giving up on meat is one of the key objectives.
But CLEAR doesn’t believe that. CLEAR is vehemently pro-beef, particularly through the voice of its founder, Frank Mitloehner.
Mitloehner is a professor in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis and is perhaps the most vocal scientist defending the beef industry. Media outlets, especially agricultural ones, love him. He tells them what they want to hear: that you don’t have to reduce your meat intake, just eat whatever you want, stick it to those green loonies. He even testified in Congress. But Mitloehner hasn’t exactly been transparent on where CLEAR gets funding from.
According to documents obtained independently by the New York Times and Unearthed, the Greenpeace UK investigative arm, all the funding comes from agribusiness — and there’s a lot of it.
CLEAR was founded in 2019 thanks to a $2.9 million donation from the Institute for Feed Education and Research, or IFeeder. IFeeder is supported by large agricultural companies like Tyson and Cargill. But IFeeder is technically a charity, and as such, it means that CLEAR didn’t have to disclose its funding.
After this initial donation, several other donations, some nearing $200,000 came from agribusiness members such as the California Cattle Council. Already, this is shaping up to resemble a conflict of interest. But being granted industry funding doesn’t necessarily disqualify research.
“Industry funding does not necessarily compromise research, but it does inevitably have a slant on the directions with which you ask questions and the tendency to interpret those results in a way that may favor industry,” Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor in environmental studies at New York University, told the Times. “Almost everything that I’ve seen from Dr. Mitloehner’s communications has downplayed every impact of livestock. His communications are discordant from the scientific consensus, and the evidence that he has brought to bear against that consensus has not been, in my eyes, sufficient to challenge it.”
But this isn’t the end of the story; if anything, CLEAR seems to have been set up specifically to downplay the effect that beef has on climate. In a private memo obtained by NYT, IFeeder noted that Mitloehner would provide “a neutral, credible, third-party voice” that could “show consumers that they can feel good” about eating meat. In other words, the center did not investigate the connection, not present research, but communicate a pre-determined stance. In fact, one of the first core activities of CLEAR was to start a nine-month campaign called “Rethink Methane,” which had the aim of changing public opinion on methane — a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide and that is strongly linked to the beef industry. Yet again, more than a little suspicious.
If this sounds a bit familiar, well, it’s a similar playbook to what the fossil fuel industry and the smoking industry before it have been doing. The plan is simple: you fund “neutral” voices from academia to propagate your message and then you make it seem like there are two sides to the story. This simple approach has proven to be devastatingly effective, and is one of the main reasons why we’ve taken so long to take action on climate change.
Defending the indefensible
Mitloehner has called the investigation a “coordinated hit piece” against him and said that he has always been transparent with his funding. This is a half-truth, as while some of this was indeed made public, the amounts of received funding were unreported.
Mitloehner also mentioned that he is working with the beef industry to help them reduce their environmental impact and called the investigators “keyboard warriors” that have taken him hostage.
“While people are taking shots at us, we’re pleased to be doing the work and conducting the research to reduce emissions and increase the food supply we need to sustain an exploding global population,” he writes in the post. “We’re so much more than keyboard warriors shouting on social media, but we are all too often taken hostage by their attacks and their demands.”
At the end of the day, the impact of beef on climate is undeniable. People understandably don’t want to be told what to eat and what not to eat, but ducking our heads in the sand is not the way forward — and neither is buying into the rhetoric of researchers funded with a specific goal in mind.