Money and Miscommunication: The Case of Frank Mitloehner

A new investigation has revealed millions in industry funding to a UC Davis professor who downplays factory farming's role in the climate crisis.

Frank Mitloehner

Perspective Climate Research

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Earlier this week, the New York Times published an investigation of UC Davis scientist Frank Mitloehner. Mitloehner runs a center called CLEAR at UC Davis — a research and communications group that publishes explainers about animal farm emissions. Emails obtained by Greenpeace’s investigative body Unearthed and confirmed by the New York Times in its story revealed that Mitloehner’s center is more deeply funded by — and coordinated with — the livestock industry than previously reported. 

The previous reporting here is a story I wrote for Undark in 2021, which is cited in the New York Times piece. At the time I interviewed him, Mitloehner said a livestock association called IFeeder gave $500k in funding. Thanks to the team at Unearthed, the public now knows there was much more funding promised from the beginning. 

A few journalists have criticized the NYT story as an overreach. Because Mitloehner has always disclosed that he receives industry funding, the exact amount isn’t news. Canary Media’s Mike Grunwald called it a hit job. I disagree. 

Yes, Mitloehner has historically disclosed industry funding — certainly for his lab research and to some degree for the CLEAR Center too — but the details of the funding as published on the website have changed over time.  

It’s important for the public to know the exact details of the money — it’s in the millions and to be paid out over a period of years — but the problem is definitely more complicated than funding.

Mitloehner says he is being demonized for working with the animal agriculture industry to reduce its emissions. That is just not the case, and it never has been. Reporting over the years from Bloomberg Green, Inside Climate News, Columbia Journalism Review, Undark and now, the New York Times, has never suggested industry funding for research into dairy waste or methane-curbing feed additives is somehow nefarious. 

The problem has always been that CLEAR is not really a research lab. It’s mostly — or maybe entirely — a communications project. The website now links to his published research but when I interviewed Mitloehner last year, he suggested the Mitloehner research lab was separate. 

Either way, Mitloehner’s misleading communications — both at CLEAR and on his own — have always been the problem. It’s the speeches, videos, blog posts, interviews and tweets that downplay the extent and seriousness of the role livestock plays in increasing climate pollution. And Mitloehner has significant influence. Not only does he have a huge social media following, but he’s often cited as an expert by mainstream media outlets. What’s worrying about this is the research shows climate media is now making the same mistake that it made in early coverage of climate change — reporting on “both sides” as if there is a scientific debate about the evidence.   

From the very start — when he first waded into this space — Mitloehner described himself as having fact-checked the FAO for its flawed emissions accounting. But as has now been reported multiple times, including in my Undark piece, the actual accounting difference was not a particularly significant one. Whatever the final percentage of emissions from farmed animals, there’s no debate that beef and dairy farming are a massive source of climate emissions — and getting worse. 

At the same time that Mitloehner downplays meat and dairy farming’s climate responsibility, he also likes to dismiss one of the most effective solutions, according to the evidence — plant-based diets. 

Mitloehner likes to characterize his critics as activists — but his critics also include climate scientists and food system researchers. What the evidence continues to show is that dietary change is a necessary solution (one of many) to bring down food-related climate emissions. Yet Mitloehner’s communications — again, not his lab testing of feed additives — frames this research as some sort of vegan agenda. But it’s just not, and that’s what the evidence has pointed to, again and again and again

As I wrote for Undark in 2021 — “Industry-funded food studies aren’t uncommon. Since funding for agricultural research is scarce, many academic scientists rely on industry grants for at least part of their work.” Public sector agriculture research remains underfunded, according to research from the Breakthrough Institute’s Daniel Blaustein-Rejto. Many scientists accept industry funding because otherwise their work simply won’t get funded. That raises some thorny issues about what gets studied and what does not — and all funding should of course be disclosed. But the bottom line is that the mere fact that Mitloehner accepts industry funding for research is not and has never been the entire story. It’s not just the funding, it’s the communication and it’s miscommunication at that.  

This piece has been updated.

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