Conversations

Meat Industry Uses Academics to Distort Climate Impact, Research Shows

We sat down with Viveca Morris and Jennifer Jacquet to discuss their research into the money flowing to academics from the livestock industry.

Dairy cows at UC Davis
Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

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Earlier this year a new study followed the trail of money from meat and dairy to two prominent agriculture centers housed at public universities, UC Davis’ CLEAR Center — headed by Frank Mitloehner — and Colorado State University’s Agnext — spearheaded by Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, a former student of Mitloehner. The study found that not only did the research generated by these centers help prop up a polluting industry otherwise considered detrimental, but it documented how these academics have heavily engaged in public relations on behalf of the meat and dairy industries, and also how for a long time the universities attempted to hide the source of the funding.

We sat down with the two researchers at the helm of the study — Viveca Morris of Yale and Jennifer Jacquet of University of Miami.

Grace Hussain, Sentient

Tell me about your research.

Morris

So Jennifer and I started off by looking at the history of the Livestock’s Long Shadow report, which was produced by the United Nations in 2006. It was the first high profile report that tried to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions of the livestock sector globally. It warned of the dire consequences if business as usual in the livestock sector continued, and it’s now about 17 years later, and clearly, those consequences are now coming to bear. The warnings were not heeded. We wanted to know why.

It started to seem that part of the reason why was that animal agriculture companies were responding to evidence that their products cause harm as fossil fuel companies did — by trying to minimize their role in the climate crisis while shaping policymaking and science in their favor. One of the ways that they’ve done that is through funding academic research and centers.

Jacquet

It was obvious to both of us working in this area that there was an effort to insert the industry into the climate change conversation. They were taking both a defensive position by arguing that cows aren’t to blame for climate change, while also asking for money to be earmarked for the beef and dairy industry in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Sentient

What do you think the industry’s role should be in the climate change discussion, if any?

Jacquet

The problem isn’t that researchers are working with industry but that it wasn’t clear that these academics or the centers were working with industry. It’s easier to see now that these industries and researchers are linked than it was five years ago. But previously, the university system very much kept the industries in the background, and allowed them to operate in the shadows. We object to that.

We don’t object to industry being a genuine part of the solution. But we see that these companies continue to push for increasing meat production — not through cultivation in the lab or plant-based alternatives — but through very traditional models but with tweaks around the edges using technological solutions, like feed additives or hormones. That is not sufficient, and has not been shown empirically to make enough of a difference in the kind of crisis moment that we face.

Morris

In many forms, in many places for a long time the costs of this model of factory farming have been externalized, in all sorts of ways, including climate costs. And so now we have a situation where a lot of major producers are both advocating and lobbying in ways that we identify in our paper for continuing that business model, including government subsidies to perpetuate the expansion of meat and dairy production, maintain consumption levels and assure consumers that there’s no need to reduce the meat they eat. Simultaneously they’re trying to take credit for being part of the solution by adopting feed additives or anaerobic digesters, which, given the continued support for the expansion of meat and dairy production — and the lobbying against climate regulations — is concerning.

I have no problem with the industry funding research and efforts aimed at mitigating their emissions — arguably, it’s their responsibility to do that — but when that’s being done in combination with trying to maintain and expand production, it’s problematic.

Sentient

Based on data from 2015, the FAO found that livestock was responsible for 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, down from 14.5 percent in 2013, and 18 percent in 2006. At the same time, the livestock industry has been growing, which doesn’t seem to align very well with those dropping numbers. Do you think that this trend has been impacted by industry funded research? And if so how?

Viveca Morris
Viveca Morris

Morris

This isn’t something that we researched for our paper specifically. We do know that industry funded researchers are involved in the various UN groups that have been involved in these qualifications and benchmarking and standard setting efforts.

Based on The Guardian’s reporting, scientists at the UN’s FAO felt that they were being sabotaged and censored, and that their work placing the high number on livestock emissions was not welcome in the face of industry lobbying following the publication’s of Livestock’s Long Shadow. So I think that there’s certainly interest in speculation that perhaps, industry forces have contributed to this decreasing number at the UN FAO, but that’s not something that we looked into in any detail in the course of this paper.

Jacquet

One thing that we do identify in the paper, is that one way all industries confront the kind of science that might implicate them in a problem is to try to repurpose the statistics to suit their interests. I’m seeing through some other work that I’m doing that this is very common.

The animal agriculture industry started doing this really early on in the 1980s. They tried to reposition the U.S. statistics within some kind of global claim or compare the U.S. herds to herds internationally [to make emissions from meat seem like less of a big deal]. This is exactly what Mitloehner does. It’s a much easier kind of claim to repurpose than dealing with absolute numbers.

Two things are probably happening. One is that the industry’s emissions may be remaining steady as they grow because they are coming up with marginal feed related solutions. That’s not the same as your emissions decreasing.

The other thing that’s happened is other sectors have actually grown their emissions — at least that’s what I’ve heard — so these factors combine to make this 11.5 percent.

Still, where the rubber meets the road is on questions of absolute emissions, and the question of how much time do we have to tackle this problem. I think they almost surely account for about 11.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but the less time you have, the more methane becomes the gas of focus over carbon dioxide.

Sentient

So in a quote to the Washington Post, Professor Mitloehner says his research is not impacted by industry, but that his research is trying to change the industry to reduce emissions. What do you think of his claim?

Jacquet

So for anyone to say that their research is not impacted by industry, when they’ve received millions of dollars from industry, that’s just to not be very well acquainted with the literature on corporate influence, or on the influence of funding at all. We all know that the different kinds of funding come with different kinds of pressure. I think that stance is trying to take advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge on how funding influences researchers, but there’s a huge body of knowledge out there suggesting the complete opposite of his claim. I would leave that to the empirics.

Viveca and I looked extensively at his career and his activities. For me, I don’t even know when he would squeeze that in, amongst the PR activities, policy conversations, lobbying, presentations and social media activity that he’s doing. He does have projects on feed additives as a means to reduce emissions, but that does not seem to be his primary job.

Morris

I don’t think [his claims] are mutually exclusive. Even if you take it as a given that he’s doing valuable research that is impacting and educating the industry about climate change and mitigation opportunities, it can still be true that he is simultaneously doing industries bidding in terms of communication, lobbying and PR. The CLEAR Center and Mitloehner may engage in research that is valuable about emissions mitigation, but they are definitely engaging in a substantial amount of public relations and communications work in favor of industry talking points on climate change and maintaining industries’ current size — despite the known climate harms of that — which is what we document in the paper.

Jacquet

It’s not just from analyzing his activities that we’re saying this either. It’s analyzing the industry documents that we’ve seen about IFEEDER’s relationship to the Clear Center. What those documents show is that IFEEDER isn’t asking for help with sustainable solutions, they’re asking for help communicating that they are already a sustainable industry. The value that they see in him is not as a climate scientist who’s figuring out how to reduce their emissions, but as someone who is a neutral, credible third party and who can make these arguments in the media and beyond.

Sentient

We’ve talked quite a bit about Mitloehner’s role doing communications or even PR for the industry and on social media. In a time when so many people are getting their information and news from social media, what role should academics like Mitloehner be playing on social media?

Jacquet

It’s not the fact that Mitloehner is really active on social media that makes him a PR machine for the industry. There are lots of academics who manage to squeeze in a really active social media presence, and advocacy among the many things that they do.

What was unique is that — in the documents we examined — the industry is praising his social media work and talking about how to increase his audience and follower count.

That already is very different from what we know of truly independent academics. They don’t have that kind of support from a funder for their social media activities. Then you look at the kinds of arguments that he’s making on social media and that’s when it becomes problematic.

Morris

Part of what I found surprising in this research was the degree to which meat, dairy and feed companies and their trade associations promote Mitloehner and his work on social media. Part of the focus on social media isn’t just on what he is tweeting and posting or what his students in the CLEAR Center are tweeting and posting, but also how other industry groups — including those that fund him — then amplify and use the messaging and content for their own interests. The university and the UC Davis name lends credibility to those messages. If the industry groups were just putting that messaging out alone, it wouldn’t be as effective.

Sentient

For our last question, could you provide a bit of advice on how one would be able to discern what is legitimate information versus what is this industry backed information when they’re making the decisions as consumers?

Jacquet

One problem lies in the actual mainstream media. When news outlets have quoted Mitloehner, his industry funding has almost never been included. Historically, his funding sources were not front and center. There’s been more coverage of this in the media in recent years, but still these centers and researchers are part of the PR machinery. Journalists are being contacted and encouraged to write pieces including the perspectives of these Centers. Journalists should be sure to investigate where the funding of these voices came from.

Morris

The level of knowledge and depth of research required to get to the bottom of who funds research, are the climate claims on products real, etc. is so much that it’s unreasonable for the average citizen or consumer to be responsible for doing that. That’s why the policy and decisions that occur higher up, such as what grants the university accepts and for what purpose, become profoundly important. The average person just doesn’t have the ability to spend as much time as Jennifer and I spent delving into this. These are just two of the many, many, many studies that are produced every year by many, many researchers.

Jacquet

There is a definite irony there in that I think the industry sought out Mitloehner initially because he was embedded within a university and that lent him credibility. Now as more of these kinds of cases come to light, we actually risk undermining the credibility of those institutions themselves. I really hope that UC Davis and Colorado State both put together a more comprehensive response to this work.

Morris

Right now it certainly seems like in the animal agriculture industry, there are a lot of silver bullets, things that seem too good to be true. For example, the idea that you can have meat production at the scale that we have it or even greater, and we can solve climate change. Not only that, but the notion that our current system of meat production, with a few small tweaks, can be a climate solution. The takeaway from the research Jennifer and I have done in that regard is that things that seem too good to be true generally are. Often, it’s just a matter of common sense.

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