How the Agriculture Industry Funds Pro-Beef ‘Science’

How the Agriculture Industry Funds Pro-Beef ‘Science’

One of the country’s most prominent academic centres that purports to “advance sustainability in animal agriculture” is almost entirely funded by industrial agriculture interests, new documents show. And the industry has used its connection to help push messaging around how beef isn’t that harmful to the planet.

Documents obtained from the University California Davis show that nearly all the funding for The Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research (CLEAR) Centre, prominent research centre located at the university, comes from industrial agricultural interests. While some of this has been previously made public, the amounts of money were previously unreported. The report is based on documents obtained through a public records request by Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace UK, as well as documents obtained independently by the New York Times.

If you do enough research on the connection between beef and climate change, the name of the CLEAR Centre — and its founder, Frank Mitloehner — is bound to come up eventually. Mitloehner, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis, is one of the most outspoken academic figures in the field defending the beef industry, appearing in multiple media outlets over the past decade and testifying in Congress about the beef industry’s impact on the environment. He also was one of the key academic figures leading the pushback against a bombshell report that came out in 2019 that advised that countries around the world needed to stop eating so much red meat in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“As a professor and extension specialist at the University of California, Davis, I have the privilege of working on these issues and helping the public, media and thought leaders better understand the role of agriculture in nourishing our world, while also focusing attention on cleaner air and a healthy climate,” reads text written by Mitloehner on the CLEAR Centre’s homepage. “I won’t tell you what to think, and I certainly won’t tell you what to eat. That’s a personal decision based on many factors. What I will do is present the latest, most accurate research we have on animal agriculture and air quality in regard to climate.”

The documents show that the CLEAR Centre was created in 2019 with a $US2.9 ($4) million gift from the Institute for Feed Education and Research, or IFeeder. IFeeder is the charitable arm of the American Feed Industry Association, which counts agribusiness giants like Cargill and Tyson as members, the Times reports. This gives it a curious loophole when it comes to California disclosure requirements. While the state requires academics to disclose funding for research from private entities, nonprofits are exempt from those disclosure requirements. Because IFeeder is a charity organisation, the CLEAR centre and Mitloehner did not have to disclose its funding of their research. (“The Clear Centre said in a statement that it discloses funding in line with University of California policy,” the Times reported. “The university deferred questions to the Clear Centre.”) The Centre has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from other industry sources, including almost $US200,000 ($277,640) from the California Cattle Council.

“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 favour 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.”

Downplaying the climate impact of livestock seems to have been the purpose for the CLEAR Centre’s funding. In a confidential 2018 memo proposing the CLEAR Centre obtained by the Times and Unearthed, IFeeder said that Mitloehner would provide “a neutral, credible, third-party voice” that could “show consumers that they can feel good” about eating meat. The CLEAR Centre, the document said, would be able to provide an alternate viewpoint to what IFeeder called “a small but vocal minority with hidden agendas” — high-profile figures, the IFeeder claimed, who were leading people astray from eating meat.

And the Times found that the Centre has provided valuable messaging for pro-meat propaganda campaigns. One set of documents obtained by the Times from the CLEAR Centre details a proposal for a nine-month campaign called “Rethink Methane,” which the Centre proposed would provide videos and messaging for industry leaders to use in countering narratives about the environmental harms of cattle’s methane emissions.

“I think it would be great to hear from you and Frank about what information the Clear Centre needs from the advisory committee,” Lara Moody, executive director of IFeeder, wrote in an October 2021 email to personnel at the CLEAR Centre, “which would set up the reverse question to the committee of what types of resources or communication pieces the industry needs from the Clear Centre.”

In written responses to the Times, Mitloehner said that he “cannot help the livestock sector reduce its environmental impact without working directly with its members.” He also stressed how his research has also focused on creating solutions for beef emissions, like feed additives for cows. (This idea has its own hefty set of issues, which we reported on last year.)

In a separate blog post sent to Earther by a representative from the CLEAR Centre, Mitloehner called the Times and Greenpeace investigations “coordinated hit pieces,” stating that he has always been transparent around his funding and that working with agricultural interests makes his work more useful.

“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.”

“It is unfortunate that Greenpeace and The New York Times organised a coordinated attack against a reputable academic institution and professor, who is doing research that ultimately will help us all breathe cleaner air, while enjoying the foods we love,” Moody told Earther in a statement emailed by an IFeeder representative. “The answers to today’s problems of addressing food security and reducing our climate impact will not be solved in a vacuum. We believe it is critical that public and private entities engage in a two-way dialogue so that we can fill research and knowledge gaps critical to animal agriculture’s ability to advance sustainability efforts and continue to stand by the important research being performed at the CLEAR Centre.”

Beef’s impact on climate change cannot be understated, and the world’s leading climate scientists agree that cutting back on emissions associated with the beef industry — particularly its damaging methane emissions — are crucial to avoiding runaway warming. But as we reported last month, the beef industry in recent years has been mounting counterattacks on climate science, using cherrypicked data and misleading arguments to depict beef as a neutral — even “climate-friendly” — choice. While much of what they say may technically be correct, the messaging the industry is using at the CLEAR Centre and beyond is a masterclass in how to twist and obfuscate science to serve the whims of a powerful industry. And while funding for operations like Mitloehner’s may not necessarily be a surprise, it’s always a good idea to know who’s footing the bill for pro-beef arguments.

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