How Climate Policy Gets Obstructed by the Meat Industry | Civil Eats

New Research Shows How the Meat Industry Infiltrated Universities to Obstruct Climate Policy

In this week’s The Field Report, we look at how Big Meat seeks to influence climate understanding, climate-friendly farming practices in question, and more.

cattle in a feedlot that is generating a lot of greenhouse gas emissions

New research sheds light on the scope of the livestock industry’s influence over prominent agricultural research centers at two public universities. In a paper recently published in the journal Climatic Change, researchers detail how the meat industry funds credentialed academics to “obstruct unfavorable policies,” especially those targeting the industry’s largely unregulated methane emissions.

One example of the tactic occurred in early 2019, after Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) co-introduced the Green New Deal, a climate stimulus plan that laid the groundwork for the Inflation Reduction Act. Her team sent reporters a fact sheet, accidentally released prematurely, that made a passing mention of “farting cows.”

It’s a reference to cow’s greenhouse gas emissions, largely produced through belching, though passing gas contributes, too. This quickly stirred a Twitter maelstrom, the dust from which has yet to settle. Republicans depicted this as a siege on meat, claiming that Ocasio-Cortez is on a mission to take away their burgers.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the animal science department of U.C. Davis, urged the congresswoman to reconsider. In polite but firm academic language, he posted on Twitter that meat and dairy are just 4 percent of emissions in the U.S., and framed the discussion of emissions from cows as a distraction from the fight against fossil fuels. (Mitloehner wrote an op-ed for Civil Eats in 2020, in which he repeated some of the same talking points.) It’s a figure that a group of researchers at Johns Hopkins have argued is incomplete, and used in order to “downplay the environmental impacts of animal agriculture.”

After this, he met directly with the think tank that advised on the Green New Deal to “set the record straight,” according to an interview. He explained that cow farts aren’t the issue compared to their burps, which produce methane, but fossil fuels are the real concern.

While Mitloehner is right to single out cow burps, he misses the broader issue: Livestock and fossil fuels are both significant drivers of climate change. In fact, livestock is the world’s largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.

Far from a neutral defender of bovines, Mitloehner runs the CLEAR Center at U.C. Davis, a prominent academic center for studying climate and agriculture, nearly entirely funded by the meat industry. Since 2002, Mitloehner has received at least $5,498,000 in industry funding, according to the Climatic Change paper, and also in his 2021 CV, including from the National Pork Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. And over the decades, his research and talks have minimized livestock’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions, which has then been frequently utilized by industry to argue for lax climate regulations.

Mitloehner, however, stands by his research and extension efforts. “My career is dedicated to reducing emissions from cattle and other livestock, and to say I downplay the climate impact of the sector flies in the face of that,” he wrote in an email to Civil Eats. “It’s not my research that is questioned, and it’s disappointing to see this ad hominem attack which is meant to distract from efforts to improve the climate impact of livestock.”

Due to limited public funding for academic research, industry-funded studies on food and agriculture are common. And while researchers often strive to avoid bias and funding does not always impact research quality, evidence suggests industry-funded studies are more likely to produce results that reflect well on the funder.

In the paper, Viveca Morris and Dr. Jennifer Jacquet reveal a broader pattern of how the livestock industry, which has long had close affiliations with land-grant universities, has infiltrated universities to block climate scrutiny. The researchers trace the origins, funding, and political function of the “corporate capture of academic institutions”—especially focusing on the CLEAR Center, founded in 2018, and AgNext at Colorado State University, founded in 2020. As the authors argue, these leading academic centers wield their academic credibility to “maintain the livestock industry’s social license to operate.”

“Having a university–without transparency, without even telling the public that an industry donor is involved–acting as a PR arm of an industry group is impossible to justify with the university’s mission.”

“They’re conducting industry-funded public relations and communications campaigns on climate change issues that benefit their agribusiness donors,” said Morris, the executive director of the Law, Ethics & Animals Program at Yale Law School. This effort extends far beyond industry-funded research to more actively shape policy, effectively acting like a lobbyist through frequent testimonies and meetings with policymakers, among other strategies.

Even if this is legal, “having a university—without transparency, without even telling the public that an industry donor is involved—acting as a PR arm of an industry group is impossible to justify with the university’s mission,” added Morris.

The new research details just how well Mitloehner has followed his stated mission—offering a third-party voice to the meat industry—throughout his career. To name a few, he testified in 2017 against regulating air quality of dairy confined feeding operations in Oregon. “The air quality in Oregon is great, so what do you want to improve and at what cost?” he asked lawmakers. In 2019, he testified before the U.S. Senate about how animal agriculture’s role in climate change “pales in comparison to other sectors.” In 2022, he testified before Ireland’s parliament, explaining that reducing cattle herds would actually lead to a spike in greenhouse gas emissions.

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“I’ve looked at the history of how industries have bought science,” said Jacquet, an environmental social scientist at the University of Miami and author of The Playbook: How to Deny Science, Sell Lies, and Make a Killing in the Corporate World. While hardly a new phenomenon, she described it as “egregious how much these cases stand out and how much they are PR and lobbying focused as opposed to about the research.”

Jacquet and Morris also brought to light the work of Mitloehner’s former student, Dr. Kimberly Stackhouse-Lawson, who now directs Colorado State University’s AgNext. She previously worked as the chief sustainability officer of the U.S. subsidiary of JBS, the largest meat company in the world, which is among the industries that have funded AgNext. The center is advised by a “industry innovation group,” which includes JBS’s current head of corporate affairs and chief sustainability officer. Like the CLEAR Center, AgNext was born from a host of meat-industry partners.

As the paper noted, Stackhouse-Lawson has described her “day to day [at CSU] is not so different than what it was at JBS.” In 2021, she gave at least 90 presentations on livestock sustainability—two per week—to “industry groups, state agencies, and governmental organizations” on this topic. “The balance of effort just seems much heavier on PR and outreach and presentations than it is on scholarly publication,” Jacquet noted.

Stackhouse-Lawson, for her part, maintains that the center’s research is independent. “AgNext faculty independently research topics across the entire livestock value chain, and research outcomes are peer-reviewed by experts from across the country before publication in scholarly journals,” she said in an email to Civil Eats. “It is common for industry and government to fund programs, equipment and even research; however, university research is independent and funding sources have no influence on AgNext research outcomes.”

The end result of this many-pronged industry effort has likely been successful in obstructing climate policy addressing the meat industry, the paper asserts. Since 2006, the U.N. has continually revised down its greenhouse gas emissions for agriculture, dropping from 18 to 14.5 to 11.2 percent—a phenomenon The Guardian has linked to pressure from industry lobbyists.

Nicholas Chartres, a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney, was impressed by the paper’s deep look at pathways of industry influence. He called it a “really important characterization of the different ways the industry is able to shape not only the scientific knowledge of a topic, but also the regulatory and policy process, and public opinion.”

Still, he is hopeful that there are ways to reverse the tide of agricultural industry influence. “We need a transparency database,” said Chartres. He points to the federal public database for pharmaceutical payments to doctors as a model, which could be extended to other industries.

“It’s a critical thing not only for people like me who do this type of research to have access to that information,” he added, “but for the public and policymakers just in general.”

Read More:
Walmart’s ‘Regenerative Foodscape’
Questions Remain about Big Food’s Influence on the New Dietary Guidelines
At an Annual Sustainability Gathering, Big Ag Describes Its Efforts to Control the Narrative

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EQIP’s Questionably Climate-Smart Practices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the most popular farm bill program, recently added 15 new “climate-smart” practices. The new roster includes sprinkler irrigation, irrigation pipelines, and fuel breaks.  The program funds farmers to implement these methods, in hopes of incentivizing “quantifiable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” The only issue is that “many of the newly labeled practices likely do not have climate benefits,” claims a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). They have yet to be studied for climate benefits by the USDA, EWG states, noting that eight of the new methods are for livestock and irrigation management and “likely don’t reduce emissions.” At an agriculture event last week, USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie said he strongly disagreed with the criticisms and that it would be important for the agency to continue gathering data on the efficacy of all of the practices as it continues to direct more resources toward them.

Read more:
Why Aren’t USDA Conservation Programs Paying Farmers More to Improve Their Soil?
The Field Report: Conservation Dollars Funding CAFOs Instead of Soil Health

Panhandle Wildfires. Blazing wildfires have swept across 1.3 million acres in the Texas Panhandle over the course of a week, gutting the state’s agricultural economy. The wildfire represents the largest in the state’s history. “The fires have left little food or water for livestock,” wrote The Texas Tribune. “Some farmers lost everything. Property fences are gone.” The fire is expected to be especially catastrophic to the state’s $15.5 billion cattle industry: Thousands of cattle have been injured or killed in the tragedy. The wildfires were intensified by abnormally hot, dry weather, a pattern linked to climate change.

Read more:
How Centuries of Extractive Agriculture Helped Set the Stage for the Maui Fires
Northwest Farms Hit Hard by Wildfires

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

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  1. Lynne Pledger
    Once again we have an article about beef that doesn't even mention regeneratively raised 100% grass-fed beef (no grain ever). Raising cattle regeneratively is a strategy to (1) reduce GHGs (including methane) as well as (2) sequester carbon and (3) protect natural resources, especially water. For specifics go to this link on the site of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate: https://bio4climate.org/2023/12/04/regenerative-grazing-a-compelling-climate-strategy/

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