Can you trust a pro-beef professor? It’s complicated.

Food industry funding can influence how research questions are asked. The results may confuse consumers

By Jenny Splitter
February 13, 2021 4:59PM (UTC)
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Cows grazing (Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Undark.

Carnivores and cattle ranchers love Frank Mitloehner. As people who produce or eat meat look for ways to defend their effect on the planet, Mitloehner, an air quality scientist at the University of California, Davis, has been there to voice support.

Mitloehner's following has come from both social and traditional media. On Twitter, he is prolific, asking, for instance, why anyone would want "ultra-processed 'faux milk'" compared to the real thing, or sharing the claim that vegan diets might affect intelligence. He has also written opinion pieces for Civil Eats and The Conversation, and in 2019 he criticized a tweet from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about meatless meals.

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The quintessential Mitloehner take: Worry less about the burgers and more about Big Oil. He praises what animal agriculture gets right — for example, reducing methane emissions, the potent greenhouse gas that cows and other ruminant animals belch out, by increasing efficiency and experimenting with new livestock feed — but he staunchly rejects the idea of telling anyone to eat less beef for the planet.

That stance puts him at odds with environmental researchers who argue that dietary changes are necessary to address climate change. Per calorie, beef requires more land and more emissions to produce than almost any other food. While eating less beef won't save the planet, doing so is necessary in order to feed nearly 9.7 billion people by the year 2050 without depleting the earth's resources, argues Jessica Zionts, an analyst at the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit research organization.

Such conflicts don't help consumers who want to better understand the relationship between food and climate. By framing agriculture's emissions too narrowly — for instance, focusing on how it compares to transportation or arguing that industry efforts are enough to reduce methane emissions — the debate pits one climate-fighting action against another, when the evidence suggests that many actions can collectively make a difference. That framing becomes especially fraught when industry funding is involved, as it is with Mitloehner.

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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. And the agriculture sector has its own motivation. Facing increased pressure to reduce emissions, many food industry players are eager to show the public they're doing their part.

In recent years, Mitloehner launched a new research center called CLEAR — which stands for Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research — at UC Davis. While staffing is covered by an annual budget of $350,000, funded primarily by University of California programs, the center has also received livestock industry support. Mitloehner says IFeeder, a philanthropic research institute of the American Feed Industry Association, has given the center about $500,000.

The relationship with industry doesn't mean the resulting research is wrong, says Matthew Hayek, an environmental scientist at New York University who studies food production and climate emissions, but "industry influences the type of questions you're going to ask." And when scientists frame their research questions in a certain way, Hayek adds, the answers can be more favorable to industry. Mitloehner acknowledges the impact of animal agriculture on the climate, noting that "livestock has significant externalities." But by framing emissions as smaller than sectors like transportation, which he frequently does, the livestock industry can continue to say "look how small agricultural emissions are anyway," Zionts says. And by that reasoning, dietary changes won't make much of a difference to combating climate change.

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Mitloehner first jumped into the public debate over food and emissions in 2009, when he argued that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) got it wrong when it attributed 18 percent of global emissions to meat production, which the FAO called "an even larger contribution than the transportation sector worldwide." Because the FAO researchers didn't account for a full lifecycle analysis — that is, the emissions from every production stage — from the transportation sector in the same way that they had for meat, Mitloehner argued that the numbers were off.

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He had a point, the researchers conceded. While they had conducted a full lifecycle analysis on meat that took into account direct and indirect emissions, they had only used direct emissions for the transportation sector, leaving out activities like extracting fuel or the disposal of old cars. While FAO researchers initially stuck with their 18 percent figure based on their confidence in what makes up total emissions worldwide, a subsequent FAO study calculated global livestock emissions slightly lower, at 14.5 percent.

The concession from the FAO received a fair amount of attention at the time and Mitloehner still discusses it today. But his argument doesn't fundamentally change livestock's major impact on global emissions. In a 2018 Science analysis of 570 studies using data from about 38,700 farms, for instance, environmental scientist Joseph Poore and agricultural scientist Thomas Nemecek found that food production is responsible for 26 percent of all global emissions, with beef production making up the largest share.

According to Hayek, nothing in Mitloehner's response contradicted the finding that livestock emissions are on par with the transportation sector, even if they don't exceed it. In fact, Mitloehner's issue wasn't with the accounting so much as it was, and still is, with thinking about agricultural emissions on a global scale. Mitloehner's back and forth with the FAO ultimately led to his role as the first chairman of LEAP, a partnership between the FAO, NGOs, and the food industry that aims to improve the sustainability of livestock supply chains.

The CLEAR Center is a more recent project with similar aims: researching and raising awareness about agriculture's effect on the environment. Mitloehner says the awareness part is aimed squarely at industry, helping farmers understand how they affect the environment, but numerous blog entries, explainers, and videos from the center seem to be directed to the public.

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Mitloehner's work is also aimed at policymakers. Some of his lab's research at UC Davis has been funded by the California Air Resources Board, an agency tasked with implementing a state regulation targeting a 40 percent reduction in methane emissions across all sectors by 2030. (As principal investigator of the lab and director of the CLEAR Center, Mitloehner says there is some overlap. "The research largely operates out of my lab where the post docs & Ph.D. students are housed," he wrote in an email, "but they are also supported by the CLEAR Center with research and communications.") Much as with LEAP, industry representatives are a key part of the agency's sustainability efforts, in this case mitigating methane.

Mitloehner's policy recommendations go beyond mitigation, however, and that's where CLEAR comes in. A September 2020 white paper illustrates how he frames the cattle industry's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. One of the paper's co-authors is the executive director of Dairy Cares, a California dairy group, as well as a lobbyist and co-chair of one of the regulatory agency's working groups on livestock and dairy emissions. In the white paper, Mitloehner and his co-authors argue that policymakers should switch to an alternative way of measuring climate pollutants called GWP-Star, developed by climate scientists at the University of Oxford.

Using this alternative scale, methane gets more credit for being a short-lived pollutant than it does when policymakers use the standard GWP, or global warming potential metric, which clocks it at 25 times more potent than carbon at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Several livestock and dairy industry groups have also backed the alternative measurement. Mitloehner and his co-authors argue that with this alternative scale and the California dairy industry's mitigation efforts, California dairy production will soon achieve climate neutrality, a status in which new emissions are balanced out by efforts to remove them from the atmosphere.

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How the paper frames agriculture's role is key: It says that agricultural emissions in the state are just 8 percent, compared to 41 percent from transportation. But this framing doesn't tell the whole story, according to Zionts. "This is missing so much of the bigger picture, even just within California," she says. "Let alone the country or the world."

What's missing is land. Over the years, climate researchers who calculate emissions from agriculture have tinkered with their methods in order to measure carbon opportunity cost, which Zionts defines as "the likely carbon losses from land clearing to produce an additional unit of a product" like food. For instance, when forest converts to farmland, it is no longer able to sequester carbon. Instead, the land releases the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Taking land into consideration makes a huge difference when researchers calculate emissions for foods like beef and dairy, as both require a lot of farmland to produce.

"There's no free lunch," Zionts says. Because beef and dairy require more land to produce, the carbon opportunity cost is higher than it is for other proteins like chicken or legumes. And these choices aren't past tense. Cattle and soy farmers in Brazil, for instance, continue to deforest land in order to meet rising global demand for meat and dairy.

When Mitloehner says the California dairy industry will soon be climate neutral, it mostly means the California dairy industry isn't increasing the number of dairy cows in the state, Zionts says. The problem, she adds, is the next state over may just produce more to meet demand. Global demand for dairy is rising, and more dairy means more methane emissions, no matter which state or country they come from.

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It's a similar debate with beef. Mitloehner argues that global emissions tallies shouldn't apply to American consumers, since beef raised in the U.S. is more climate-efficient than beef from Brazil. But Hayek characterizes such arguments as creative accounting. "They're trying to have it both ways," he recently tweeted — "not get punished for the problem they're contributing to, but being rewarded for solving it anyway."

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Mixed messages about food and climate are confusing for consumers. In July 2020, for instance, Michigan State University researchers found that while 61 percent of Americans had significant or above average concern about climate change, only 28 percent "correctly identified farm emissions as a top contributor." Doug Buhler, director of MSU's AgBioResearch and co-director of the survey, said in a press release: "Our polling continues to show that we in the scientific community have done a woeful job of conveying our message in a way that helps the public grasp key characteristics of the food system."

Poor messaging is why Zionts worries about California dairy touting a climate neutral food label. "I can totally see some uninformed hipster vegan — who is vegan for the planet — that sees, oh, milk is 'climate neutral,' so I can have that," and then they start consuming dairy, she says.

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"Scaled up," she added, "that would be really bad."

The public is looking to policymakers to take more action on the climate, according to a 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center, which found two-thirds of Americans believe the government isn't doing enough. And policymakers often rely on advice from experts. The dairy industry was successful in making a policy case for GWP-Star and climate neutrality in New Zealand, for instance.

In the U.S., researchers can also influence politicians. In February 2019, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez announced a sweeping proposal for climate action called the New Green Deal. The announcement came with a fact sheet that referenced the environmentally damaging effects of "farting cows," an error criticized by Mitloehner and others, since most cattle emissions come from burps. On social media, an outcry over the error led outreach consultants for the New Green Deal to contact Mitloehner, Politico reported at the time.

Ocasio-Cortez's team dropped the reference to farting cows from the New Green Deal talking points. But no matter what end of a cow makes the methane, it's still an environmental problem. Methane from livestock makes up 40 percent of global agricultural emissions, according to the FAO.

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These sorts of arguments can be part of a communications strategy called "precisionism," says Hayek. To avoid the full hammer of regulation, he says, some industries can get specific and pedantic in order to distract from their share of emissions and their societal responsibility to mitigate.

In some instances, however, the motivation isn't strategic. Like most people's relationship to food, Mitloehner's dislike of dietary interventions is personal. He grew up in a divided Germany, he says, with some family members living in communist East Germany, where the government dictated what to eat when food was limited. "I grew up seeing that," he says. "And I hated it."

The food system is full of complicated backstories that influence deeply held beliefs. Some people feel like Mitloehner; they don't want to be told what to eat. Others may be vegan for reasons that go beyond animal rights; they object, for instance, to the meat industry's labor practices.

Zionts has seen how these debates play out on Twitter, shifting attention away from solutions. If someone sends a tweet encouraging people to eat less beef, she says, someone like Mitloehner will tweet back that U.S. beef isn't the problem. Praise for the dairy industry for reducing emissions, she says, may irk vegans who say that's taking the focus away from drinking less milk.

These arguments may provide good fodder for the Twitterverse, but some scientists are looking for a different way to engage. Sheril Kirshenbaum, a research scientist and co-director of the MSU survey on food and climate, also hosts a program called Our Table, a public discussion between experts and communities. The discussions are aimed at having "a conversation, rather than simply hav[ing] an audience passively listen to a lecture," she says. People need to talk about the food system a lot more in climate conversations, she adds, because consumers are able to make a difference right now, no special technology required: "Ag is a place we can have huge impact."

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Jenny Splitter is a freelance journalist who covers food, farming, and climate. She lives in Washington, D.C.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.


Jenny Splitter

Jenny Splitter is a writer, storyteller and mother of two. She is a regular contributor to GroundedParents.com and FitnessReloaded.com. Follow her on Twitter @mamaliciousdc

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