This week, the New York Times published findings from Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace U.K., regarding the funding of The CLEAR Center, a major research center for environmentalism and sustainability. The center is located at the University of California, Davis and headed by Dr. Frank Mitloehner. According to the report, it receives the majority of its funding from organizations directly connected to the agriculture industry.
Worse, CLEAR was conceived by a trade group — IFeeder, the nonprofit extension of the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA). IFeeder is "a livestock industry group that represents major agricultural companies like Cargill and Tyson," according to the Times. In addition to members of the AFIA, its advisory board has included Cargill and the North American Meat Institute, two more groups that represent the meat industry's interests.
The Times article, as well as several environmental researchers quoted within it, point out that CLEAR's research can't possibly be free from bias given the industry that backs it. When Dr. Mitloehner makes assertions contrary to the general scientific consensus — for instance, when he tweeted that "'cut meat, save the planet' messaging is just that. A distraction from the real issue" — it's hard to believe that his statements are free from the industry's influence.
The Times article has sparked ire from members of the media and the public, many of whom find The CLEAR Center, and Dr. Mitloehner's actions, deceitful and irresponsible. But the fact that the research center receives industry funding is hardly a bombshell. Indeed, Dr. Mitloehner has been fairly transparent about the center's funding, identifying IFeeder of his own initiative, though he's not legally obligated to.
The real takeaway is that the agriculture industry spends loads of money to manipulate scientific research for its own benefit. The ostensible mission of UC Davis' CLEAR Center, as stated by Dr. Mitloehner, is to study ways to make the industry more sustainable. But thanks to confidential internal documents that came up in the investigation, we know that this is little more than a cover story. The uncovered memo explicitly states that IFeeder selected Dr. Mitloehner as a collaborator because they believed he could provide "'a neutral, credible, third-party voice' that would 'show consumers that they can feel good' about eating meat."
The CLEAR Center is just one example of the meat industry using its wealth to distort scientific findings and how they're communicated to the public.
If you follow science media of any kind — particularly regarding the environment or human health — this probably doesn't come as much of a shock to you. Few scientific claims are universally accepted or supported by all available evidence. Even topics of overwhelming consensus are often contradicted by outlier studies, even in legitimate peer-reviewed journals. That's why, when the majority of a scientific field does reach consensus (as represented, for example, by the UN's 2019 special climate report on the environmental benefits of eating less meat), it's worth listening. No individual study is definitive, but it's hard to discount the work of three dozen researchers backed by universities and governments around the world.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.
Of course, we still have science deniers in our society, even (perhaps especially) in our leadership — and that's what the agriculture industry banks on when it funds projects like the CLEAR Center. The influence of bias on the center may not be obvious to most consumers of its research, unless they investigate its funding. And one or two dissenting voices are enough to keep doubt alive and give industry leaders and reactionary politicians the fuel to push back against change.
The problem is: there are more than one or two dissenting voices. Dissenters are still a minority, for sure, but a well-funded minority. The CLEAR Center is just one example of the meat industry using its wealth to distort scientific findings and how they're communicated to the public. Last year, the independent climate news outlet DeSmog published results from a five-month long investigation, which concluded that the global meat industry is "borrowing tactics from tobacco companies" to downplay its responsibility for climate change. As Dr. Jennifer Jacquet, Associate Professor of environmental studies at New York University, told The Independent, "Tobacco didn't challenge the existence of lung cancer, but they kept denying and deflecting the causal link [with smoking] — and that's what we're seeing with beef and dairy."
Dr. Jacquet is not the only one, or even the first, to draw a parallel. Dr. Naomi Oreskes, in her 2010 book "Merchants of Doubt," exposes the ways in which both industries have utilized apparent experts to obfuscate settled science. They sow just enough doubt to keep the public (and our leadership) from accepting manifest truths about tobacco and fossil fuels, two dangerous and powerful industries. When the Times story about CLEAR broke last week, Dr. Oreskes herself called the situation "deja vu" — yet another dangerous and powerful industry is using science denial to its benefit.
Through what's essentially a massive PR effort, the meat industry sows confusion and misinformation to keep consumers from changing their purchasing habits. And maybe those consumers are happy to be misled. Many of us would prefer to believe that our habits aren't harmful, to our own health or to the world around us. And that's exactly what the agriculture industry, like the tobacco and fossil fuel industries before it, capitalizes on.
As long as Big Meat is able to, they're going to keep spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying governments and funding disinformation. For our part, we must stop taking the bait and giving airtime to the few stray voices that counter scientific consensus — especially when they have ulterior motives. They've already gotten far more consideration than they're due, and the longer we humor them, the longer it will take us to repair the problems that we know — not so deep down — are caused by agribusiness. And we haven't got time to waste.