Revealed: How the livestock industry funds the ‘greenhouse gas guru’
It was supposed to be a turning in the struggle to reform the food systems driving climate change and the global obesity epidemic.
Early 2019, as part of a collaboration between a non-profit organization based in Norway TO EAT and British medical journal The Lanceta team of world-renowned scientists published a report which sought to answer a crucial question: “Can we feed a future population of 10 billion people with healthy diets within planetary boundaries?”
Their answer: yes, but not without “transform” our current eating habits.
In its “Planetary Health Diet”, the EAT-Lancet commission has made precise and carefully calculated recommendations on what foods can be eaten and in what amounts, if we are to feed a growing population while preventing climate breakdown and improving public health.
It was a prescription for more greens and more beans, with less sugar and a lot less meat.
Adopting the Commission’s advice would mean that many people – especially those in wealthy Western countries like the United States – would have to drastically reduce their meat consumption. According to the report, North Americans ate more than six times the recommended amount of red meat.
The report had a huge media impact, generating nearly 6,000 stories in 118 countries. The BBC called it’s “the flexitarian diet to feed 10 billion” while the New York Times describe as a set of “new dietary guidelines for the benefit of people and the planet”.
The Commission hit the road, presenting its findings to governments and international institutions around the world. The report was present at the World Bank, Featured featured prominently at the UN Food Systems Summit and helped inform food policy changes in Canada, Indonesia and the European Union.
But opposition from meat and dairy advocates was fierce.
Pro-meat experts and livestock lobbyists lined up to criticize the findings. The World Health Organization would have been forced to withdraw to sponsor the EAT-Lancet launch event after complaints from the Italian government; and politicians in major consumer countries like the United States have shown no enthusiasm to include sustainability goals in official dietary guidelines.
The backlash, however, has been most intense online.
An analysis of the phenomenon, published later in The Lancet, described how a “digital counter-movement” managed to “quickly organize” around the hashtag #yes2meat in the days leading up to the report’s launch. This “new skeptical community”, admits the newspaper, quickly “dominated discussions of the EAT-Lancet report in intriguing and disturbing ways”. Although the report was positively received by mainstream media, it “also led to highly polarized debates online, including misinformation, conspiracy theories and personal attacks.” The Lancet concluded that these online controversies show how “a rapidly changing media landscape poses serious challenges to science communication on health and climate issues”.
The authors of this analysis presented the emergence of the #yes2meat opposition as organic and spontaneous. However, Earthen learned that working alongside and within this movement was a coordinated effort to mobilize scientists and scholars against the report.
And the people who led this effort, and who later celebrated their success in a private report to their agribusiness backers, weren’t working for a corporate PR agency or a lobbying firm, but for a newly created academic institute in a prestigious American university.
The Clarity and Leadership Center for Environmental Awareness and Research (CLEAR) at the University of California, Davis was established in 2019 under the leadership of Frank Mitloehner, a prominent agricultural scholar frequently quoted in the media discussing greenhouse gas emissions greenhouse from livestock. The center publicly describes its goal as “to help the livestock sector operate more efficiently” in order to “meet the demands of a growing population while reducing its impact on the environment and climate.” The center acknowledges that it has strong ties to agribusiness – including industry funding for its work – but presents these ties as an academic virtue, arguing that “collaboration with animal agriculture is the key to its success.
But now major news Earthen investigation revealed that the centre’s ties to the meat and dairy industries run much deeper and more ingrained than previously thought. Over 100 pages of correspondence between the CLEAR Center and its agribusiness supporters – obtained by Earthen under freedom of information laws – reveal how the center’s structure was agreed through a memorandum of understanding between UC Davis and an offshoot of the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) – a trade body whose members include some of the world’s largest livestock and feed producers. The documents show how, under the terms set out in that agreement, industry groups have committed millions of dollars in funding to CLEAR’s work, and the center has pledged to maintain an “advisory board” of 12 of its backers. agribusiness fund, to provide “input and advice” on “industry research and communication priorities”.
The documents also show that the centre’s industry backers saw its greatest benefit as its ability – as a seemingly independent and academically credible voice – to present a positive case for impact to the world. environment of meat and dairy products.
This communications role is central to CLEAR’s briefings to its agribusiness donors. In these briefing notes, CLEAR organizes a campaign to revise the industry’s climate footprint and outlines research designed to undermine plant-based alternatives to meat products; he also celebrates his role in the pushback against EAT-Lancet as an early success for the center, crediting Mitloehner with launching a “massive campaign” which, alongside the #yes2meat social media post, “succeeded in warding off the undecided audiences of the EAT -Lancet report.
Responding to Earthen‘s, Walter Willet, renowned professor of nutrition at Harvard University and lead author of the EAT-Lancet report, said: “It is rather shocking that UC Davis, which is a leading research institution, is allowing its name to lend credibility to a coordinated disinformation campaign backed by the beef industry.
Mitloehner said Earthen: “The CLEAR Center works with the livestock sector to make it better for the environment. To suggest that we do anything other than that is a gross misinterpretation of what we do.