In 2019, three dozen leading researchers sounded a stark warning in a prominent scientific journal: To fight climate change and improve human health, the world needed to dramatically cut back on eating red meat.
The findings were quickly attacked by Frank Mitloehner, the head of an agricultural research center at the University of California, Davis, and a prominent critic of the journal’s research.
The report’s authors were spreading a “radical anti-meat agenda,” Dr. Mitloehner wrote on Twitter, where he led a backlash under the hashtag, #yes2meat. “Their so-called planetary diet is a quasi-vegan diet,” he said, calling the findings “anti-livestock.”
According to internal University of California documents reviewed by The New York Times, Dr. Mitloehner’s academic group, the Clear Center at UC Davis, receives almost all its funding from industry donations and coordinates with a major livestock lobby group on messaging campaigns.
The documents show that the center, which has become a leading institution in the field of agriculture and climate, was set up in 2019 with a $2.9 million gift to be paid out over several years from the Institute for Feed Education and Research, or IFeeder, the nonprofit arm of the American Feed Industry Association, a livestock industry group that represents major agricultural companies like Cargill and Tyson.
As of April 2022, the Clear Center had also received more than $350,000 from other industry or corporate sources, the documents show, including nearly $200,000 from the California Cattle Council, a regional livestock industry group.
The documents were obtained by Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace U.K., under freedom of information laws. The New York Times also independently obtained the files from officials at UC Davis.
The Clear Center has acknowledged receiving philanthropic gifts, including from IFeeder, but the extent of the private funding and collaboration were not previously known.
There is no indication that Dr. Mitloehner or the Clear Center violated disclosure requirements. California requires researchers to disclose funding from private donors but exempts funding received from nonprofit groups. Because IFeeder, formally known as the Institute for Feed Education & Research, is the charitable arm of the livestock-industry association, it is not subject to detailed state disclosure rules.
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The Clear Center said in a statement that it discloses funding in line with University of California policy. The university deferred questions to the Clear Center.
In written responses to detailed questions, Dr. Mitloehner said the livestock industry’s financial and other ties to his research center were instrumental to the center’s mission. “I cannot help the livestock sector reduce its environmental impact without working directly with its members,” he said.
He also highlighted the work that his lab was doing with the industry to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases, including investigating feed additives that could help reduce belching by cattle, a major source of planet-warming methane.
Critics say that close financial ties between a research center and the industry it studies create the potential for conflict of interest.
“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 favor industry,” said Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor in environmental studies at New York University.
“Almost everything that I’ve seen from Dr. Mitloehner’s communications has downplayed every impact of livestock,” he said. “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.”
Lara Moody, executive director of IFeeder, said the group funded the Clear Center to further scientific research and discourse on animal agriculture’s environmental effects.
“We believe it is critical that there is a two-way dialogue between public and private entities involved in the manufacture of America’s food supply if we are to make progress on achieving overarching food security and climate goals,” she said in a statement.
Ranching is a significant contributor to global warming. Not only do cattle release methane, but the industry can also drive deforestation as land is cleared for new ranches.
Yet animal agriculture has received relatively less legislative attention than other sources of greenhouse gases. This year’s landmark climate legislation, which directs hundreds of billions of dollars toward clean energy, does relatively little to address emissions from meat or dairy.
Agricultural corporations and lobby groups last year spent more than $150 million lobbying the United States government, more than the defense or construction industries. One of its main lobbying focuses has been to limit environmental regulations.
A memo marked ‘confidential’
A May 2018 memorandum marked “confidential” and prepared by IFeeder, the livestock industry group, describes its vision for the Clear Center. It would be guided by an advisory committee of industry officials who would provide “input and advice regarding communications priorities of the industry.”
The advisory board has included Cargill and the trade associations North American Meat Institute and the American Feed Industry Association, email communications show. One-third of the board would rotate each year “to allow additional funders to serve on the board and ensure broad industry representation among the funders,” the memorandum said.
Daniel Sullivan, a spokesman for Cargill, said the company participated in industry groups that funded research aimed at “advancing the industry and creating a more sustainable and resilient food system through innovation and research.”
IFeeder helped choose the Clear Center’s name, which stands for Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research, and ran its advisory meetings, according to meeting agendas.
Dr. Mitloehner said the board had no decision-making power over the center, nor influence on how funding is used. He said that having the attention of industry members increased the likelihood that they would take up environmentally sound practices.
The documents show that the Clear Center planned informational campaigns with videos and other materials available to the industry to promote. For example, a 2020 center bulletin laid out plans for a nine-month campaign titled “Rethink Methane.” It included a website for the center’s funders to link to and video for them to embed on their own sites, the documents show.
The message of the five-minute video is that, because methane is a relatively short-lived greenhouse gas (once it’s in the atmosphere, it becomes less potent as the years go by), cattle would not cause additional warming as long as their numbers did not grow.
The argument leans on a method developed by scientists that aims to better account for the global-warming effects of short-lived greenhouse gases like methane. However, the use of that method by an industry “as a way of justifying high current emissions is very inappropriate,” said Drew Shindell, professor of earth science at Duke University and the lead author of a landmark United Nations report on methane emissions.
The Clear Center’s argument also doesn’t account for the clearing of forests for cattle grazing, for example, or emissions from the production of cattle feed, Dr. Shindell said.
IFeeder saw Dr. Mitloehner as an influential scientific voice on agriculture, the files show. The group said in the 2018 memorandum that he would provide “a neutral, credible, third-party voice” that would “show consumers that they can feel good” about eating meat. The Clear Center’s messaging, the memo said, would counterbalance “a small but vocal minority with hidden agendas,” such as celebrities and policymakers, who were harming meat’s reputation.
An October 2021 email from Ms. Moody, the IFeeder executive, to a person who oversees outreach for the Clear Center underscored the center’s relationship with industry. “I think it would be great to hear from you and Frank about what information the Clear Center needs from the advisory committee,” Ms. Moody wrote, “which would set up the reverse question to the committee of what types of resources or communication pieces the industry needs from the Clear Center.”
Dr. Mitloehner said it was “absolutely not correct” that the center was providing communications services for the industry. “What we communicate is rooted in research and science — always,” he said.
Tyson, the California Cattle Council and the North American Meat Institute did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Farming and warming
Farming is easily the world’s most vital industry, and improving agricultural practices have lessened global hunger, lifted millions of people from poverty and vastly improved life expectancies. Yet scientific research has long shown that agriculture is also a major source of planet-warming emissions, ranking below the leading causes — the burning of coal, gas and oil — but still producing almost 15 percent of global emissions, the United Nations estimates. That’s roughly the same amount as the transportation sector.
Dr. Mitloehner, an animal scientist by training, gained prominence in climate circles in the mid-2000s when he hit upon a shortcoming in what was then a groundbreaking United Nations report that drew early attention to agriculture’s climate effects.
That U.N. report had been one of the first to compare the emissions of livestock to transportation, and described farming as the bigger polluter. But Dr. Mitloehner observed that researchers had not taken full stock of transportation’s climate toll — for example by not taking into account emissions from drilling for oil or disposing of used cars.
The United Nations has since revised downward slightly its estimate of emissions from animal agriculture. Still, numerous researchers have pointed out that the oversight did not affect the report’s overall findings: that agriculture was a sizable climate concern.
In 2019 Dr. Mitloehner also criticized separate research, a report that called for people to eat less meat, that was published in The Lancet. Dr. Mitloehner said that it was wrong to suggest that food choices would drastically affect the climate and the environment. (The Lancet researchers, and the scientific consensus, maintain that food choices do affect the climate.)
A Clear Center bulletin to funders in November 2019 credited Dr. Mitloehner with leading the effort to criticize the research findings, saying he “mobilized a massive campaign” and describing the campaign as “successful in swaying undecided audiences away” from The Lancet report.
Dr. Mitloehner and the Clear Center have described some of the center’s funding publicly.
The Clear Center’s website says it receives funding through State of California agencies and UC Davis, as well as from philanthropy. And in a blog post this year, Dr. Mitloehner said the center was supported by the University of California and by organizations, namely IFeeder. Last year, Dr. Mitloehner told Undark Magazine, a nonprofit online science publication, that the center had received about $500,000 from the feed industry association, prompting Unearthed to file a public records request.
But a list of funders made public by UC Davis in response to the public-records request shows that the center receives almost all its funding from companies and industry groups, with the exception of a few relatively small amounts from a family foundation and other sources. IFeeder committed $2.9 million, and about $825,000 of that had been disbursed to the Clear Center as of the Undark article’s publication date.
Dr. Mitloehner himself has in the past received grants from state agencies like the California Air Resources Board, the state’s clean air regulator. Dr. Mitloehner’s position is funded through the University of California.
Dr. Mitloehner stressed that his main mission was to keep pushing industry to reduce its emissions. His lab was starting two more trials to look at methane-reducing feed additives, he said. “My lab is doing real, practical work to reduce emissions from livestock,” he said.