The Livestock Industry and Climate Obstruction: A Q&A with Viveca Morris and Jennifer Jacquet

An aerial view of a feedlot, a large swath of flat, unplanted land along a highway with cattle scattered throughout
One of the largest feedlots in the U.S., part of a cattle ranch in Coalinga, California. Photo: Vince Penn / We Animals Media

A new study by Viveca Morris, a Research Scholar at Yale Law School and Executive Director of the Law, Ethics & Animals Program at Yale Law School, and Jennifer Jacquet, a Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at University of Miami, investigates how the livestock industry has shaped public policy and public discourse about its climate change impacts. The article documents the significance of industry-funded scientists and academic centers in responding to mounting evidence of the climate change harms of industrial meat and dairy production. The study, “The animal agriculture industry, U.S. universities, and the obstruction of climate understanding and policy,” was published in the journal Climatic Change on Feb. 26. Morris and Jacquet discuss their research.

You trace the history of the livestock industry’s response to a 2006 United Nations report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” Why is this history important?

Morris: The 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” provided the first high-profile, global assessment of the livestock sector’s contributions to climate change. None of the previous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports had singled out emissions of animal agriculture specifically. In addition to quantifying the industry’s emissions, the report made the case that the livestock sector has such profound environmental and climate impacts that it should be a top focus for environmental policies. It warned of dire consequences if business continued as usual. In the years that followed, many additional studies were published attributing significant climate change impacts to livestock. Livestock supply chains are now estimated to emit about one-third of all human-caused methane emissions — the single largest source — and around half of human-caused nitrous oxide emissions. Yet today, 17 years after that initial U.N. report, livestock greenhouse gas emissions remain effectively unregulated in the United States and government programs continue to support the expansion of meat and dairy consumption and production. Jennifer and I wanted to know: What explains this? Part of the answer is that industry groups have engaged in a multitude of strategies to obscure public understanding and shape public policy regarding the livestock industry’s role in the climate crisis in their favor. The beef industry quickly identified “Livestock’s Long Shadow” as a public relations problem that needed to be debunked.

Why do these animal agriculture industries want to team up with universities to do what is largely public relations? Why do they not just do this work in-house or hire a public relations firm?

Jacquet: Universities offer credibility that companies and PR firms cannot, and that is because the mission of a university is different from that of a company. In many ways the companies, as well as the PR firms they hire, are saying the same things as these university professors — that cows are not a significant driver of climate change, that animal agriculture can nevertheless be part of the solution to climate change, and that beef “has a good story” — but it’s clear that the media and public respond differently when it’s a university professor. Industry documents reveal that they were seeking a “neutral, credible, third-party voice” and that’s just what they helped create in Frank Mitloehner at UC Davis, although our work directly challenges that he is neutral, credible, or even a “third-party,” given his close ties to and funding from industry.  

Morris: The lack of transparency about the corporate donors’ roles in these university centers is also significant. For example, in 2018, UC Davis launched the Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research Center (CLEAR Center) with a multi-million-dollar gift commitment from a major feed industry association trade group, the Institute for Feed Education & Research (IFEEDER). IFEEDER is the largest trade association dedicated to representing the business interests of the U.S. animal feed industry. But IFEEDER’s involvement as a funder was not disclosed on the CLEAR Center’s website for several years until investigative journalists began poking around and filing public records requests. In a document obtained in a public records request, IFEEDER described the CLEAR Center’s outputs as “critical for the IFEEDER to reference when sharing the important message of animal agriculture’s role as a solution provider in the nation’s efforts to address climate change issues.” 

What are some examples of how industry-funded researchers and academic centers have influenced policy-making related to livestock and climate change?

Morris: The list is long. Some examples that we document in the article include:

  • Influencing international efforts to establish benchmarks, methods, and guidelines for quantifying the environmental footprint of livestock production.
  • Writing a white paper that industry groups have said led to the exclusion of reduced meat consumption and environmental criteria from the 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
  • Testifying before a U.S. Senate committee that the livestock sector’s contributions to climate change “pale in comparison to other sectors” and that “giving up meat won’t solve the problem.”
  • Working with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office to remove a reference to livestock in a Green New Deal factsheet.
  • Leading a social media campaign to challenge the 2019 EAT-Lancet Commission’s report, which synthesized scientific research to recommend shifts in diet that would help improve both health and sustainability, including engaging in ad hominem attacks against the authors
  • Shaping California Air Resources Board compliance cap-and-trade program offsets protocols for livestock producers
  • Much of this work is public relations conducted by university employees in support of industry interests. The paper also offers examples of how industry groups then cite these academics in advertisements and in public comments to regulatory agencies to, for example, oppose mandatory greenhouse gas reporting requirements.

Jacquet: The influence of these researchers also extends beyond the United States. For example, UC Davis Professor Frank Mitloehner has testified before Ireland’s national parliament that reducing animal herd sizes is impractical and counterproductive. He has also advocated for the adoption of GWP (Global Warming Potential), a novel greenhouse gas emissions metric, in public policy in a comment submitted on behalf of the UC Davis CLEAR Center to the European Commission in 2020. He reportedly met with New Zealand government officials to advocate for the use of “carrots” for livestock producers instead of “sticks,” and advised Australian government officials on their choice of greenhouse gas accounting metrics.

What are some examples of misleading statements about the livestock industry’s climate impacts that have been promoted by university researchers and centers?

Morris: We identify many examples of potentially misleading claims, such as  that animal agriculture isn’t a major driver of climate change compared to fossil fuels and therefore focusing on animal agriculture would be a distraction from the real problem at hand. There is no doubt that we must reduce the burning of fossil fuels, but we also need to dramatically reduce animal agriculture emissions. Even if fossil fuel use ended immediately, food production emissions are on course to drive global temperatures beyond 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels. Animal-based foods make up more than half of food production emissions. Some narratives also focus on promoting and celebrating improvements in the industry’s “emission intensity,” the emissions per unit produced, while ignoring rising absolute emissions.

Jacquet: One common claim is that reducing production and consumption of beef is unnecessary because the companies will come up with techno-fixes to solve the emissions problem, like methane-reducing additives for animal feed or anaerobic digesters on manure lagoons, which sounds a lot like the oil and gas industry’s investments in geoengineering and algae-based biofuels.

Another common narrative is that methane from cattle does not have the same warming impact as methane from fossil fuels. “Biogenic methane” — methane released by living organisms — has the same atmospheric warming impact as fossil methane. Both last about 12 years in the atmosphere, at which point the methane combines oxygen to form CO2 and water. For fossil methane, scientists, including the IPCC, consider the CO2 produced by this process to be an added molecule of fossil CO2. For biogenic methane, the CO2 produced is not counted as additional since it originally had a non-fossil carbon source. As a result, fossil methane has been determined to have a slightly higher emissions metric value than biogenic methane, but the difference is considered relatively minimal. It’s misleading to make it sound like fossil fuel methane is a big problem, while animal agriculture methane is not. A new cow added to the planet means new methane added to the planet.