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Mike Redwood looks at the attacks on the credibility of Professor Frank Mitloehner and how this reflects issues facing the meat and leather industries.
COP27 is now underway and is already shaping up to focus more on agriculture than in the past. So, it seems no coincidence that only a week ago the New York Times published a front-page article featuring a personal attack on Professor Frank Mitloehner by suggesting there is something immoral and underhand about his research funding.
Readers of this industry-oriented article will know Mitloehner as a Professor at the University of California, Davis, working on livestock in particular. He specialises in the measurement and mitigation of “greenhouse gases, volatile organic compounds, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, and particulate matter and the study of their effects on human- and animal health and welfare. In short, he investigates the nexus of agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability”. At UC Davis, he carries this out as the Director of the Clear Center.
Mitloehner was the first to challenge the 2006 “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report, which is still widely used by vegan and animal rights groups to justify relentlessly attacking eating meat, making leather or keeping livestock. In the end, retractions and adjustments were made, although the damage was done.
In 2009, he joined Twitter to promote his work and seek a science-based balance in the conversation. I seem to remember soon after he was attacked by the UK-based newspaper The Guardian as being funded by “big meat”, a question he dealt with via total transparency.
A few years later, I was to discover that The Guardian itself accepts about US$1 million a year to write articles opposing animal agriculture and meat eating; from a body that includes those who are invested in the new meat alternatives. The Guardian does not keep this a secret, but it is much harder and opaque to find the detail of this funding than it is to learn who funds the research being done by Professor Mitloehner and his team.
Why an investigative journalist was needed by the New York Times is hard to imagine when funding details are clear on the organisation’s website and associated blogs. I quote “The CLEAR Center also receives philanthropic gifts, including from Institute for Feed Education and Research (IFEEDER), which is the public charity of the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA). IFEEDER is committed to furthering the industry’s commitment to environmental stewardship. IFEEDER’s support does not influence the CLEAR Center’s research”.
Rather than searching “internal University of California documents” to learn what was already public, the NYT researchers would have done better looking at the work done by the Clear Center. Was that thought too tedious, or were the researchers’ minds and their agenda already made up?
Mitloehner is a renowned scientist because his work has been dedicated to reducing the impact of livestock on the environment, improving their welfare and helping the wider community get to grips with complicated science.
Throughout the world, government research funding is diminishing so it has to be supplemented from elsewhere. In the fossil fuel and other industries, a lot of that is in the form of lobbying via a complex web of PR companies and they like to hide the origins of their funds, paying researchers to write influential articles without reference to their source of funding.
Open and transparent
Not so for the Clear Center and Professor Mitloehner in either his work or his publications. Currently, he is helping the livestock industry achieve the demanding methane reduction targets set by the State of California which is becoming a test bed for feedstuff additives and the production of gas for energy from slurry ponds. A second stage of using this gas for green hydrogen is even being considered.
His work also involves teaching, both to students and the wider world, comprehensively explaining in understandable terms how the carbon cycle works with livestock and how the recently suggested GWP* calculation for methane better allows governments and agencies to understand how methane for livestock fits into the science of global warming. All helping society take better decisions, rather than emotional, partially informed ones that we will live to regret.
It is hard to comprehend why a normally trusted newspaper should get itself involved in such activity, pretending that it has uncovered secret information about scientists misleading the public. The one thing we do know that is hate quickly trickles down from such articles, assisted by modern social media. Already some of Professor Mitloehner’s colleagues are receiving abuse.
In light of current geopolitics, this all closely compares with events in China. China is run by a Communist Party that opposes any dissent. Instead of the government dealing with the issue, they deal with the individuals, often very harshly. Is that the society the New York Times wants to create, by stifling proper debate through publishing false innuendo to discredit well-respected and dedicated scientists?
If you have not read any of Professor Mitloehner’s work, you can find it easily via the UC Davis website. It provides vital facts for an important debate and, instead of trying to discredit it, the New York Times should be instructing everyone involved to read it.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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