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A Meatless Attack

The New York Times attacks a scientist for defending meat.

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(frantic00/Shutterstock)

I don't remember exactly when it happened, but one day I woke up and all the grocery stores and fast food chains were selling fake meat. It really was that fast: one day, Burger King sold hamburgers, the next, it sold soy patties.

Part of the synthetic meat craze is a function of supply and demand. Some vegetarians like the taste of meat, and environmentalists want a guiltless meat substitute. The market gives people, even vegetarians, what they want.

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But the rise of synthetic meat cannot be considered apart from the broader war on animal agriculture. In 2019, the Lancet called for a "radical transformation of the global food system" to fight climate change, insisting that global meat consumption would "have to be reduced by more than 50%" to achieve the desired "environmental benefits." Scientific American suggested people eat less meat "to tackle the climate crisis." And a Monday hit piece on the front page of the New York Times demonstrates that meat and American farmers have powerful and well-connected enemies.

The Times piece attacked the work of Frank Mitloehner, a researcher and animal scientist at the University of California, Davis, who heads the university's Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research (CLEAR) Center. The Times's Hiroko Tabuchi reported that the CLEAR Center, which hosts Mitloehner's blog and supports his research, is funded in part by a group called IFEEDER (Institute for Feed Education and Research), a nonprofit associated with the American Feed Industry Association. The implication, never stated, is that Mitloehner's scholarship is compromised by the center's industry donors.

Mitloehner is a regular critic of activist scholarship that seeks to tear down the American agricultural industry. Instead of trying to end cattle ranching and replace it with cricket farming, he works with farmers to change their feeding practices and lower their carbon footprint. He is a proponent of reform, not revolution.

"People want us to go on record that animal agriculture should fade away or be significantly reduced, but that’s not our charge or our place," Mitloehner said on his blog. "Our mission is simply to reduce animal agriculture’s impact on our climate and environment, and to do that, we must work with the people who are raising the food that feeds us all."

Mitloehner is not what progressives would call a "climate denier"—he has called climate change "the biggest challenge of our lifetime," and is more concerned about the projected effects climate change than most mainstream right-wingers. His efforts have contributed to seismic shifts in the sustainability of agriculture; the production of milk, for example, used 90 percent less land and 65 percent less water in 2007 than it did in 1948. But he has pushed back on attempts to overstate the negative environmental effects of animal agriculture, including on a United Nations report on the environmental effects of livestock that the supernational body was later forced to revise in light of his criticism.

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As the Times concedes, there is no evidence that Mitloehner, U.C. Davis, or the CLEAR Center violated disclosure or ethics rules. Instead, the Times insinuates that his research on sustainable agricultural practices is tainted, and quotes a professor who charges Mitloehner with "downplay[ing] every impact of livestock" and reaching conclusions "discordant from the scientific consensus."

The professor doesn't specify the issues on which Mitloehner dissents from the supposed "scientific consensus," and Mitloehner's colleagues defend his academic rigor. Animal geneticist and fellow U.C. Davis professor Alison Van Eenennaam, for example, said in response to the Times report that Mitloehner in presentations has never made "a statement that was not supported by peer-reviewed papers" and has acknowledged the prevailing estimate that livestock are responsible for about 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But even taking the "scientific consensus" at face value, what are we supposed to make of the fact that livestock are responsible for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions? Are people around the world supposed to give up meat to potentially lower global temperatures by a fraction of a degree centigrade in the coming century?

Environmentalists would answer "yes," and the biggest criticism of Mitloehner seems to be that he doesn't want people to eat bugs. When he put out a blog post last year criticizing the idea that giving up animal meat would make a meaningful difference in global temperatures, Johns Hopkins put out a scathing letter insisting that Mitloehner "mischaracteriz[ed]... the evidence" and redoubling their call for Americans to periodically forgo meat "to take a step toward reducing their environmental footprint." The Times responded to Mitloehner's view that individual diets do not "drastically affect the climate and the environment" with a snide parenthetical claiming that "the scientific consensus" holds that "food choices do affect the climate."

Why do they care so much about meat consumption when, by their own estimates, it is a relatively insignificant contributor to climate change? Look at the proposed alternatives to farm-raised animal meat—insect meat from nerd-run "bug farms" in urban warehouses and synthetic meat concocted by Ivy League chemists. Compare those workers to the average farm hand who, though less of a grunt than he was 50 years ago due to the rise of factory farming, looks less like a Democratic voter than does a scientist at a Beyond Meat plant. When you consider that vegetarians tend to have lower testosterone than their meat-eating peers, the reasons for the Times's anti-meat jihad become obvious.

It is noteworthy that both progressives and "conservatives" are evading crucial issues in modern agriculture by focusing their attention on the extent to which methane emissions from livestock contribute to rising global temperatures. Environmentalists and defenders of the status quo ignore both the rise of factory farms and the proliferation of agrochemicals and their effects on the environment and public health. Exposure to various pesticides and fertilizers has been linked to nervous system damage and cancer, and pesticides are regularly detected in some 88 percent of America's rivers and streams. The chemicals they're putting in the water are, in fact, turning the freaking frogs gay. Those chemicals are in our water, too.

It would be nice to see Mitloehner focus on those other issues. But if all he is does is keep me from having to eat an Impossible Whopper, he has my ready support.

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