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Truths, Tactics and the Mist of Meat Lobby Science

Even with strict rules regulating lobbying in the EU, our policies and public views are still influenced by ethically questionable lobby group tactics. Here’s a recent example of a recurring tactic that has plagued the legitimacy of our decision-making for generations.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lobbying. In its simplest form, it’s just a practical means for people or organisations who represent the interests of a group to try to influence those who have decision-making power. It is legitimate; it is legal, and it has always been done. We can see lobbying as an extension of our freedom of expression and our right to political representation. Even student representatives advocating for the rights of their fellow classmates can be considered lobbyists in some way. 

But lobbying has gained a bad reputation, and there are reasons for that. Problems arise when there is a disproportionate influence wielded by certain individuals or groups due to economic disparities. Well-funded interest groups and corporations have greater access to decision-makers in government. For example, this study has shown that the money spent by meat producers on lobbying the European Union government is three times higher than that spent by plant-based lobby groups, and 190 times higher in the US. Disproportionate spending means disproportionate access and influence.

This is not a new phenomenon, and not an easy one to fix. But what one can do to level the playing field is make sure that everyone at least sticks to the same rules. In the European Union, lobbying is regulated through a transparency register which every group wishing to lobby must sign up to. The register is used by European institutions to regulate the behaviour of lobbyists. But the issue is that even within the boundaries of legality, some organisations use less intellectually honest techniques.

Curated truths

There’s one technique in particular that has been successfully used for decades by lobbies of various sectors: casting doubt on science. To respond to evidence that would negatively affect their activities, industry lobbies have funded research that would counter the conclusions of existing studies and produce desired results. While, of course, not every industry-funded study is corrupted, research has shown that industry-funded studies tend to produce results that are favourable to their sponsors.1,2

That’s why the practice of funding research is so widely used: it works to stir public discussions in the desired direction. But sometimes, the origins of research funding are flushed out for the public to see plainly. For example, now we know that in the 1960s, the sugar lobby paid Harvard researchers to perform a study that would downplay the correlation between sugar consumption and heart disease, shifting the focus to fat. The objective was to absolve sugary foods of blame while tarnishing the reputation of fatty foods among consumers for decades. Even as recently as 2019, a group of oral health researchers published a letter in The Lancet complaining that the sugar industry is still influencing oral health policies and professional organisations through well-developed corporate strategies.3 Similarly, the tobacco lobby in the early 2000s paid the Universities of Geneva and Zurich to publish research denying the harmful effects of tobacco on people’s health.

There would be many other examples, but I want to get to a recent one we’ve analysed ourselves. Together with Lighthouse Reports, we have studied a document that was signed by more than one thousand scientists from all over the world. It’s called the “Dublin Declaration of Scientists on the Societal Role of Livestock”, it was published for the first time asa manifesto in October 2022, and then in the academic journal Animal Frontiers in April 2023. Animal Frontiers is the official journal of the World Association for Animal Production (WAAP) and four animal science societies, which fund it.

Devil in the details

The Dublin Declaration is a short document that argues for the nutritional, environmental, and social benefits of meat production. It claims to “give voice to the many scientists around the world who research diligently, honestly, and successfully in the various disciplines in order to achieve a balanced view of the future of animal agriculture,” and it states that livestock “are too precious to society to become the victim of simplification, reductionism or zealotry.” This document is considered by the meat industry lobby group known as the European Livestock Voice (ELV), as the bedrock of scientific evidence on these matters.

Speaking at a conference in the US earlier this year, the industry group ELV’s frontman, Andrea Bertaglio, said that the nearly one thousand scientists who signed the declaration are “independent, [and have] nothing to do with the livestock industry.” It didn’t take much research to determine that this claim is false. Documents obtained by Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s journalism project, have shown the creation, launch, and promotion of the declaration had significant links to the livestock industry and its consultants. And four out of six of the authors of the Declaration have clear ties to industry. The declaration was also publicly promoted by the Global Meat Alliance, an industry-funded group, and the PR agency Red Flag, which has worked for the North American Meat Institute and the US National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.4

However, more than one thousand scientists have decided to sign this declaration. And so we thought it would be reasonable to check how many of them have relationships with the meat industry. We were curious about the extent of the conflict of interest among the signatories. Based on previous research into the impact of affiliated research, our theory was that if a scientist has affiliations with the industry, it’s more likely they will decide to sign a document of this sort. With affiliations, we mean that their research has received any funding from the livestock industry over the past five years or that they held positions such as chair, advisor, consultant, or any other influential roles within industry associations. Our research showed that 60% of the signatories have affiliations with the livestock industry. 

While we were doing our research, looking at the signatories’ backgrounds one by one, we noticed something else too. Around 30% of the signatories have a background other than one that could be considered relevant to the claims the declaration makes about environmental science or human health. Around two-thirds of them are veterinarians, who aren't necessarily funded by industry (only 10% of that 30% overlaps with the industry affiliation set) but do potentially benefit from a thriving livestock sector to be able to carry out their work. So, their signature doesn’t carry much weight when it comes to claims about the environment and human health. It’s as if a gastroenterologist gave you a diagnosis about your heart instead of a cardiologist.

The relative scale of science

In the hierarchy of evidence, other studies published by independent scientists in Nature and Science, the highest-ranking scientific journals, carry significantly more weight. Collectively, they conclude that meat is one of the biggest contributors to environmental degradation and climate change, and that cutting meat consumption in rich countries is the single best way to reduce a person’s impact on the environment.5,6

Interestingly, one paragraph of the declaration admits that some methods and scale of animal production systems present challenges to biodiversity, climate change, and nutrient flows, as well as animal health and welfare. But the overall message coming from the document doesn’t imply in any way that production should be reduced. In fact, the declaration itself has been used by lobbyists to argue on behalf of big industry players against policies that responded to the need to reduce meat consumption in EU countries for environmental and animal welfare reasons.7 For example, an investigation carried out by Lighthouse Reports and the Guardian earlier this year showed that meat lobbies fought the animal welfare package, arguing against the science used by the European Safety Authority (EFSA). At one point, a number of lobbying groups submitted a 60-page analysis arguing that a positive EFSA assessment of the package was not “impartial” and contained “serious scientific errors.”.8

The scientific claims behind the Dublin Declaration are used by lobbyists to influence both policymakers and citizens. To policymakers, they can say: can’t you see that the measures you’re taking are based on wrong, or at least uncertain, science? To citizens, they promise to “finally explain the truth” about meat, as stated on the “Meatthefacts” website, established by the European Livestock Voice. The website claims that the EU livestock farming model – which is based on diversified, local, and family farm structures – is the backbone of the EU's rural areas. 

And here we get to another crucial point: that of representation. There are two very beneficial frames that meat industry lobbies use to represent the challenges that animal farming is confronted with. The first one is to communicate animal farming as if the policy proposals to improve animal welfare standards were mostly detrimental to small-scale farmers, when in fact, like in the example of the animal welfare package, policy proposals would mostly affect the largest and wealthiest industrial farms and meat producers. 

The second convenient frame is to discard the existing (and numerous) scientific studies on the impact of meat production as vegan propaganda. An internal Copa-Cogeca presentation publicly available online shows that the group interprets current criticism of meat and dairy products as an attempt at “veganizing the economy.” It also interprets it as a long-lasting attempt at making people stop eating meat: “The Puritans of the 18th century,” the document states, “were already trying to remove these products from their diet.” But scientists are not suggesting that the only way to solve our issues is to remove meat and dairy products from our diets altogether. It would be enough to reduce them. Actually, there is increasing scientific evidence on the benefits of livestock on small and medium-sized regenerative farms. So, scientists are not saying that the sector cannot exist. They are not saying: animal farming is not acceptable altogether. They are not saying: we should all become vegan. They are instead saying: the sector cannot keep operating as it has, let alone keep on growing. Yet lobbying capitalises on polarised debates.9 And the louder these polarised debates become, the harder it is for anyone to discern the truth - a form of scientific stalling that plays directly into the favour of lobby groups looking to continue with business as usual. By casting doubt on scientific conclusions, it only becomes more difficult for the issues identified by scientific studies to ascend to government policy agendas.

I want to make another important point: these techniques are not only used by the meat industry. They are used by various actors. What we need to take away from this story is that we cannot blindly trust reports and manifestos nearly as much as truly independent scientific studies. We should always be wary when a group with a very specific interest – in this case, to sell meat – claims that they will finally tell you the truth about their sector.

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