Opinion piece: Activist tactics and the discrediting of scientists

This opinion piece was written in protest to persistent attempts to undermine the credibility of established experts and organizations in the domain of animal source foods and livestock agriculture. This is now typically done by unfairly labelling prominent research and science communication that do not align with certain (largely ideological) perspectives as untrustworthy and perversely influenced by industry. Yet, the validity of the actual scientific arguments and evidence, that have been diligently provided by numerous established experts in the interdisciplinary domain of animal production (and far beyond), are rarely addressed in an appropriate manner. The recent smear campaign against the Dublin Declaration is an illustration of this ongoing trend to silence 'inconvenient' science.

First published on 15/11/2023 (updated on 19/04/2024)

Authors: Prof. Frédéric Leroy (CoI; Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium), Prof. Keith Belk (Colorado State University, USA), Prof. Antonella Dalle Zotte (University of Padova, Italy), Prof. Stefaan De Smet (Ghent University, Belgium), Prof. Frank Dunshea (President of the World Association of Animal Production; University of Melbourne, Australia; University of Leeds, UK), Prof. Peer Ederer (GOAL Sciences, Switzerland), Prof. em. Bjørg Egelandsdal (Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway), Prof. Mario Estévez (Universidad de Extremadura, Spain), Dr. Mohammed Gagaoua (INRAE, France), Dr. Jean-François Hocquette (INRAE, France; French Academy of Agriculture), Prof. Anders Karlsson (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden), Collette Kaster (CEO of the American Meat Science Association, USA), Dr. Mohammad Koohmaraie (IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group, USA), Prof. Michael RF Lee (Harper Adams University, UK; Co-Chair UK Universities Climate Network, Net Zero Group), Prof. Carol Lorenzen (Oregon State University, USA), Dr. Pablo Manzano (Basque Centre for Climate Change, Spain), Prof. Andrew Milkowski (University of Wisconsin, USA), Prof. Frank Mitloehner (University of California, Davis, USA), Dr. Fabio Montossi (Instituto Nacional de Investigación Agropecuaria, Uruguay), Prof. em. David Pethick (Murdoch University, Australia), Dr. Rod Polkinghorne (Birkinwood, Australia), Prof. Giuseppe Pulina (University of Sassari, Italy), Dr. Andrea Rosati (Secretary General of the European Federation of Animal Science), Prof. Jason Rowntree (Michigan State University, USA), Prof. John Scanga (Colorado State University, USA), Prof. Alice Stanton (RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, Ireland), Prof. Robyn Warner (University of Melbourne, Australia), and Prof. Wilhelm Windisch (Technical University Munich, Germany)

All authors endorse this opinion paper in their own capacity, which does not necessarily reflect the opinion of their host institutions


As either initiators or signatories of the Dublin Declaration, we first wish to clearly lay out our positions as scientists in the contentious research field of livestock systems and animal source foods. With the Declaration, we are making the point that animal agriculture needs to be safeguarded from baseless and exaggerated accusations. What we are not advocating for is the preservation of the status quo. In the past we have consistently underscored the imperative need for substantial reforms within the food system. Our perspective centers on embracing more eco-friendly production systems while shifting from a diet dominated by ultra-processed convenience foods to more wholesome dietary patterns with rich diversity. It is crucial, however, to recognize that the distinction between animals and plants creates a false dichotomy, as if there was a trade-off between the one and the other. Every diet as well as every agricultural production system depends critically on the integration of both. However, for various reasons of either commercial or ideological profit, coordinated campaigns are disproportionately placing blame on animal agriculture for many of the ills of the global food system. Opposing this imbalance in the conversation typically leads to fervent resistance from a vocal minority. Often, this also comes with aggressive accusations of industry bias and corruption.

If we feel compelled to engage in this debate, and take the risk of being exposed to hostility and intimidation, it is because of our academic and civic responsibilities to scientifically counteract ideological radicalism that could result in irreparable harm when put into action. To be clear: the initiators of the Declaration are not benefiting financially from their efforts in any way. For the sake of transparency, an overview of potential conflicts of interest can be read here (and here for the founder of this website). What this overview does demonstrate, however, is an active involvement with certain stakeholders in the field of animal production, which is also the case for many, if not most, scientists on the list of signatories. For some, this may also involve declared funding of research. It is not only reasonable but also essential for academics to offer their expertise and insights to the societal actors within their area of specialization, while also learning from them. 

In this ongoing controversy, all parties involved need to engage in introspection, but the prevailing assumption that those voices condemning livestock practices are consistently well-intentioned and devoid of bias is thoroughly misguided. Below, we present four recent and interrelated instances of defamation campaigns that disproof this misconception.

Example 1 - The UN Food Systems Summit: turning anti-Davos sentiment into a Big Meat problem
The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit had noble intentions. Or so it seemed. It was criticized early on by Michael Fakhri, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, because its 'rules of engagement were determined by a small set of actors. The private sector, organizations serving the private sector (notably the World Economic Forum), scientists, and economists initiated the process' [Fakhri et al. 2021]. Lack of transparency on the funding and recruitment of Action Track (AT) leaders raised concerns [Canfield et al. 2021]. 

Notably, AT2 was allocated to the founder of the EAT Foundation [UN 2020], who's goal was 'to take full advantage of the Summit' and 'force the kind of far-reaching changes that the world now desperately needs' [EAT 2020]. Given that EAT argues that 'hard policy interventions' are needed to impose a semi-vegetarian Planetary Health Diet [Willett et al. 2019], and based on the many activist participants populating AT2, an anti-livestock atmosphere was imposed [Leroy et al. 2023]. The Good Food Institute, being the largest lobby group for vegan tech, had been invited to 'lead the innovation pillar' of AT2 and provide 'influence on the innovation thinking across all five action tracks' [GFI 2021], while AT2's Civil Society Leader was the CEO of 50by40 [UN 2020], an activist umbrella group that has the halving of livestock by 2040 as its mission.

In response to this hostile context, a 'Sustainable Livestock Solution Cluster' was created, and led by experts from a number of respectable organisations, including the International Livestock Research Institute, World Farmers' Organization, and Alliance Biodiversity/CIAT. In turn, this led Greenpeace's Zach Boren to portray the initiative as a takeover by meat and dairy industries, citing EAT's Marco Springmann (Oxford) and Matthew Hayek (New York University) in support [Boren 2021]. These accusations were then propagated in The Guardian [Kevany 2021], by a journalist who is now affiliated with Sentient Media, a platform for journalists committed to animal rights (see below). Hayek was again quoted, this time as one of the eleven 'corrective' additions to the Sustainable Livestock Cluster, in an attempt to retake control of the narrative. Boren's work was brought to the attention of Fakhri, who then made the case that EAT was sabotaged by industry [Fakhri 2022]. But was Fakhri also informed of the fact that EAT was created by a Young Global Leader of the same World Economic Forum that he lambasted initially, and that EAT has been modelled on Davos [Eidem 2015Richert 2014; Turow-Paul 2016]? The WEF is indeed supportive of EAT's Great Food Transformation [Whiting 2019], and so are the agri-food multinationals of the World Business Council Sustainable Development that entered a formal partnership with EAT [FReSH initiative; EAT]. In any case, whatever good was achieved in the Sustainable Livestock Cluster was now discredited in the eyes of Fakhri as irreversibly corrupted by the livestock industry, whereas AT2/EAT's motives were simply classified as 'good intentions' [Fakhri 2022].

Intermezzo: Sentient Media

Sentient Media, a journalistic cell within a wider animal rights activist network, defines itself as a 'non-profit news organization that is changing the conversation around animal agriculture across the globe' [SM 2023]. [Update 08/02/2024: Its founding donors include the Järvenpää Foundation, the Effective Altruism Animal Welfare Fund, and the Open Philanthropy Project. Sentient Media is further funded by Unovis' New Crop Capital Trust, a prominent investor in the vegan-tech food industry; the Quinn Foundation and Stray Dog Institute, two affiliated organisations funding vegan activism; the Greenbaum foundation, founded by the executive producer of vegan activist documentaries, such as Cowspiracy and Game Changers; Walton Enterprises, the holding of the Walmart family; and Oxford University; SM 2023]. At the time of writing, its contributors included Karen Asp (a PETA 'vegan mentor'), Marina Bolotnikova (contributor to The Guardian, editor at Vox), Nicholas Carter (co-founder of PlantBasedData), Laura Driscoll (contributor to Greenpeace), Jan Dutkiewicz (visiting fellow at Harvard Law, contributor to The Guardian), Lillie Gardner (Compassionate Action for Animals), Björn Jóhann (Faunalytics), Sophie Kevany (contributor to The Guardian and The Irish Times), Jennifer Molidor, John ObergLex Rigby (Viva!; 'Europe's leading vegan campaigning charity'), Spencer Roberts, Jessica Scott Reid, and Jeff Sebo, among others[Update 10/12/2023: Besides the overlap with The Guardian and Vox, some Sentient Media contributors also work for DeSmog, including Caroline ChristenRachel Sherrington, and Hazel Healy].

Jeff Sebo is not only a 'mentor of Sentient Media' [CIWF; NYU] but also the Director of Animal Studies and executive committee member of the Center for Environmental and Animal Protection unit at New York University [CEAP]. CEAP functions as a hub for animal activism [c.f, Bekoff 2023 illustrated by the presence of Peter Singer at its inauguration in 2018, CEAP] and its 'New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness' [NY 2024]. The Center disapproves of livestock agriculture and has suggested to consider hard policy interventions, such as the taxing and banning of animal source foods [Minelli et al. 2021]. Within NY University, CEAP is situated in the Department of Environmental Studies [CEAP], which is also the home of Matthew Hayek (who received research funding from CEAP; e.g., Bollington et al. 2021) and, previously, Jennifer Jacquet (former deputy director of CEAP, now at the University of Miami). Prior to joining NYU, Hayek was a postdoc at the Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School. Both Hayek an Jacquet are typically called upon whenever a scientist is needed in support of statements by journalists affiliated with Sentient Media. 

Example 2 - The coordinated attempt to discredit Professor Frank Mitloehner

Frank Mitloehner holds a professorship at the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, where he specializes in areas such as air quality, livestock housing, and husbandry. He is widely recognized for his role as the director of the CLEAR Center and his influential work as a science communicator. While advocating for a shift in livestock agriculture to reduce methane emissions, he emphasizes that animal production systems can and should be part of the solution. This perspective has not been well-received within activist circles, and the impact of his work became a cause of concern to those invested in anti-livestock agendas.

The campaign to frame Mitloehner as an industry scientist started when Sentient Media's managing editor published an accusatory piece on the Undark website [Splitter 2021]. In that piece, Matthew Hayek was interviewed to support the premise that Mitloehner is biased. After having obtained documents through Freedom of Information laws, a collaboration involving Zach Boren [Boren 2022] and The New York Times [Tabuchi 2022] was launched in 2022 to allege that the scientific activities of Mitloehner are influenced by funding from the livestock sector. Boren's article was then used to readdress the case on Sentient Media [Splitter 2022]. A hit piece was also published on DeSmog.

Mitloehner's response to the accusations was published soon after [Mitloehner 2022]. His message was clear: 'Animal scientists work with animal agriculture. That’s it. That’s the exposé, the conspiracy that so many activists and journalists want to share with you.' He added: 'I am transparent about my collaboration with the livestock industry. My research lab receives grants to conduct research for the agricultural sector, as well as the public sector' and 'my job as a professor and cooperative extension air quality specialist is to work with members of the industry to improve the environmental performance of the food they grow. I don’t mean that figuratively; it’s written in my job description'. For the dispassionate observer, it is hard to see what this whole issue was about. Scientific experts in the domain of animal agriculture often work with stakeholders in farming, ranching, or the agri-food industry. When potential conflicts of interest are declared, any accusation of bias is to be seen as an attack on the scientific integrity of the researcher. The real question is: why the vitriol?

One year later, Hayek was again quoted, together with Jacquet, in an article targeting Mitloehner, this time in The Guardian [Fassler 2023] and subsequently referred to in Vox [Torrella 2023]. Early 2024, Jacquet published yet another article centred on Mitloehner's "industry bias", this time in the journal Climatic Change [Jacquet 2024]. 

Example 3 - The portrayal of FAO as a PR apparatus acting on behalf of the livestock industry

Following its 'Livestock's Long Shadow' report [FAO 2006], the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations became a favourite of animal rights activists based on the fact that the total emissions of livestock were put at 18% of the anthropogenic contribution. This number was used to make the misleading claim that 'cows are worse than cars' [Mitloehner 2018]. Recently, however, FAO has updated the contribution to 11%, based on the latest available data and tools [FAO 2023]. In addition, FAO organized a Sustainable Livestock conference [FAO 2023] and created a balanced report on the health effects of animal source foods [FAO 2023], which no longer seem to be welcome messages in activist circles.

In May 2023, the Sentient Media journalist already mentioned in the first case (see above), suggested that FAO's recent estimate of livestock emissions was erroneous [Kevany 2023]. Some of the scientists quoted in the piece were Joseph Poore (Oxford), Timothy Searchinger (Princeton), and... Matthew Hayek. Later that year, two articles were published in The Guardian's subsection 'Animals Farmed' to accuse FAO of downplaying and censoring inconvenient facts after pressure from livestock groups [Nelson 2023a, 2023b]. Hayek was cited to cast doubt on the update of the emissions data, as well as his former colleague Jennifer Jacquet, who suggested that FAO's work is shaped by the meat and dairy industries. The modelling of complex systems is typically imperfect and needs to be subjected to scientific scrutiny. However, suggesting that FAO's work is distorted by industry pressure is a severe accusation. Responding to the article, a former FAO’s livestock development officer (Anne Mottet) insisted that FAO adheres to best practices and evolving methodologies, whereby better data and tools are the reason for the revision of the number, not industry pressure [Nelson 2023a]. A few days later, the Guardian articles were picked up by Sentient Media, closing the circle [Olafsson 2023]. 

Update (19/04/2024): in April 2024, a new attack on FAO was published in the Guardian entitled 'UN livestock emissions report seriously distorted our work, say experts', with one of the experts being Hayek [Neslen 2024].

Intermezzo: The Guardian and Vox Media

We argue that, in the light of accusations of impartiality, all actors need to be equally clear about their potential conflicts of interest. Even if publicly available to those who look for it, The Guardian's own funding mechanisms raise questions. The newspaper received almost 2 million dollars from Open Philanthropy (OP) as a contribution to its 'Animals Farmed' series in which the FAO articles were published [OP 2017; 2020]. Founded by Dustin Moskowitz, OP is a channel for Silicon-Valley 'effective altruists' [often vegans and transhumanists, cf Luneau 2020] to grant millions to animal activism. It has been described as the 'largest funder in the world of farm animal welfare', including investments in alternative proteins and animal welfare advocacy [Wikipedia 2023]. In 2019, OP recommended a grant of $100,000 to... Sentient Media [OP 2019], in addition to funding from other organisations with similar intentions [e.g., EA Funds 2021 and Quinn Foundation - Stray Dog Institute]. The OP is a founding donor of Sentient Media, together with the Järvenpää Foundation and the Effective Altruism Animal Welfare Fund. The OP also has close ties to the vegan food industry. In 2016, OP invested in Impossible Foods to support the development of imitation meats and functions as a patron of The Good Food Institute (GFI). As a lobby group for vegan tech companies, GFI aims to mobilize scientists, obtain political support and favourable regulatory frameworks, influence public opinion, and convince investors. It was founded by Bruce Friedrich in 2016, using $0.5 million originating from Mercy for Animals, followed by a $2.5-million (2016-2017) and further injections by the OP. Previously, Friedrich was the head of public campaigns at PETA, a militant animal rights organization. For some time, The Guardian was publishing an Animals Farmed article every four days on average, using emotional imagery [AdaptNation 2020], in addition to various other anti-livestock articles [e.g., those paid for by the vegan food brand Oatly! in the 'Parenting your Parents' series].

Update (16/01/2024): a similar case can be made for Vox Media, also found within the Sentient Media ecosystem [Bradley 2022; SEJ 2022], with overlapping journalists including the latter's Managing Editor Jenny Splitter [SM 2022], Marina Bolotnikova [VOX 2024], and Sophie Kevany [VOX 2023]. Vox receives funds from Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) [ACE 2023a], which was founded as Effective Animal Activism in 2013 in Oxford, England, and has since merged with the US-based Justice for Animals [ACE 2023b]. Among the top donors of ACE, we find OP and the Stray Dog Institute [ACE 2023]. In turn, this acquired budget provides funds to GFI, New Harvest, Faunalytics, Dharma Voices for Animals, Compassion in World Farming, and The Humane League [ACE 2022, 2023]. Moreover, ACE used to manage the now discontinued Animal Advocacy Research Fund, which had funded many academic studies that are favourable to animal rights advocacy and the transition to 'plant-based alternatives' [AARF 2024].

Example 4 - The torpedoing of the Dublin Declaration 

It is precisely as a reaction to such incursions into the scientific debate, and others like the infamous NutriRECS affair [Rubin 2020] and 'obesity wars' [Flegal 2021], that the Dublin Declaration of Scientists on the Societal Role of Livestock was established. It was initiated by the Organizing Committee for the International Summit on The Societal Role of Meat, hosted by the Irish state agency for agriculture Teagasc in 2022. Authorship lies with the 36 co-authors who contributed to the Summit's proceedings [Animal Frontiers 2023]. Signed by >1000 scientists who share the concern that the debate on livestock agriculture is severely unbalanced [DD 2023], it argues that 'Livestock systems must progress on the basis of the highest scientific standards. They are too precious to society to become the victim of simplification, reductionism or zealotry' [DD 2022]. 

Vilification of the Declaration followed the same playbook as the other cases mentioned above, in particular the campaign against Mitloehner. Sentient Media made the first move, publishing an article with an accusatory tone and headline: 'The Dublin Declaration is riddled with animal industry bias', extensively quoting Matthew Hayek to create an aureole of scientific credibility [Hussain 2023]. Zach Boren then issued another Freedom of Information request, this time directed at Teagasc, to obtain email correspondence [Boren 2023]. Teagasc was explicitly criticized by Hannah Daly of University College Cork. Whereas in the Mitloehner campaign a collaboration was set up with The New York Times to bring the story into mass media, this time The Guardian was involved [Carrington 2023]. Hayek was quoted, as well as Jennifer Jacquet. 

Update (29/11/2023): the same playbook was once more applied shortly after publication of this opinion piece: a Sentient Media-affiliated journalist published articles in DeSmog and The Guardian to paint a picture of industry interference with the COP28 agenda, quoting Jacquet and referring to the Dublin Declaration as "propaganda".

Let us set the record straight, once more. Neither the Declaration nor the Dublin Summit received financial backing from the industry, nor was their content influenced. All Committee members contributed to this initiative on a purely voluntary basis, driven by their scientific concerns, and without any remuneration [CoI here]. The sole financial support, a modest sum of 40,000 Euros, was provided by Teagasc to facilitate the organization of the Summit. Moreover, the Committee diligently scrutinizes all signatures to ensure that only scientists affiliated with universities or research-oriented institutions are included. While some of these individuals collaborate with the livestock industry in their research, and received and declared funding for it (which is what their host institutions ask them to do to begin with, and is common practice in most applied scientific disciplines), others do not. Yet, accusing any of the signatories of conducting biased research under industry influence is unfounded and intended to harm their reputation.

We are yet to receive a specific identification of which exact statement within the Declaration is considered erroneous, unbalanced, or indicative of industry bias. While the reference to 'zealotry' has sparked some understandable controversy, the examples above illustrate that this concern is not an imaginary problem. To be fair, a group of scientists [Herzon et al. 2023] has responded to our commentary in Nature Food regarding the Declaration [Leroy & Ederer 2023], and we appreciate such responses as part of the scientific process. However, we fail to see how this response would undermine the Declaration's overall validity. Apart from expressing assumptions about what animal production should look like according to the authors, and an unwarranted confidence in the potential of cellular agriculture to make up for the nutrient gaps created by a radical transition, one particular sentence in the response stands out: 'a comprehensive ethical analysis does not endorse favouring economic or socio-cultural factors over the obligation to uphold the interests of morally significant beings. To include only humans in the latter group is now widely regarded as speciesism or human chauvinism.'

Where to take it from here?

As scientists, our objective is to critically examine the most suitable forms of agriculture that would ensure a healthy and sustainable future and to what extent they can be effectively implemented or expanded. It appears, however, that meaningful discussions are complicated by the fact that the profession of livestock agriculture, or the eating of animal source foods, is now seen as a form of 'human chauvinism'.

We would like to conclude with the following quote from Mayes [2022] in the journal Food Ethics: 'Critics argue that the [EAT-Lancet] commission misrepresent or overstate the scientific evidence regarding the place of animal-protein in a healthy diet (Leroy and Cofnas 2020; Leroy and Hite 2020). One approach to defend the report and its scientific basis has been to cast these critics as biased and influenced by meat and livestock industries (Garcia et al. 2019). It is undeniable that those in the meat and livestock industry are highly critical of suggestions that people need to consume less meat (Clare et al. 2022). However, it is a convenient response that does not account for the complexity and contested relations among nutrition science, dietary guidance, and long-term health outcomes for individuals and populations across different cultural and socio-economic contexts (Overend 2020; Biltekoff 2013; Mayes and Thompson 2015). These debates cannot be resolved here, my point is simply that nutrition science is contested and that disagreements over dietary guidance are not reducible to “bad science”, corruption, or bias.' 

PS (08/02/2024): We refer the reader to another plea for the maintenance of a high scientific evidential bar in some of the food systems debates contaminated by (animal rights) ideology, coming from experts in the domain in aquaculture [Diggles et al. 2024]. These authors also report on the fact that such debates may not only suffer from a lack of scientific rigor and balance, but also from ad hominem attacks.

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