Op-Ed: What Do the Meat Industry, Far-Right and Major Internet Conspiracy Theories Have in Common?

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With 2024 a year of major elections around the world, Caitlin Smith, senior campaigner at corporate watchdog Changing Markets Foundation, highlights the non-profit’s research into alternative protein misinformation on social media, and why it’s more important than ever for our leaders to take a stand for human and planetary health.

Despite high levels of red and processed meats being linked to negative health outcomes like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, alternative proteins continue to struggle to break through the public narrative and have also increasingly become the target of numerous social media attacks. Our recent investigation, Truth, Lies, and Culture Wars, offers some insights into why and our new explainer video provides a snapshot of social media posts that our investigation (together with Ripple Research) discovered. 

Over a 14-month period (June 2022 to July 2023), we found over one million examples of misinformation surrounding meat and dairy mostly on X (formerly Twitter), with spikes in misinformation around key political and media moments. 78% of misinformation focused on ‘disparaging’ meat and dairy alternatives, pushing forward cultural polarisation and attacking alternative proteins and diets as unhealthy or bad for the environment.

Conversely, 22% of misinformation ‘enhanced’ meat and dairy, exaggerating their health benefits, such as praising ‘the carnivore diet’ and claiming vegan diets would make you unhealthy. To a smaller extent, this misinformation also focused on the environmental benefits of meat and dairy.

This is a big claim, considering methane is around 80 times more warming than C02 over a 20-year time period, with animal agriculture being the single largest source of man-made methane emissions globally. This potent gas is already estimated to be responsible for 0.5°C of warming since industrialisation, and addressing methane emissions urgently is essential to ensure we don’t pass climate tipping points. One of the readily available ways to do this and to improve people’s health is to reduce meat and dairy consumption in favour of a more plant-based diet – not something that Big Meat and Dairy want to hear.

Debunking livestock-industry-backed misinformation campaigns

We were able to trace misinformation back to people who have established financial links with the meat and dairy industry. For example, professor of animal science Frank Mitloehner, who leads the industry-funded CLEAR Centre at UC Davis, has pushed misinformation aimed at undermining alternative proteins by sharing quizzes comparing Beyond and Impossible burgers to dog food.

meat misinformation
Courtesy: Twitter/X

A similar narrative has been successfully pushed by Rick Berman, a lobbyist and the founder of the Centre for Consumer Freedom – an outlet funded by the meat industry and restaurant chains, which placed ‘Fake Meat or Dog Food?’ adverts in prominent newspapers, as well as placing an ad questioning the ingredients in “fake meat” during the 2020 Super Bowl. The CCF not only attacks these products, but also links proposals for shifting diets to an ‘elite conspiracy’, claiming that these are narratives put forward by people like Bill Gates to get you to eat bugs and shift away from meat consumption for their own profit-making.

Other examples include adverts funded by milk processors and fronted by celebrity Aubrey Plaza, disparaging plant-based milk alternatives, calling them ‘Wood Milk’. A campaign advert, which has had a complaint made against it with the US Department of Agriculture, suggesting the advert could be illegal.

Another tactic that was prominently featured in our research was to undermine scientific research on the impact of animal agriculture and promote other types of research to discredit alternative proteins. A pre-peer-reviewed study by UC Davis on cultivated meat claimed that this was 25% worse for the environment than beef. The study’s media journey started when it was published in an article by the New Scientist magazine on 9 May 2023, which lead to many other media stories.

Though it has since been criticised by a number of academics for its methodology and misleading comparisons, the study and related media coverage caused a huge spike in social media conversations and was seized upon by right-wing media and political figures, which linked it with the various conspiracy theories.

Since our report was launched, the findings of the discredited UC Davies study, which still hasn’t been peer-reviewed, even made its way into the official discussion documents submitted by Austria, France and Italy to the Council of the European Union, claiming that investment into cultivated meat should be stopped because it could be more damaging for the environment than producing conventional meat.

Online misinformation has hurt the alternative protein sector

Misinformation surrounding meat and dairy has not only appeared during policymaking discussions, but it has also impacted the profits of plant-based meat companies. Pricing challenges with many meat burgers, still much cheaper than plant-based alternatives, have been compounded by the lack of clarity on the health benefits of some alternative proteins. When households are under increasing pressure with the ongoing cost of living crisis, the move to switch from plant-based alternatives to processed meat, appears to have been swayed by this lack of clarity on the health implications for the consumer.

ethan brown
Courtesy: Beyond Meat

Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown was quoted in the Guardian last year stating: “This change in perception is not without encouragement from interest groups who have succeeded in seeding doubt and fear around the ingredients and process used to create our and other plant-based meats.” Granted, this is the opinion of the opposing side, but it is still a strong indication of the impact that misinformation is having. Investment to influence the public narrative is high, even going as far as developing an MBA, Masters of Beef Advocacy, to educate individuals to push industry favourable information online.

Our research found that a mere 50 accounts captured 50% of engagement with misinformation online, and nearly a quarter of all the misinformation we found focused on pushing the negative health impacts of alternative proteins, across meat and dairy alternatives. This included focusing on the ingredients and production processes – highlighting large factories and labs, nutrition, claims that cultivated meat causes cancer, negative health outcomes from consuming alternative proteins, and capitalising on trends like ‘frankenfood’. 

As elections across the world loom this year, including in the EU, the fight for the dominant narrative is heating up. Misinformation spikes at key political moments, and a good example of this, highlighted in our research, was the attempt to reduce livestock numbers in the Netherlands in 2022, after a High Court ruling that nitrogen pollution needed to be urgently reduced. In response to the ruling, the Government offered financial buyouts to farmers, budgeting 25 billion EUR to support this process. However, opposition to the policy was significant and, at the same time, misinformation online was high, with much of the narrative linked to conspiracy theories.

In this instance, misinformation focused on conspiracies about land-grabbing from the Government, feeding into the far-right agenda of populist politicians like Geert Wilders, advocating against environmental policies. Ironically, the majority of voices on this topic which were feeding Wilder’s narratives, were coming from outside of the Netherlands – something which might ordinarily be against Wilder’s usual position on ‘foreign influence’.

climate misinformation
Courtesy: Twitter/X

Far-right commentators like Eva Vlaardingerbroek were also prominent voices during this time. Vlaardingerbroek is an ex-member of far-right political party Forum for Democracy (FVD) and has been invited to the Tucker Carlson Show and Fox News to comment on the struggles of Dutch farmers. She is firmly behind misinformation narratives, such as that livestock does not have any impact on climate change and that this is all part of an elite agenda to control people’s lives and to make people weak.

Alt-protein has a big hill to climb, but politicians need to stand up

Online misinformation on meat and dairy is benefitting big industries and there are many overlaps in the narrative between misinfluencers and the meat and dairy industry interests. In the EU alone, the climate and environmental policy U-turns that have taken place have been stark. By the Commission’s own accounting, many of the flagship ‘Farm to Fork’ initiatives have been dropped, and as the Commission comes to the end of its term, the far right in Europe has hailed this as a win for farmers.

When EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the pesticide reduction policy was scrapped, Bayer saw an immediate increase in the value of its shares. Topics like cultivated meat have been utilised as an easy scapegoat to distract from the bigger issues of the devastating climate and environmental impact of industrial farming and the significant health impact of overconsumption of red and processed meat. In the EU, meat and dairy production is responsible for 53% of the bloc’s total methane emissions – yet they remain a policy blind spot.

With such powerful opponents, the alternative protein industry has a big hill to climb to reach the same level of influence across its marketing, lobbying, and online presence. Although there has been some pushback by companies like Beyond Meat, it is difficult for this nascent industry to fight the influence big farm lobbies and big meat and dairy companies have on media outlets and social media platforms to counter misinformation online.

The public and politicians must have the accurate information they need to make decisions about our health and the environment. Watch our explainer to find out more about the kinds of misinformation to look out for and whose interests it’s putting forward – it’s probably not yours.


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