How public universities hooked America on meat

This is the second in a series of stories on how factory farming shapes America. You can visit Vox’s Future Perfect section for future installments and more coverage of Big Ag. This series is supported by Animal Charity Evaluators, which received a grant from Builders Initiative.

Americans are eating more meat than ever, but livestock giants still see plenty of room to grow. As pressure mounts for meat producers to improve their treatment of animals and environmental footprints, they’re turning to a tried-and-true strategy — used in the past by the tobacco and oil industries — to expand their markets and shore up the public’s trust in their products: funding favorable research from university scientists.

Last year, the National Pork Board, a pork marketing group sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), funded a nearly $8.5 million program in partnership with researchers from Iowa State University, the University of Georgia, the University of Minnesota, North Carolina State University, and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to research popular perceptions of the pork industry and improve its reputation, according to federal records obtained by Crystal Heath, a veterinarian and founder of animal advocacy nonprofit Our Honor.

The project, called the Real Pork Trust Consortium, aims to counter “consumer misperceptions of pork production practices,” including about its impacts on animals and the environment, a grant proposal obtained by Heath states.

The grant proposal, reproduced below, notes that some consumers, like those in coastal states, hold more negative views of the pork industry and that “by analyzing the traits and tendencies of these specific groups, we can create targeted communication strategies which influence consumers’ knowledge and understanding of pork production methods, inform decision-making related to political activity, and encourage pork consumption across diverse consumer groups.” Researchers will create communications to share with consumers, with the aim of improving trust in the industry and “ensuring its social license to operate.”

Read more Vox coverage of how factory farming built America

Future Perfect, Vox’s section dedicated to solving the world’s most important yet neglected problems, obsessively covers how the way we eat affects our lives and our planet. Learn more in these stories:

Big Milk has taken over American schools

9 charts that show US factory farming is even bigger than you realize

How America broke the turkey

Your Super Bowl chicken wings have a surprising origin story

The bitter civil war dividing American veterinarians

Heath questions why it should be the job of university researchers to protect the reputation of pork producers. The industry has “enlisted university faculty to serve in its public relations apparatus,” hoping to use researchers’ credibility to prop up an industry that has been implicated in animal cruelty, zoonotic disease risk, and environmental harms, she told Vox in an email. “It’s sort of like increasing public trust in coal mining-based energy production, lead-based paint manufacturing, leaded fuel-dependent transportation, asbestos-dependent construction methods, or DDT-based pest control.”

The National Pork Board (NPB) did not respond to requests for comment. Lead researcher Nicholas Gabler, a professor in Iowa State University’s animal science department, did not respond to Vox’s request for comment but stated in a recent interview with the animal agriculture trade publication Feedstuffs that the consortium is “not a marketing program. It is a science-driven program for understanding how we can communicate better” to improve trust between pork producers and consumers. 

The Real Pork Trust Consortium is far from the only partnership between meat producers and universities. Close collaboration between the meat industry and academic scientists stretches back to the early days of land-grant universities in the US, when researchers were enlisted to boost the productivity of agriculture in the rapidly growing nation. 

Today, some of these partnerships have shifted to focus on contemporary challenges like addressing animal agriculture’s outsize contribution to climate change. But land-grant universities’ original mandate to serve the interests of the agriculture industry is colliding with clear calls from climate scientists about the need to scale down the livestock industry to meet climate targets and minimize risks to public health and animal welfare. 

To mitigate their emissions, meat and dairy companies are pinning their hopes on a suite of technological solutions including adding seaweed to cattle feed or implementing manure digesters: massive pools meant to capture methane from livestock poop, for use as a fuel source. These practices do shave off emissions, but in many cases they’re difficult to scale, and their potential to mitigate the carbon footprint of highly emitting industries like beef and dairy is overstated. Climate scientists agree that they have to be accompanied by reductions in livestock production and shifting diets to eat less meat and dairy. 

How public universities hooked America on meat, Huntsville NewsView of many individual pigs in many individual metal cages inside a dark industrial agricultural facility

While the livestock industry has its own scientists, in some cases, emissions-reduction research is carried out by public, land-grant universities, like the University of California Davis, University of Nebraska, Colorado State University, Texas A&M, and others. As with the Real Pork Trust Consortium, animal science programs at these institutions are sometimes funded with millions of dollars in donations from meat and dairy corporations and trade groups and conducted by researchers with ties to industry.

These partnerships largely prioritize animal agriculture’s continued profitability and can serve to sow doubt about livestock’s role in the climate crisis. Critics say they amount to greenwashing.

“The animal agriculture industry is now involved in multiple multimillion-dollar efforts with universities to obstruct unfavorable policies as well as influence climate change policy and discourse,” wrote Viveca Morris, an environmental lawyer at Yale Law, and Jennifer Jacquet, an expert on corporate influence at the University of Miami, in a sprawling 2024 paper analyzing university-industry partnerships in the livestock sector. “These efforts have downplayed the livestock sector’s contributions to the climate crisis, minimized the need for emission regulations and other policies aimed at internalizing the costs of the industry’s emissions, and promoted industry-led climate ‘solutions’ that maintain production.”

“The university mission,” they warned, “is at risk when universities allow industries to shape research and fund communications with the appearance of academic independence.”

Land-grant universities were set up to boost ag productivity

The close partnership between farmers and America’s public universities dates back to 1862, when the federal Morrill Act allowed states to establish public universities funded by the sale of federal land (much of which had been stolen from Native American tribes). That’s why these universities are called “land-grant” institutions.

The goal was to provide education in fields that would help Americans build a successful country, including engineering, military science, and agriculture, said Doug Steele, the vice president of food, agriculture, and natural resources at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).

Public universities’ relationship with farmers was further formalized in 1914 with the creation of the USDA’s Cooperative Extension System, which established university-government partnerships with the goal of increasing farm productivity and profitability and addressing the research needs of rural, farming communities. These programs offered free educational resources to the public and produced research in direct response to questions from farmers.

Extension services aimed to help rural people (particularly white landowners) survive the modern world, especially as an economic gap widened between rural and urban communities, said Chris Deutsch, a historian of the meat industry at the University of Missouri.

In the 1920s and ’30s, when crop failures began to prevent American farmers from producing cotton and fruit such as peaches (significant cash crops at the time), extension services stepped in to give farmers another way to make money, said Roger Horowitz, a historian of the US food system at the Hagley Museum.

“Extension agents became more connected to the meatpacking industry and more interested in encouraging commercial livestock production as an alternative,” Horowitz said. Since livestock was (and still is) mostly fed grass, hay, and grains, which weren’t as hard hit by crop failures, the sector was seen as a viable alternative.

After World War II, agriculture and land ownership increasingly consolidated, and the nature of land-grant universities’ relationship with agriculture began to shift away from a focus on individual farmers’ needs toward more industrial and commercial interests.

Thus began a close partnership between public universities and livestock producers that would eventually lead to the factory farms that exist today: animal production and slaughter operations run in large industrial facilities that resemble factories more than traditional farms and raise far more animals, far more quickly, than any previous agricultural system. 

Public universities, and especially extension services, “were a key part in the creation of the intensive agricultural system that we have, and particularly the animal side … because of all the myriad problems that emerge from trying to concentrate animals in a singular point,” said Deutsch.

Jacquet put it even more bluntly: “You don’t get the industry that we have now without the land-grant institutions.”

“The university mission is at risk when universities allow industries to shape research and fund communications with the appearance of academic independence.”


The livestock sector began to thrive via all kinds of advancements in farming methods made possible by the work of university scientists. Dubbed the “first great biotechnology” by one researcher, modern artificial insemination — the process of collecting sperm from a male animal and depositing it in the reproductive organs of a female — arose after work from extension program researchers at Cornell University (one of seven private land-grant universities in the US) and public university faculty at the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and others. Today, the technology is ubiquitous across the meat and dairy industries, giving farmers an unprecedented level of control over the reproductive lives of animals and allowing for rapid production speeds.

Feed additives developed by public universities supercharged animals’ ability to metabolize food and convert it into body mass, said Deutsch. In the 1950s, for example, Iowa State University researcher Wise Burroughs helped develop and patented a feed additive called diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic form of estrogen that led cows to gain weight 12 percent faster while eating 8-10 percent less feed. Iowa State later partnered with feed and pharma giant Eli Lilly to produce the hormone (Eli Lilly has since split from animal-health subsidiary Elanco and now focuses on human health). By the 1970s, it was banned in the US, in part due to its link to cancer in humans.

Also in the 1950s, extension programs began to push farmers to use more antibiotics, since they made animals grow faster while requiring less feed, said Horowitz. 

Publicly supported scientists affiliated with land-grant universities also contributed much of the early research into poultry genetics, nutrition, and health, propelling the US chicken industry into the behemoth that it is today. The use of medicated feed and new research into poultry diseases created a booming chicken industry that helped increase American chicken production almost 30-fold in the last century.

Genetics research transformed the chicken from a “backyard scratch, hunt, and peck animal into, essentially, a technology,” said Paul Josephson, an environmental historian at Colby College who has written a book about the history of chickens. High-profile contests in the 1940s, resulting from partnerships between the poultry industry and extension programs including at the University of Delaware and the University of Arkansas, sought the “Chicken of Tomorrow,” a breed that would have a larger percentage of breast, leg, and thigh meat. 

Today, Americans eat more than 9 billion broiler chickens every year — animals that are more than four times as massive as a chicken of the 1950s, a transformation that has come at a high cost to animal welfare. Modern chickens grow so big and so fast that their legs often can’t support the immense weight of their bodies. Research out of public universities made this transformation possible through developments in feed, antibiotics, and genetics.

Today’s public universities continue to develop methods that push animals to their biological limits to allow the US to produce ever more animals at higher speed and lower cost. A 2015 New York Times investigation, for example, found that the US Meat Animal Research Center, a cooperative program between the USDA and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was breeding female pigs and cows to give birth to ever more offspring, leading to mass mortality and severe animal welfare problems. The USDA told the Times that the center follows federal animal welfare rules. 

In 2016, public records obtained by animal welfare group Animal Outlook revealed that research at North Carolina State University funded by the US Poultry and Egg Association, an industry trade group, played a major role in developing ventilation shutdown: a method used to mass kill chickens and turkeys by trapping them inside barns and pumping in extreme heat. The method kills the animals by heatstroke and is now being used to cull tens of millions of poultry birds to stop the spread of bird flu; it’s been criticized as the cruelest culling option. 

This type of research is “unethical, particularly … when the very things you’re doing to increase production are causing harm to animals,” said Delcianna Winders, an associate professor of animal law at Vermont Law and Graduate School.

A hen is seen inside a glass cage and hooked up to electrodes. She appears collapsed on her side and panting.

Ag industry-aligned researchers want to develop climate solutions without sacrificing growth

The supercharged growth of the livestock industry has brought huge consequences for the environment, for the public, and for the animals themselves. “It’s ecologically illogical,” said Deutsch. “It shouldn’t be possible to gather a million [animals] into one small contained room and have that be sustainable.”

Today, Deutsch said, the livestock industry still depends on university research to maintain conditions where disease thrives, ecological issues are rampant, and animal welfare violations persist

Meat and dairy production account for 14-20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while fertilizer and manure runoff from concentrated animal farms has created widespread water quality issues in the US Midwest, particularly for disadvantaged communities. Forcing animals into crowded spaces also heightens the risk of zoonotic disease spillover — as we’re seeing now with bird flu infections among US dairy herds and dairy workers.

Still, public universities are hard at work assisting the industry in finding sustainability solutions that don’t sacrifice growth. Much of that work surrounds efforts to reduce methane — a greenhouse gas nearly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere  — released by beef and dairy cattle. 

Researchers at universities across the country, including Colorado State University, the University of California Davis, the University of Nebraska, and others, are working to research various feed additives that promise to reduce cows’ methane emissions, as well as breeding cattle to select for low-methane traits. While that’s framed as a sustainability strategy, it comes with an added benefit for the industry’s bottom line: When cows emit less methane, they likely also convert their feed into meat more efficiently and may require less food, according to some studies. In this way, creating combinations of cattle breeds and feed additives that reduce methane may also create more profit for producers and allow for growth in the sector.

Environmental advocates have raised concerns that methane-reduction strategies such as feed additives and manure digesters may ultimately end up creating more, not less, pollution, since they offer farmers additional income streams and promote growth of the industry. In California, for example, dairy producers can receive lucrative financial credits for producing biogas by capturing methane from manure. Public university research and extension programs have advanced the increasing popularity of manure digesters by testing prototypes in their own research facilities and creating educational resources for farmers.

One study by the environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth found that herd sizes at livestock facilities with manure digesters grew 3.7 percent, on average, each year — 24 times the growth rate of overall dairy herd sizes. “We are not saying that this is like a primary driver of [dairy industry] consolidation, more that it is a factor that can exacerbate an existing trend toward consolidation,” said Chloë Waterman, senior program manager for FOE’s Climate-Friendly Food Program. Consolidating livestock can lead to worsening pollution and increased animal welfare harms.

Dairy cows are lined up in a metal circular indoor "milking parlor," where they're each milked by machines.

These methane-reduction strategies can shave off emissions, but only at the margins. Without pairing those technologies with a plan to reduce meat and dairy production, we stand little chance of limiting global warming below targets set by global climate experts. 

That reality is hard to square with land-grant researchers’ role in the livestock industry. As they provide the basic research that advances temporary solutions such as feed additives and manure digesters, public university researchers simultaneously lend a patina of scientific expertise to industry-backed claims that the animal agriculture industry shouldn’t be blamed for climate change and does not need to scale down. The Real Pork Trust Consortium offers a particularly extreme example, with its goal to “enhance pork’s image among global consumers and societies.” But it’s hardly alone. 

The rise of “climate-smart” meat and dairy

In 2022, records gathered by Unearthed, an investigative journalism project funded by Greenpeace, and also covered in the New York Times, found that the Clear Center, a research institute at UC Davis run by prominent animal industry scientist Frank Mitloehner, had received millions of dollars in gifts from the animal feed and livestock industry, particularly Ifeeder, a nonprofit founded by an industry association whose members include meat giants Cargill, Tyson Foods, and a subsidiary of JBS, the world’s largest meat company.

The research funded by Ifeeder was, in part, meant to investigate the role of feed additives in reducing enteric methane emissions. Industry funding is common in academic research and isn’t, on its own, necessarily compromising. But Mitloehner is also an outspoken defender of livestock farming and downplays animal agriculture’s role in the climate crisis, acting as a climate expert for the industry’s needs via written articles, media interviews, and presentations.

In one document explaining the Clear Center’s purpose, Ifeeder wrote that “Mitloehner provides a neutral, credible, third-party voice” and that data produced by the Clear Center will “show consumers that they can feel good about the choice they are making to include protein in their families’ diets.” Mitloehner told Unearthed that “the Clear Center works with the livestock sector to make it better for the environment. To suggest we’re doing anything other than that is a gross mischaracterization of what we do,” and that “the Clear Center and myself are not concerned with the financial interests of stakeholders or others in the livestock industry.”

A similar story emerged at Colorado State University in 2020, when a partnership between the university and various beef industry groups formed AgNext, a program dedicated to research that advances sustainability in the livestock sectors, according to its website.

AgNext’s first director, Kimberly Stackhouse-Lawson, who used to work as the chief sustainability officer for JBS USA, has received at least $574,467 from the cattle, pork, dairy, feed, and pharmaceutical industries (including NCBA and JBS) to, in part, research livestock sustainability, according to records obtained by ARIA, a research organization focused on climate.

Both Stackhouse-Lawson and AgNext researcher Sara Place, who worked previously for animal pharmaceutical company Elanco and was senior director of sustainable beef production research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, completed their PhDs under Mitloehner’s supervision. Place’s doctoral work evaluated the impact of an Elanco feed additive on methane emissions in dairy cattle.

Like Mitloehner, Stackhouse-Lawson has spoken about her belief that regulations of greenhouse gas emissions should not burden producers financially and that sustainability goals should not hinder “value chain profitability.” Like the Clear Center, AgNext has emphasized communicating to the public that animal protein is an essential part of a healthy diet and not the climate culprit that other scientists make it out to be. Mitloehner and Stackhouse-Lawson have both been involved in advancing policies aligned with the livestock industry’s interests and have given congressional testimony regarding climate change and animal agriculture.

“To the extent Mitloehner and Stackhouse-Lawson publish peer-reviewed research related to climate change, their work focuses primarily on the use of feed additives or other technological and industry-led solutions, or promoting greenhouse gas accounting metrics that are favorable to the US meat and dairy industries,” write Jacquet and Morris in their paper about the Clear Center and AgNext. 

“In recognition of the impact of agriculture on climate change, AgNext researchers work with members of the entire livestock value chain to understand current practices and systems and identify viable and scalable options that can move the industry toward a sustainable future,” Place said in an email. “While it is common for industry and government to fund programs, equipment and even research, university research is independent and objective — funding sources have no influence on AgNext research outcomes. To be clear, it is not true that AgNext promotes ‘greenhouse gas accounting metrics that are favorable to the US meat and dairy industries.’” Stackhouse-Lawson declined to comment.

At Pennsylvania State University, meanwhile, researchers were granted up to $25 million from the USDA to work with the Center for Dairy Excellence, a consortium of Pennsylvania dairy trade groups, and ag tech company Proagrica to develop “climate-smart” dairy farming practices.   

The Penn State program ultimately aims to assess the climate impacts of methods Pennsylvania dairy farmers are already using. With a better idea of the emissions reductions of certain farming practices, dairy farmers could participate in a voluntary climate market, where the greenhouse gas reductions of their practices are sold as carbon offsets for which farmers receive a payment, according to Caroline Novak of the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania, a trade group that has partnered with Penn State for the project. “Implementing and maintaining climate smart practices costs farmers money. They have to find a way for the practices to pay for themselves. If they are forced to do it without financial sustainability, there will be no farms left to feed people,” Novak said in an email.

It’s reminiscent of the “climate-smart” label piloted by Tyson last year for beef that the company claimed emitted 10 percent less than its overall beef herd. The actual emissions reductions of the program are unclear, and even with a 10 percent emissions reduction, beef is far from climate-smart: It’s by far the worst food for the climate, and dairy is not far behind. 

Aerial view of hundreds of cows concentrated in a feedlot.

As is the case with feed additives, manure digesters, and the Tyson program, farmers may be earning more without having to change much about the way their farms operate.

Science depends on the questions we ask

University research, Jacquet and Morris argue, offers legitimacy that corporations themselves cannot achieve. As universities partner to advance the livestock sector via projects like the Clear Center, AgNext, and the Real Pork Trust Consortium, they miss opportunities to use their resources to advance sustainability solutions that decenter productivity and profitability and prioritize the public interest, including environmental health, public health, and animal welfare.

Research shows that industry funding can influence the types of questions asked, and studies that are unlikely to find information useful to industry are less likely to get funding.

“Asking who this serves is really important,” Jacquet said.

Research aimed at increasing profit is “yet another form of subsidy to the industry,” Winders said. “That’s not a public service. It’s not like those profits are going to be spread across society. Those profits are going to the highly, highly concentrated industry. And so it’s helping these already extremely profitable multinational corporations make even more money.”

Research shows that industry funding can influence the types of questions asked, and studies that are unlikely to find information useful to industry are less likely to get funding. One 2018 study of research across multiple STEM fields found that corporate sponsorship of research “can drive research agendas away from questions that are the most relevant for public health.” At the moment, much of the public research into animal farming is following this path by pushing advancements only into climate solutions that allow for industry growth while employing public university researchers to spread the message to consumers that industrial animal farming isn’t as harmful as they might think.

Meanwhile, research into alternatives to the livestock sector, such as cell-cultivated meat and plant-based alternatives, receives comparatively little public funding, as shown by recent research

Projects more relevant to environmental concerns and public health could include studies that advance production of plant-based proteins, Winders said, or initiatives that educate farmers on organic farming methods, said Horowitz. Such initiatives could also help farmers unhappy with exploitative contracts with meatpacking companies to escape the industry.

Right now, land-grant researchers have strong incentives to prioritize the interests of powerful, highly polluting incumbent industries. But there are infinitely many paths that university research could take.“Science depends on the questions we ask,” Heath said.

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