When government officials insist on making science-based decisions in food and agricultural policy, what happens when the research is increasingly funded by huge corporations with a vested interest in the results? According to a new report by GAP coalition partner Food & Water Watch, almost 25 percent of agricultural research funding at land-grant universities came from private donations in 2010.
This is a far cry from the original public mission of land-grant universities when they were launched in 1862 – to generate agricultural research that benefitted farmer livelihoods as well as consumers. Then, the research was almost entirely funded by state and federal governments. But the report explains how in the 1980s, federal policies began encouraging schools to partner with the private sector, whose funding of Ag research eventually surpassed USDA funding. Now, the relationship between industry and Ag programs at land-grant universities is incredibly interwoven. From the report:
Land-grant universities today depend on industry to underwrite research grants, endow faculty chairs, sponsor departments and finance the construction of new buildings.
Just this week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that everyone's favorite biotech behemoth, Monsanto, has allotted $250,000 to an agricultural communications chair position at the University of Illinois, which will run a new degree program between the College of Media and College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. The goal is "to help graduates better convey the challenges and technologies of modern farming," no doubt a move to endorse large-scale agriculture and genetically engineered food – on exactly what Monsanto profits are based.
This move reminds me of the Masters of Beef Advocacy degree program – an effort by the beef industry to groom advocates who can spin a positive message to combat industry critics.
Funding research and communication programs is another way for Monsanto and other agribusiness giants to expand their network of PR couriers. Does the industry need better spinmeisters to manipulate information? Easy fix, just fund that program at reputable universities. It's evident that whoever is paying the bills will dictate the narrative of information flow. If the findings in a research experiment aren't satisfactory to the industry backing the study, the researchers will likely have to look elsewhere for funding in the future. An example from FWW's report:
When an Ohio State University professor produced research that questioned the biological safety of biotech sunﬂowers, Dow AgroSciences and [DuPont's] Pioneer Hi-Bred blocked her research privileges to their seeds, barring her from conducting additional research. Similarly, when other Pioneer Hi-Bred-funded professors found a new [genetically engineered] corn variety to be deadly to beneﬁcial beetles, the company barred the scientists from publishing their ﬁndings. Pioneer Hi-Bred subsequently hired new scientists who produced the necessary results to secure regulatory approval.
Revolving doors between the government and industry was enough to deal with already. But now Big Ag monopolization is thwarting transparency at educational institutions? We have a major problem on our hands when academic advisers are shutting down impassioned research ideas to instead urge students to "just study something Monsanto would fund."
It’s also unsettling that ‘pink slime’ maker, Beef Products Inc., sponsored research done by an Iowa State University professor on the safety of ammonia beef products, but BPI sued the university in order to keep the documents from being publicized. Shouldn’t we have a right to know the details about the food we eat?
If the USDA is going to make decisions based on university research that will affect the entire consuming public, then corporate interests shouldn’t taint (or cover up) the results. Campuses should be encouraging honest, independent research rather than industry-biased studies thick with conflicts of interest.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.