…Back in 2002, Monsanto donated $200,000 to [University of Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES)] for the Monsanto Multi-Media Executive Studio, to be “used by faculty and staff of the college for presentations and seminars and for conferences involving companies and organizations with ties to the college and its mission.”
Nor is Monsanto the only gigantic food and ag company bestowing cash upon ACES. A cursory look at the college’s web site turned up a recent paper touting a novel infant formula that “boosts babies’ immunity”—funded by Nestle Infant Nutrition and co-authored by a researcher in its employ.
Then there’s this study, also by ACES researchers, which purports to show that soy protein “alleviates symptoms of fatty liver disease.” It’s brought to you by grants from the agribiz-aligned Illinois Soybean Association and Solae, a joint project of agrichemical giants DuPont and Bunge that calls itself “the world leader in developing innovative soy technologies and ingredients for food, meat and nutritional products.”
The most remarkable thing about all of this is that it isn’t remarkable at all. A few weeks ago, Ipointed to a great Chronicle of Higher Education article documenting how university animal-health research has become dominated by the pharmaceutical industry—and how the products that emerge from that process are much more about pharmaceutical industry profits than animal health. Now there’s this eye-opening new report from Food & Water Watch (FWW) that documents in painstaking detail how the food and agrichemical industries have transformed our national public agricultural research infrastructure into essentially an R&D and marketing apparatus for their industry. (Similar trends hold for other areas of science research, most prominently medicine.)
FWW reminds us how ag-research institutions like the University of Illinois started: as so-called land-grant universities, launched by the federal government on public land in 1862. The idea of the land grants was to generate agricultural research, funded by the federal government, that benefited society as a whole. And that’s pretty much how things went for the first century. “Well into the 20th century, seed-breeding programs at land-grant universities were responsible for developing almost all new seed and plant varieties,” FWW writes. It might have added that those varieties were public resources, not owned or patented by any company. Farmers were free to save them for the next season, and many did.
But then, starting in the 1980s, the federal government started to level off its investment in ag research—and meanwhile, after passage of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, began to encourage professors to behave like entrepreneurs who could benefit financially from their research, not public employees creating ideas for the public domain. That’s when food and agribusiness companies, which were then in the process of consolidating into the vast global enterprises we know today, began to funnel huge amounts of cash into the land grants.
By the early ’90s, industry funding had begun to outpace USDA research support for the land grants. And now, as fiscal austerity further pinches federal research funding, the gap between the industry and the USDA as land-grant paymaster has hit an all-time high.
I wonder what effect this money will have on research concerning the agricultural practices of these large commercial farmers…
The corporate sector’s generosity might be commendable if it produced research that benefitted the public as a whole—such as new open-source seed varieties that are well adapted to organic ag, or techniques for rotating cattle and crops on land that improve soil and reduce fertilizer use. But that’s not what’s happening, FWW shows. Instead, the companies are funding strings-attached research that serves their own narrow interests. The report cites numerous studies to show this, and several concrete examples like these two:
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.
To be sure, while corporate cash has come to dominate university ag research, the USDA still funds a substantial amount of it: more than $300 million (vs. about $600 million from industry) in 2010. In addition to its research grants for land-grant professors, the agency also employs its own scientists and maintains its own labs; its total research budget stands at about $2 billion per year. Yet rather than act as a counterweight to the corporations, the USDA essentially mimics them. It “prioritizes commodity crops, industrialized livestock production, technologies geared toward large-scale operations, and capital-intensive practices,” FWW shows.
Here’s a startling example: the USDA dedicates more money to research on sweetener crops like sugar beets ($18.1 million per year) and oilseed crops ($79.4 million) than it does to nutrition education ($15.5 million).
Such expenditures of public cash help sweeten the fortunes of the food and agrichemical industries, but foretell a bitter harvest for society as whole.