How Monsanto and their GMO agenda dominate our colleges and universities

  • Published on May 14th, 2012

We’ve told you how Monsanto dominates American agriculture. We’ve told you how they dominate the government departments that are supposed to be overseeing them (see: Monsanto empoloyees in the halls of government). And we’ve told you how Monsanto dominates the researchers who should be determining the safety of their GMO products (see: Monsanto blocks research on GMO safety). Now a new report shows how Monsanto is dominating the colleges and universities that train the next generation of farmers, researchers and regulators.

By Jill Richardson

Here’s what happens when corporations begin to control education.

AlterNet“When I approached professors to discuss research projects addressing organic agriculture in farmer’s markets, the first one told me that ‘no one cares about people selling food in parking lots on the other side of the train tracks,’” said a PhD student at a large land-grant university who did not wish to be identified. “My academic adviser told me my best bet was to write a grant for Monsanto or the Department of Homeland Security to fund my research on why farmer’s markets were stocked with ‘black market vegetables’ that ‘are a bioterrorism threat waiting to happen.’ It was communicated to me on more than one occasion throughout my education that I should just study something Monsanto would fund rather than ideas to which I was deeply committed. I ended up studying what I wanted, but received no financial support, and paid for my education out of pocket.”

Unfortunately, she’s not alone. Conducting research requires funding, and today’s research follows the golden rule: The one with the gold makes the rules.

A report just released by Food and Water Watch examines the role of corporate funding of agricultural research at land grant universities, of which there are more than 100. “You hear again and again Congress and regulators clamoring for science-based rules, policies, regulations,” says Food and Water Watch researcher Tim Schwab, explaining why he began investigating corporate influence in agricultural research. “So if the rules and regulations and policies are based on science that is industry-biased, then the fallout goes beyond academic articles. It really trickles down to farmer livelihoods and consumer choice.”

The report found that nearly one quarter of research funding at land grant universities now comes from corporations, compared to less than 15 percent from the USDA. Although corporate funding of research surpassed USDA funding at these universities in the mid-1990s, the gap is now larger than ever. What’s more, a broader look at all corporate agricultural research, $7.4 billion in 2006, dwarfs the mere $5.7 billion in all public funding of agricultural research spent the same year.

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Influence does not end with research funding, however. In 2005, nearly one third of agricultural scientists reported consulting for private industry. Corporations endow professorships and donate money to universities in return for having buildings, labs and wings named for them. Purdue University’s Department of Nutrition Science blatantly offers corporate affiliates “corporate visibility with students and faculty” and “commitment by faculty and administration to address [corporate] members’ needs,” in return for the $6,000 each corporate affiliate pays annually.

In perhaps the most egregious cases, corporate boards and college leadership overlap. In 2009, South Dakota State’s president, for example, joined the board of directors of Monsanto, where he earns six figures each year. Bruce Rastetter is simultaneously the co-founder and managing director of a company called AgriSol Energy and a member of the Iowa Board of Regents. Under his influence, Iowa State joined AgriSol in a venture in Tanzania that would have forcefully removed 162,000 people from their land, but the university later pulled out of the project after public outcry.

What is the impact of the flood of corporate cash? “We know from a number of meta-analyses, that corporate funding leads to results that are favorable to the corporate funder,” says Schwab. For example, one peer-reviewed study found that corporate-funded nutrition research on soft drinks, juice and milk were four to eight times more likely to reach conclusions in line with the sponsors’ interests. And when a scrupulous scientist publishes research that is unfavorable to the study’s funder, he or she should be prepared to look for a new source of funding.

That’s what happened to a team of researchers at University of Illinois who were funded by a statewide fertilizer “checkoff” after they published a finding that nitrogen fertilizer depletes organic matter in the soil. Checkoffs are a common method used to market agricultural products, and they are funded by a small amount from each sale of a product – in this case, fertilizer. Richard Mulvaney, one of the U of I researchers, feels it is twisted that, in this way, farmers fund research intended to promote fertilizer use with their own fertilizer purchases.

But often the industry influence may be more subtle. Joyce Lok, a graduate student at Iowa State University, said, “If a corporation funds your research, they want you to look at certain research questions that they want answered. So if that happens it’s not like you can explore other things they don’t want you to look at… I think they direct the research in that way.”

John Henry Wells, who spent several decades as a student, professor and administrator at land grant universities sees it a different way. As an academic, he hopes that his research is relevant to real world problems that agriculture faces at the time. “When you ask the question, did I ever outline a research plan with the explicit notion of is this going to be fundable, I would say no. But I thought very deeply about whether my research plan was going to be relevant, and one of the indicators of relevancy would be if the ideas I put forward would get the attention of trade associations, private industry, benefactors, etc.”

If scientists use fundability as an important criteria of selecting research topics, research intended to serve the needs of the poor and the powerless will be at a disadvantage. However, Wells says that this is hardly a new phenomenon: land grants have existed to serve the elites since their creation in the 19th century.

“As its basis, the land-grant university was intended to cater to a narrow political interest of landowners and homesteaders – individuals who had the right to vote and participate in the political structure of a representative democracy.” he says. “Contemporarily, it is not so much that the land-grant university has been corrupted by modern agro-industrial influence, as it has been historically successful in focusing on its mission in the context of our Constitutional framework of governance. For the land-grant university, its greatest strength – a political collaboration spanning the top-to-bottom echelons of influence – has been its greatest weakness.”

Land grant universities and the USDA itself first came into being at a time when the academic view of agriculture was fundamentally changing – even if most farmers at the time ignored the advice of academics, dismissing them as “book farmers” who knew little about actually working the land. Will Allen writes about this period in his book ”The War on Bugs,” telling the story of Justus von Liebig, a prominent agricultural chemist in Germany.

“In the 1830s, Liebig began asserting that the most essential plant nutrients were nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. His theories fueled the development of chemical fertilizers and ushered in a new age of agricultural science and soil chemistry in the 1840s and 1850s. Though many of Liebig’s theories were wrong, he was the first great propagandist for chemistry and for chemical-industrial agriculture.” Perhaps the most significant of his mistakes was his belief that organic matter in the soil was unimportant.

Dozens of Americans studied under Liebig and returned to the U.S. to continue their work. Two of these students established labs at Harvard and Yale, and soon “all agricultural schools and experiment stations in the country followed their lead.” Thus, practically from the start, the elites in this country served the interests of those who peddled chemical fertilizers and other agricultural inputs – even if that wasn’t their intent. No doubt many were enticed by the prospect of founding a new, modern, scientific form of agriculture, as they felt they were doing.

The unholy trinity of industry, government and academics promoting industrial agriculture and de-emphasizing or dismissing sustainable methods has a long history and it continues today. In its report, Food and Water Watch advocates a return to robust federal funding of research at land grant universities. But government is hardly immune from serving the corporate agenda either.

Take, for example, Roger Beachy, the former head of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the agency in the USDA that doles out research grants. Beachy spent much of his career as an academic, collaborating with Monsanto to produce the world’s first genetically engineered tomato. He later became the founding president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Monsanto’s non-profit arm, before President Obama appointed him to lead NIFA.

As Schwab noted, policy is often based on research, but good policy requires a basis in unbiased, objective research. In a system in which corporations and government both fund research, but due to the revolving door, the same people switch between positions within industry, lobbying for industry, and within government, what is the solution?

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(Originally appeared at Alternet. Photo Credit: Shutterstock/mostafa fawzy)

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  • Ryan

    Karl and Mary miss the important point of this issue and waste their energy, where lobbying already is, in undermining truths. It is no surprise, and the solutions will not come from their generation, where the majority seem to feel fine with watching the world burn, because they won’t be around to see or feel it.

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  • Mary

    The ultimate irony of this is that I know Jill Richardson has lobbied in the past to keep research dollars for developing world researchers from happening. She made false claims about the Lugar-Casey food security bill and encouraged people work against it. In fact, Lugar had to explain:
    “The bill advocates strengthening the local capacity of university and research institutions to find localized solutions to agricultural productivity and food security. ”

    Quite sad–work to both block federal funding and also to make hyperbolic claims about hard working researchers striving to accomplish science in tough economic times at underfunded institutions.

  • I totally agree that there needs to be more federal funding for research, but the accusation that universities or scientists who work at them just serve corporate interests is deeply troubling. First, It’s not 15% from the USDA vs 25% from companies. Other sources include local public sources, federal sources other than the USDA such as NSF and the NIH, charities, etc. If 25% of funding comes from companies, then 75% comes from other, public sources. So the manner in which these numbers are being reported is purposefully misleading.
    Second, there are many legitimate reasons why all kinds of companies would fund research in agriculture. Companies that make and market products made from different crops have an interest in funding plant breeders who maintain and breed new varieties of those crops to combat disease and pest pressures. I have met peanut breeders who receive money from Planter’s Peanuts, and I know an oat breeder who is funded by Quaker Oats. All merely to make sure that there will be peanut and oat varieties that will still grow in the years to come. There is nothing sinister about this at all.
    But what is more troubling about these accusations is that there is an agenda to undermine the public’s trust in public scientists at Universities, and it seems to be based in a deep-seated mistrust of the scientific process itself, with the distrust of government and corporations layered on top. Don’t like the results of peer-reviewed science? Just accuse the scientists of working for the corporations. If their lab is federally-funded, well just accuse the feds of colluding with the corporations. It is a convenient way to be anti-science without seeming to be on the surface. But at its core is the rejection of the results of scientific inquiry.
    If a graduate student at a land-grant university says “this is what the science says”, as I often do while blogging about plant genetics, critics immediately start making accusations that the student works for Monsanto. They find out that Monsanto gave a monetary gift to help train other grad students at the same university, and claim that he must be benefiting from it. When he defends himself and says that his research is funded by the USDA – then out come the accusations that the USDA (and thus he) works for Monsanto.
    There is a self-defeating irony involved. Much of the research on sustainable agriculture that is championed in this post is also funded by food companies that market themselves as sustainable, and NGOs that believe that a particular form of agriculture is what will eventually be sustainable. The Clif Bar Family Foundation is funding research in organic breeding. If you believe that funding from corporations (and foundations and NGOs connected or aligned with them) is reason to reject their science, you may need to reject this as well. It is a double-edged sword.
    Note: I am not criticizing this research at all – I merely presented it as a counter-example. And nowhere is the agenda of Food and Water Watch ever questioned. What research do they want to reject? What interests do the food companies have that are part of the Organic Consumer’s Association, of which Jill Richardson is a board member?
    Or maybe – just maybe – this is a half-baked call for increased federal funding that could only backfire. Drumming up rejection of scientific research conducted at Universities is the wrong way to accomplish this. The right way would be to lobby the government and communicate the importance of strong public, academic research programs, from basic to applied science. Present good research, give examples, show how local communities benefit from university programs. And please keep this in mind before making outrageous claims that Monsanto dominates public researchers and what they do. From my experience at two universities, it just isn’t true.

    • Andrea

      Points well made, Karl. I do agricultural research in a federal laboratory. Our budgets have shrunk year after year. What are we told to do to make up the difference? Apply for outside grants. Some pots of public money we have not been eligible for (NSF, DOE) or not unless we have university partners (NIH), although that is changing a little. What’s left are grants from commodity check off funds, grower groups, and yes, companies. It’s not all big bad company money, and not all ag research is aimed at generating more GMOs. I work in the area of pest identification, and funding for the scientific collections (of insects, fungi, etc.) that are the infrastructure with which the next invasive pest will be identified is critically lacking. It’s hard to get support for collections because they’re not sexy science, but good luck figuring out what that disease is if there’s no type specimens to compare to!

  • The evil that is Monsanto knows no bounds, they have many people in high places and not only in the US Government but in other countries. I am writing this while in Hanoi and later I will be visiting a small Peace Village where I shall meet again with young children, teenagers seriously affected by Agent Orange, another product of Monsanto used by US forces on the people of Southern Vietnam.

    The children I will see are of the generation, such is the evil legacy that Monsanto, Dow and others left to the people of Vietnam.