Monsanto Goes to College — And Buys the Professor, the Student Center . . .
College Campus

If you need a science expert to support your cause and you have unlimited cash, what better way to find an expert you can trust than to buy the university where the scientist works?

When it comes to food and agricultural policy, it is hard to know which raging debate burns hotter.  Ballot initiatives and grass-roots campaigns in several states, including California, would require labeling on food products containing genetically modified components.  Food products falsely claiming to be “natural” or to have health benefits face challenges in court.  Policymakers receive more intense scrutiny over the way millions and millions of dollars are spent in subsidies and tax breaks for industrial agribusinesses.

When the media or litigators or regulators tackle one of these issues, they will look for experts in the agricultural “field” of interest, so to speak.  That is where the rights and interests of consumers are vulnerable.

Recently, Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit group advocating safe and sustainable food, water and fish, published a devastating report on the prominent role private industry now enjoys in agricultural programs at universities around the country.  You can find the report, entitled, “Public Research, Private Gain: Corporate Influence Over University Agricultural Research” here:

This exquisitely researched report concludes: “Like almost every other aspect of the modern food system, the private sector now wields enormous influence over agricultural research. . . Sound agricultural policy requires impartial and unbiased scientific inquiry.  Corporate funding taints the independence and objectivity of agricultural research, distorting scientific inquiry to deliver favorable results for corporate sponsors.”

Perhaps no example better illustrates the complete lack of partiality that results from industry money flooding academic research centers than this: A 2010 University of California at Davisnutrition department research study investigated the health benefits of eating chocolate.  Who paid $15 million for this research?  The Mars Candy Company.

What does this mean?  Companies like Monsanto and Dow and Syngenta and many others now completely dominate the centers of agricultural learning and research and innovation in this country.  Through gifts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, these industry giants buy access and influence on college campuses at most every major ag-school program in the land.

It wasn’t always so.  One hundred and fifty years ago, the report’s authors explain, the federal government created land-grant universities in every state in the country.  The goal was to create centers for agricultural research by providing public land for publicly funded institutions of higher learning and study.  Many of these land-grant universities went on to become some of the finest and best-known academic institutions in the country, includingPennState, theUniversityofCalifornia, and Texas A & M.

As public funds became scarcer, private industry stepped in with its vast resources.  In 2009 alone, the Food & Water Watch analysis found, corporations, food trade groups and associations and related interests gave nearly one billion dollars – $822 million – to university research programs compared to $645 million provided through public (USDA) funds.

Private industry’s enormous investment in agricultural research has a profound impact on the nature, scope and direction of agricultural research.  Although this should come as no surprise, nonetheless some of the findings in the Food & Water Watch report are truly astonishing:

▪           A 2005 University of Wisconsin survey of agricultural scientists – that is, the ones receiving research dollars from Monsanto and others – found that professors who brought in more research dollars to their universities, enjoyed better prospects for tenure and salary advancement.  Obviously, those in ag-academia who want to succeed need to court corporate dollars.

▪           Agribusiness money often goes to establishing enduring physical presences on university campuses.  Monsanto, for example, donated $1 million toIowaStateUniversityto build the Monsanto Student Services Wing and $200,000 to theUniversityofIllinois’CollegeofAgricultureto fund the Monsanto Multi-Media Executive Studio, now a fine facility for on-campus industry seminars. Cargill gave $10 million to theUniversityofMinnesotato establish theCargillPlantGenomicsBuilding.  These institutions were established for the benefit of the public; now they serve the interests of corporate sponsors.

▪           Some schools are so heavily indebted to their industry patrons that their ag programs would not survive without this industry largesse.  Texas A & M’s crop science department, for example, received 55.5 percent of its research dollars between 2006 and 2010 from industry sponsors including Monsanto, Chevron Technology Ventures and Cotton Inc.  Many other university programs are similarly dependent on corporate cash.

▪           Corporate donors endow faculty chairs as another way of assuring a perennial influence on campus.  Last year, for example, Monsanto gave $500,000 toIowaStateUniversityto fund a soybean breeding faculty chair and a few years ago gave $2.5 million to Texas A & M to endow a chair in plant breeding.

▪           Do academic researchers maintain their independence even though they are funding by self-interested business sponsors?  Citing a recent study on just this question, Food & Water Watch noted that 15 percent of university ag-researchers acknowledged changing the design or methodology or even the results of a study in response to pressure from the funder.  Fifteen percent!!  That represents only those who were courageous enough to admit this kind of outside influence

Whether the researcher admits overt intrusion by a corporate sponsor, the reality is that the influence clearly exists and that means biased science.  A 2010 report, published in Food Policy and cited in the Food & Water Watch report, found that about half of the authors of peer-reviewed journal articles on topics relating to the safety of genetically engineered foods had affiliations with industry.  Not surprisingly, these articles were favorable to the corporate sponsors and only a few disclosed the sources of corporate support.

Millions and millions of dollars ought to buy something worthwhile and, sure enough, Food & Water Watch found that corporate dollars spent on university campuses are well spent.  There are numerous examples of pro-industry research, funded by the interested companies.  In addition to the Mars-sponsored healthy chocolate study, Food & Water Watch notes a study sponsored by the National Soft Drink Association that found soda consumption by school children was not tied to obesity.  Let me repeat: Not tied to obesity.  Another study, paid for by theEggNutritionCenter, amazingly found that you can eat lots and lots of eggs without worrying about high cholesterol.

The research corporate sponsors buy, of course, does not remain within the ivory towers where the work is done.  All academics must publish and that means that academic journals are fed a steady diet of industry-sponsored writing.  But that is not all.  Companies can take this research and use it directly in their advertising.  Food & Water Watch found, for example, that Mars used the UC Davis work it bought for $15 million to tout the health benefits of eating chocolate.

Industry also relies on the research it pays for when seeking regulatory approval in Washington.  Previously, I wrote about how Dow used its own sponsored studies to press the FDA for approval to market its genetically engineered corn. Here is a link to that article, “Dow’s Rules, Dow Rules”:

Agribusinesses and their lobbyists and representatives frequently appear before USDA and FDA agencies.  The intimate relationship between land-grant university scientists and their corporate patrons, in Food & Water Watch’s characterization, converts these researchers from independent scientists into chemical company and agribusiness contractors.  Food & Water Watch notes the case of a Cornell professor who was a paid Monsanto consultant while he published academic journal articles promoting recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) for dairy farmers. Monsanto used the consultant’s published work in its FDA submissions.

So, what to do about these troublingly cozy ties between industry and academia.  First, download the Food & Water Watch report and read it.  This is the kind of work that investigative journalists used to publish regularly, back in the day when real newspapers and real magazines had budgets to pay for real journalism.

Second, there must be more disclosure.  Academic journals must require prominent disclosure of outside affiliations and funding sources.  Many journals have moved to greater transparency on the financial interests of contributors, but the implementation of this often means a fine-print disclosure at the end of an article.  Disclosure of a financial interest that could be evidence of scientific bias should not be a game of hide and seek.  Disclosure should be out front and center.

Third, there has to be a brighter light pointed at scientific bias even outside of the rarified world of academic journals.  Companies certainly have a right to seek regulatory approval for new products, for new applications.  And companies have a right to sponsor academic research.  (I am not at all sure why public universities need to give naming rights to Monsanto.) But scientific debate – especially when public health, when the safety of food, when the fate of groundwater are all at stake – must be more transparent.

When a company holds up a scientific study as evidence that a new chemical or a new drug is safe, the company is really saying, You see, we have SCIENCE on our side.  This is like saying there is one science, one objective science.

Of course, science doesn’t work that way.  In the world of litigation, in cases involving science and medicine, which are the kind of cases I am involved with all the time, there is always the science on their side and there is the science on my side.  At trial, we examine and cross-examine scientific witnesses, test their methodology, grill them on the thoroughness of their evaluation, challenge them with scientific studies that reach different conclusions.  And always, with every witness, we probe for evidence of bias.

The adversarial process with which trial lawyers are so familiar, involves the rigorous challenging of a scientific witness’ testimony.  In the end, this allows a jury to weigh the scientific evidence and, importantly, to consider the effect of any bias on the witness’ views.

The regulatory bodies that exist for the protection of public health and welfare have far too important a responsibility to tolerate lax scrutiny of the relevant science.  Industry promises, for instance, that genetically modified food is substantially the same as non-modified food and that the genetic engineering poses no health risks.  According to whom?  Who paid for that science?  Did the industry scientist tailor or bend the results to please the patron?  To secure more research dollars?  To gain tenure?

Often it is said that trial is a truth finding process.  Cross examination is critical to that process, to the testing and challenging of statements, of assertions, of evidence, including scientific evidence.  The spirit of truth finding, perhaps even something of the robust method of truth finding that takes place in the courtroom, should be a greater part of the scientific debates on food and the environment.  One way to start is to continue the efforts exemplified in the Food & Water Watch report and expose bias and undue influence in science where it exists.