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Pop Quiz: How Much Influence Does Big-Ag Have on Univeristy Research Programs?

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Recent research coming out of Stanford University suggesting that there are no nutritional advantages to choosing organic food over conventional, was shocking for many consumers, especially for those who have seen their own health improve on an organic diet. Accusations of corporate influence quickly followed the research, connecting the study's co-author to a history of using specially designed algorhythms to satisfy corporate influences. Giant corporations, especially in the biotech industry, have been making significant donations to higher learning institutions across the nation for decades. So, wanna guess just how much the Big Ag industry is influencing universities? (We won't take off points for spelling.)

Universities, like Stanford, are steeped in decades—if not centuries—of highly respected research traditions, providing irrefutable facts at best, and earnest efforts of discovery at worst. We trust university researchers to provide us reliable scientific pursuits, but according to a report released earlier this year by the watchdog advocacy group, Food and Water Watch, "Since the 1970s, private-sector spending on agricultural research has skyrocketed, outstripping total public-sector spending." The report says that between 1970 and 2006, "agricultural research expenditures (both in-house research and donations to land-grants) nearly tripled from $2.6 billion to $7.4 billion, in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars." Corporations, trade associations and foundations invested nearly $1 billion in 2009 for agricultural research at land-grant schools—outpacing donations from the USDA by more than 25 percent.

Mother Jones' Tom Philpott writes of the land-grant universities, which were started in 1862 by the government on public land, "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." And according to Food and Water Watch, by the mid-20th century, "seed-breeding programs at land-grant universities were responsible for developing almost all new seed and plant varieties." Those seeds were public resources—just like the schools themselves—until the 1980s when, after passage of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, universities and the government "began to encourage professors to behave like entrepreneurs who could benefit financially from their research, not public employees," says Philpott of the biotech inudstry that has boomed ever since, making genetically modified foods the dominant crops in our country today. "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."

According to the Food and Water Watch report, the funding "steers land-grant research toward the goals of industry. It also discourages independent research that might be critical of the industrial model of agriculture and diverts public research capacity away from important issues such as rural economies, environmental quality and the public health implications of agriculture."

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From the Organic Authority Files

And it's more than just research funding: branding efforts are playing a significant role in changing the face of today's universities as well. "Monsanto’s million dollar pledge to Iowa State University ensured naming rights to the Monsanto Student Services Wing in the main agriculture building," cites the report. "The University of Missouri houses a Monsanto Auditorium. Monsanto gave $200,000 to the University of Illinois’s college of agriculture to fund the Monsanto Multi-Media Executive Studio, where industry seminars are held. Kroger and ConAgra each have research laboratories named after them at Purdue University’s school of food sciences."

Big-Ag corporations also participate in university boards: Monsanto, Chiquita, and Dole are on the University of California at Davis Advisory Board, and Dole, Sysco, Earthbound Farms are on the university's Technical Committee at the school's Center for Produce Safety; Tyson and Walmart are on the advisory board at the University of Arkansas; Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Unilever, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are on the Board of Advisors at the Center for Food Safety, University of Georgia; Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred have members of the Board of Advisors at the Plant Sciences Institute, Iowa State University, to name a few major examples.

Further, Food and Water Watch's report found that many university professors "are highly dependent on industry for research funding." Data shows a number of professors receiving private grants in the millions from companies including Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Syngenta, Pfizer and Archer Daniels Midland. And beyond receiving research funds from private companies, "some professors supplement their academic salaries with corporate consulting fees. A 2005 survey found that nearly a third of land-grant agricultural scientists reported consulting for private industry."

Any boon to revenues for learning institutions would seem to be a benefit to our culture, but the corporate influence can't be ignored as Philpott points out, "At some of the more prestigious schools, professors have morphed into something that looks a lot like house researchers for the agrichemical industry."

"The conflicts of interest between public good and private profits or between independent research and for-hire science remain largely unchallenged by both academia and policymakers," cites Food and Water Watch, "there is a critical role for government to play in supporting research that can spur a financially viable alternative to the industrialized model that dominates American agriculture."

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: jeffpearce

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