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School Principles: Is Corporate Funding of Universities Obstructing Real GMO Research?

Does corporate corruption extend to academia and the research that provides you with info about what you eat? Does corporate corruption extend to academia and the research that provides you with info about what you eat?


A recent report by Food & Water Watch (“Public Research, Private Gain”) examining the relationship between corporate donors and public agricultural research institutions details a disturbing trend: Funding from private corporations for agricultural research conducted at public land-grant universities continues to increase, accounting for nearly 25 percent in 2010, while federal funding continues to decrease. This corporate funding undoubtedly sways the direction of the agricultural research conducted at these universities, but it’s unclear to what extent, if any, it influences the results of the research — and how that trickles down into the classroom.

Tim Schwab, the lead researcher on the report, outlines the issue: “What some administrators’ response to our research has been, is that in the face of declining public support, they have to find money somewhere. I think this is a perennial problem that all researchers and all schools are facing … But it’s really a new level of corporate participation in public research or public science. That growing role is having a negative impact on the independence of research at these schools. It’s influencing the quality of research.”

Schwab points out that even if a university receives only 10 percent of its total agricultural research budget from industry, the percentage for a specific department could be much higher.
They definitely did single out GMOs and they were, like, pushed, but there wasn’t a lot of attention or questioning about what’s going on and potential impacts. No one ever brought that up.

“If a plant science university is taking 40 or 50 percent of their money from industry, that’s going to have an influence on the direction that the department is taking. Influence that will trickle down to students and curriculum.”

With the very visible presence of private corporations on campus—some campuses have buildings named after their donor corporations, such as Iowa State University’s Monsanto Student Services Wing or the University of Missouri’s Monsanto Auditorium—it’s hard to believe that these so-called gifts don’t constitute a conflict of interest. And it seems downright implausible that companies such as Monsanto, the notorious biotech giant known for suing farmers who accidentally grow its patented GMO crops, would make large contributions to a university with no strings attached.

The obvious solution would be to bar universities from taking grants and gifts from private corporations that have their own interests and agendas.

But the issue is not that cut-and-dry.

“Federal funding for research is diminishing; state funding for research is diminishing,” says Richard Lindroth, Associate Dean for Research, Associate Director  of the Agricultural Experiment Station and a Professor of Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Companies over the last several decades have given up doing research of their own. Most economic activity is driven by innovation. Innovation is driven by research. Where is that research?”

He continues, “We have passionate, driven, very high-capacity researchers who are finding that their sources of funding are diminishing. Many of them are caught in a bind. What are they going to do, twiddle their thumbs? They want to do research. The resources for doing so are drying up…We and most universities are looking more and more toward industrial relationships to fill in the gap.”

Lindroth says that while corporate funding may “in some instances sway the type of research that is done,” he would strongly argue that “it does not sway the outcome of the research.”

Nor does it sway the material he teaches in his classroom. He dedicates a whole lecture in his insect ecology class to the pros and cons of GMOs.

“I’ll list a lot of the pros, and I’ll list a lot of the cons because there definitely are cons. I’ll have my students divide up and have a debate. The very, very first lecture in my insect ecology class, I present a situation with a Monsanto GMO crop that went awry unexpectedly. Although the company was caught by surprise by the field results, entomologists and ecologists were not.”

Lindroth says that overall he believes GMOs are cast in a neutral light in university courses. “I would say that it’s probably neutral: Most people are fair in saying ‘These are the pros, these are the negatives, it’s a societal decision.’ I think GMOs are portrayed honestly, by and large. I have no sense whatsoever that universities are in the back pocket of companies. We are not the puppet of large corporations whatsoever.”

He gives as an example recent research conducted on the resistance of corn rootworms to Monsanto’s Bacillus thuringiensis corn. Monsanto genetically engineered a variety of corn to produce a toxin that’s poisonous to rootworm, a devastating pest that the USDA estimates accounts for $1 billion in lost revenue each year.

“Monsanto produces Bt corn, and that GMO corn is the most widely grown corn in the corn belt. It is resistant to corn rootworm,” Lindroth explains. “Bt corn has been a huge success in reducing the amount of classical chemical insecticides that have been applied to cornfields. It’s been a huge success in controlling a damaging pest. But now Bt-resistant corn rootworms appear to be popping up. This potentially is a huge problem for Monsanto and for corn growers. The very scientists who are frequently funded by industry to do tests of corn, those very scientists are the ones who rang the alarm and are publishing in prominent places that we are on the verge of a potentially huge problem. These scientists are all over the problem. And they’re the very ones who get funded from corporate coffers. They’re functioning in the best interest of the public and the best interest of the farmers.”

A graduate of a major agricultural institution in Canada who wishes to remain anonymous agrees that while many universities work with companies such as Monsanto in a research capacity, they can still be a “bastion of integrity for learning.”

He had a slightly different take on the presentation of GMOs in his courses, though.

“They definitely did single out GMOs and they were, like, pushed, but there wasn’t a lot of attention or questioning about what’s going on and potential impacts. No one ever brought that up.”

He says the financial benefits of GMOs were enumerated in class, in terms of farmers spending less on pesticide applications. “They talked about the benefits, saying how easy it is as a commercial farmer to be able to plant this seed and not have to worry about it.”

However, he says the potentially negative aspects, such as impacts on human health and the environment, weren’t discussed.

“We’re readily eating more pesticides,” he says. “They spray Roundup right before they harvest it because it helps dry the grain out…You’re producing a more poisonous product.”

This lack of questioning of the traditional model of agriculture—large scale, pesticide-laden industrial agriculture—is not an isolated occurrence. Again, it comes down to an issue of funding.

Schwab says that because of its aggressive intellectual property regime, Monsanto is a good example of how corporate influence is taking universities in the wrong direction.

“It certainly does influence education in that there’s relatively very little funding for students to do nontraditional agriculture. It’s especially true that there is less funding for organic, low-input agriculture. A major factor driving graduate student research is the availability of funding,” says Lindroth.

He adds, “It’s not that I would discourage them, it’s just that the resources generally aren’t there.”

“Providing additional funding, that’s largely up to the public to clamor for improved funding for particular areas of science. It’s like turning the Titanic. We see signs of shifts, but it’s not happening very rapidly. The problem is most of the farms and farm commodity groups that are farming in a low-input, sustainable, organic way don’t have much in the way of extra resources to fund graduate students.”

With regards to GMOs, there’s an additional obstacle: The intellectual property rights on GMO seeds are not conducive to research that could potentially portray GMOs in a negative light.

“Seed licensing agreements can specifically bar research on seeds without the approval of the corporate patent holder. Scientists cannot independently evaluate patented seeds, leaving crucial aspects of GE crops, like yields and food safety, largely unstudied,” the FWW report says (p. 8).

Schwab says that because of its aggressive intellectual property regime, Monsanto is a good example of how corporate influence is taking universities in the wrong direction.

“The issue with GMOs is the genetic content of the seed—through that intellectual property regime, they’re able to control who can use them and under what circumstances they can use them. That’s barred a lot of independent research,” says Schwab.

The FWW report cites numerous occasions in which corporations have blocked research. In one example it states, “When an Ohio State University professor produced research that questioned the biological safety of biotech sunflowers, Dow AgroSciences and 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 GE corn variety to be deadly to beneficial beetles, the company barred the scientists from publishing their findings” (p.8).

To guard against this, says Lindroth, the University of Wisconsin has strict rules and regulations regarding intellectual property.

“Where most of the issue comes is with intellectual property—who owns the right to the scholarly product of research?” says Lindroth. “The University of Wisconsin has the most restrictive rules in the country. We will not give up its rights to companies or countries…We do not give up rights to publish the research, to use it for graduate students’ theses, etc. We have very clear policies on that. If companies demand that they retain control of intellectual property, we don’t do research with them. That’s the strongest firewall that we have in making sure that we don’t capitulate to the desires of companies.”

The other potential firewall? The public. All sides seem to agree that if people want universities to research and teach outside the traditional agriculture model, they need to demand funding from other sources, such as the federal government.
Schwab advises students to be aware of where their information is coming from—and whose money is paying for the research.

“What that means is it really comes down to farmers and consumers who are being peddled this product that really hasn’t gone through the scrutiny of independent research to the extent that it should,” says Schwab. “There are enough studies out there that suggest problems. . .that  suggest there needs to be this kind of independent research.”

In the conclusions and recommendations section of the report, FWW calls for increased funding from the USDA, designated for specific areas of GMO research.

“Congress should fund independent research into the health and environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops. Congress should mandate that public institutions are permitted to research patented biotech seeds to analyze yields, assess food safety and investigate potential environmental impacts by prohibiting companies from restricting research in their licensing agreements” (p. 14-15).

In the meantime, Schwab advises students to be aware of where their information is coming from—and whose money is paying for the research.

“I guess [the report] kind of confirms what I already knew and what a lot of people already knew about these schools,” Schwab says. “They’re super-important schools. They do a lot of great research. . .I  went to the University of Illinois. It’s a great institution and I had a great experience going there, but I think it would be great if on campuses at these schools there started a debate about the role of corporate funding.”

He adds, “I would just tell [students] to go in with their eyes open…As they’re going through their schooling, to question the independence of the science, to think critically about their program and what they’re studying…I would hope that students are thinking about this issue and engaged in this issue. Engage administrators and challenge what’s become the status quo.”

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There is a lot of skepticism out there about GMO foods.
Last modified on Tuesday, 18 September 2012 15:46

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