Corporations boost ag research funding

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The gap between federal support for agricultural research at large public universities and private investment continues to grow — and the divide comes with increased threats to academic freedom and more instances of meddling in the lab, a new research report suggests.

A recent study by Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based environmental group, shows that nearly one-quarter of the money spent on agricultural research at land-grant universities comes from corporations, trade associations and foundations, an all-time high. Financial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture accounts for less than 15 percent, the lowest level in nearly two decades.

The consumer advocacy group’s report is rife with what it calls examples of how corporate money “corrupts” the public research mission at land-grant schools, which were created by the Morrill Act of 1862. The law provided federal land for states to establish agriculture and engineering colleges.

The examples range from a University of Georgia food safety program that allows industry groups to join an advisory board in exchange for annual $20,000 donations, to an Ohio State University professor whose research on genetically modified sunflowers was blocked by two seed companies after the initial results suggested the biotech sunflowers fostered the growth of weeds.

The report, entitled “Public Research, Private Gain,” also explores the blurry lines created when universities and industry work hand-in-hand, such as when South Dakota State University sued farmers over wheat seed patents as part of a public-private coalition formed with a Monsanto Co. subsidiary. The Missouri-based company is known for aggressive litigation against what it calls seed piracy. Kansas State University, Colorado State and Texas A&M have pursued similar lawsuits.

Such alliances are a far cry from land-grant universities’ historic role in promoting public knowledge and freely sharing the fruits of their research, said Patty Lovera, Food and Water Watch’s assistant director. The report notes that publicly funded university research led to the domestication of blueberries, early varieties of high-yield hybrid corn and common tools to fight soil erosion.

“There’s a real sense in agriculture of what these schools used to be,” Lovera said. “There was much more trust in what they put out. This is not the same research system of decades ago, and we’re acting like it is.”

Deans at several agricultural schools singled out for criticism in the report maintained that while corporate support is vital, it’s unlikely to sway research results or even influence what research gets done.

“We’re kind of caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Thomas Payne, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri. “In order for research to continue, we have to have support from a variety of sources.”

Payne said industry support accounts for just 5 percent of the agricultural research budget at Missouri — though the Food and Water Watch report notes that the percentages were significantly higher in the university’s plant sciences department (42 percent from 2007 to 2010) and its College of Veterinary Medicine (63 percent from 2004 to 2010).

Monsanto plays a prominent role on the Missouri campus, where science students attend lectures in Monsanto Auditorium — built in part with a $950,000 grant from the St. Louis company — and professors spin their university research off into private companies at the Monsanto Place “life sciences business incubator,” which was built with the help of a $2 million grant.

The company and others in food and agriculture production have given substantial sums to other universities as well. There’s a $1 million Monsanto Student Services Wing at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and a $250,000 endowed Monsanto chair in agricultural communications at the University of Illinois.

Cargill Inc. donated $10 million more than a decade ago for naming rights on a plant genomics building at the University of Minnesota, while two sensory labs at Purdue carry the imprimaturs of the Kroger Co. and ConAgra Foods Inc.

While the Food and Water Watch report suggests spending millions of dollars on building naming rights may also buy access to key decision makers, the donors and university officials say that’s not true.

“In our experience, there is no correlation between naming rights and university research,” Monsanto spokeswoman Sara Miller said.

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