Corruption in science: vested interests in food and agricultural research – Mother Earth News

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Cover reproduced by kind permission of Oxford University Press

Marion Nestle writes about how corporate money influences food research, including in her new book “Soda Politics.” Coca-Cola is one of many major global food brands funding research studies from which the company stands to benefit.

A troublesome trail of money often passes from companies to people who conduct what is supposed to be independent scientific work. Industry-funded research regularly yields favorable results for corporate sponsors, reports “Public Research, Private Gain: Corporate Influence Over University Agricultural Research.” This recent report was produced by Food & Water Watch, a non-profit organization involved in investigating the safety of what we eat and drink.

Research at land-grant universities, which were established to teach agriculture and provide research-based advice to farmers and communities through state extension programs, was once funded primarily by government grants. public funds. In 2010, however, almost a quarter of the money for agricultural research in these public schools came from the private sector – often from companies that could profit from it if the research produced certain results.

Censorship and silence

Research coordinated by government agencies is by no means immune to pressure from interest groups. So it’s no surprise that a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientist from the Corn Belt state of South Dakota recently had to confront some conflicts of interest head-on. In August 2015, entomologist Jonathan Lundgren was suspended for two weeks from his job at the Agricultural Research Service lab in Brookings, South Dakota, because he made a paperwork error in travel authorization. when he traveled to speak at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. . Or at least that’s what his superiors claimed. The president of South Dakota State University, the state’s land-grant university, is a member of the board of trustees of Monsanto, one of the world’s leading suppliers of herbicides and genetically engineered seeds modified. Many suspect that Lundgren was suspended because his speech at the event advocated replacing insecticides with biological diversity and ended with a strong quote from a farmer who said his yields had declined in plots where he used the chemicals recommended by his agronomist.

In another incident, Lundgren’s supervisors said he failed to obtain proper publication approval for a paper he co-authored on the effects of a widely used neonicotinoid insecticide on corn. Lundgren says he followed typical procedures and was really under fire because his research found that the insecticide clothianidin harms monarch butterflies, an increasingly endangered species.

Lundgren, who served on a scientific review panel for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) risk assessment of an emerging gene silencing technique called “RNA interference” (RNAi), gave insights. press interviews on his research on this subject. Once again, this angered his supervisors, who claimed Lundgren was not cleared to give interviews. But was it because he didn’t get his supervisor’s approval to speak to the media, or because he spoke about a topic that Lundgren says his supervisor at USDA called “sensitive? “? Moreover, should scientists who are paid by taxpayers’ money have anyone’s approval to report their findings to us?

A whistleblower complaint alleging the USDA violated its scientific integrity policy was filed on Lundgren’s behalf late last year by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization that helps federal, state and local employees to expose issues that affect the public. PEER also filed a lawsuit asking the USDA to stop censoring science for political reasons. PEER says it has evidence that at least 10 USDA scientists have been investigated or censored because their research results were deemed controversial. “With the USDA, we are seeing more industry response capacity than most federal agencies,” says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.

The vested interests ran wild

Conflicts of interest in research are ubiquitous. Marion Nestle, a nutritionist and professor at New York University who often writes about the influence of the food industry on nutrition and health, says that every medical, nutritional and food company she knows is now deeply engaged in discussions and meetings on what to do in the event of a conflict of interest. interest from donors. On her blog, Food Politics, she frequently summarizes industry-funded studies and notes that 90 of the 99 studies she reviewed in 2015 reported results favorable to the sponsor.

Among the most egregious examples, she says, is that Coca-Cola funded an academic organization at the University of Colorado to promote exercise as more important for controlling obesity than calorie intake. “Coca-Cola has funded studies over the past five or six years to show that there is no link between sodas and poor health,” Nestlé said.

“I think there is a crisis of public confidence,” continues Nestlé. “If much nutrition research is funded by industries that stand to benefit from that research, the public loses faith in the research enterprise as a whole. I think a lot is going on, and there’s a lot of evidence.

Special interests and private funders have taken control because research funds from public sources are lacking. “Everyone would rather have an NIH [National Institutes of Health] grant if they could get one. Many researchers at universities have to find funds for their own salaries, or a large part of their own salaries, so there is huge competition for grants. If you can get a big grant from a big company that wants this research done, then you’re golden and the universities are happy to have it,” says Nestlé.

A climate of collusion

A compelling report The New York Times and a tracking piece in Independent Science News argue that researchers are not just pawns manipulated in a complicated game of funding. On the contrary, some researchers are actively colluding with corporations and special interests, and emails acquired through the Freedom of Information Act prove it. In some cases, academics conduct studies, provide answers in Q&As, and deliver speeches that were even written or organized by industry consultants, such as those at Monsanto. Several uncovered emails reveal examples of Monsanto and Dow Chemical reaching out to prominent academic scientists to offer scholarships and travel money, and requesting that the scientists intervene on proposed legislation that would be beneficial or detrimental to their industries.

Digging deep into these questions raises more questions than answers. How do scientists free themselves from this system increasingly enmeshed in corporate influence? How do conscientious consumers know what research to trust? Reading websites such as Nestlé’s, which highlight examples of industry-funded research, is a great place to start. What’s more, Lundgren may be on the right track: He’s currently funding a new nonprofit agroecology project called Blue Dasher Farm in Brookings, South Dakota, which, according to his proposal, “will be the first ‘a network of research, education and demonstration farms to provide scientific support for biodiverse food production. Via the fundraising site Indiegogo, the project exceeded its first goal of $75,000 by almost 10% for the lab’s initial setup, raising $82,154 in just two months.His research will be funded by these small individual donations – far from a company or industry backing a project.

Learn more about agricultural research:

• Public research, private gain by Food & Water Watch
• Food industry enlisted academics in GMO lobbying war, email broadcastthrough The New York Times
• University puppeteers through Independent Science News
• Soda Politics by Marion Nestlé

Posted on March 3, 2016

Lana T. Arthur