Corruption in Science: Vested Interests in Food and Agricultural Research

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Cover courtesy Oxford University Press
Marion Nestle writes on how corporate money influences food research, including in her new book 'Soda Politics.' Coca-Cola is one of several massive global food brands funding research studies the company stands to benefit from.

A troublesome trail of money often flows from corporations to the people conducting what is supposed to be independent scientific work. Industry-funded research routinely produces 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 nonprofit 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 supported mainly by public money. By 2010, however, nearly one-quarter of the agricultural research money at these state schools came from the private sector — often from companies that stood to profit should research show certain results.

Censorship and Silencing

Research coordinated by government agencies is by no means immune to pressure from vested interests. No surprise, then, that a U.S. 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 committed 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 supervisors claimed. The president of South Dakota State University, the state’s land-grant university, is a board member of Monsanto, one of the world’s primary suppliers of herbicides and genetically modified seeds. Many have suspected Lundgren was suspended because his talk at the event advocated replacing insecticides with biological diversity, and ended with a strong quote from a farmer who said his yields decreased in plots where he used the chemicals his agronomist recommended.

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

Lundgren, who served on a science review board for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessment of the risks of an emerging gene-silencing technique called “RNA interference” (RNAi), has given press interviews about his research on this topic. Once again, this drew the ire of his supervisors, who claimed Lundgren didn’t have approval to give interviews. But was it because he failed to get supervisor approval to talk to media outlets, or because he spoke on a topic Lundgren says his supervisor at the USDA called “sensitive”? Furthermore, should scientists who are paid by taxpayers’ money have to get approval from anyone to tell us about their findings?

A whistle-blower 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 expose problems that affect the public. PEER has also filed a lawsuit requesting that the USDA stop censoring science for political reasons. PEER says it has evidence that at least 10 USDA scientists were investigated or censored because their research results were deemed controversial. “With the USDA, we see more of an ability for industry to intervene than in most federal agencies,” says Jeff Ruch, PEER executive director.

Vested Interests Gone Wild

Conflicts of interest in research are pervasive. Marion Nestle, a nutritionist and New York University professor who often writes about how the food industry influences nutrition and health, says that every medical, nutrition and food society she knows of is now deeply engaged in discussions and meetings regarding what to do about conflicts of interest with funders. On her blog, Food Politics, she frequently summarizes industry-funded studies, and notes that 90 out of 99 studies she examined 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 been funding studies over the past five or six years aimed at demonstrating that there is no link between sodas and poor health,” Nestle says.

“I think there’s a public confidence crisis,” Nestle continues. “If a lot of nutrition research is funded by industries that stand to benefit from that research, the public loses confidence in the research enterprise overall. I think a lot of that is happening, and there’s plenty of evidence.”

Special interests and private funders have gained control because research money from public sources is lacking. “Everybody would rather have an NIH [National Institutes of Health] grant if they could get one. A lot of researchers at universities have to find funding for their own salaries, or large portions of their own salaries, so there’s huge competition for grant money. If you can get a big grant from a big company that wants that research done, then you’re golden, and the universities are happy to have it,” Nestle says.

A Climate of Collusion

A hard-hitting report in The New York Times and a follow-up piece in Independent Science News argue that researchers aren’t simply manipulated pawns in a complicated game of vying for funding. Rather, some researchers are actively colluding with corporations and vested interests, and emails acquired via the Freedom of Information Act prove it. In some cases, academics are conducting studies, providing answers in Q&As, and giving speeches that were even drafted or arranged by industry consultants, such as those at Monsanto. Multiple uncovered emails reveal examples of Monsanto and Dow Chemical reaching out to prominent university scientists to offer grant and travel money, and request that the scientists intervene on proposed legislation that would be beneficial or detrimental to their industries.

Digging deep into these matters turns up more questions than answers. How do scientists break free of this system that’s increasingly mired in corporate influence? How do conscientious consumers know which research to trust? Reading websites such as Nestle’s, which spotlight instances of industry-funded research, is a great place to start. Plus, Lundgren may be on the right track: He’s now crowd-funding a new nonprofit agroecology project called Blue Dasher Farm in Brookings, South Dakota, which, according to his proposal, “will be the first of a network of research, education and demonstration farms to bring scientific support to biodiverse food production.” Via the fundraising site Indiegogo, the project exceeded its first goal of $75,000 for initial laboratory setup by nearly 10 percent, raising $82,154 in only two months. His research will be funded by these small, individual donations — a far cry from one corporation or industry backing a project.

Learn More About Ag Research:

Public Research, Private Gain by Food & Water Watch
Food Industry Enlisted Academics in GMO Lobbying War, Emails Showby The New York Times
The Puppetmasters of Academia by Independent Science News
Soda Politics by Marion Nestle