Corruption in Science: Vested Interests in Food and Agricultural Research

Evidence of vested interests having too heavy a hand in food and agricultural research abounds. Is corruption in science limiting our understanding of the truth?

  • Soda Politics
    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.
    Cover courtesy Oxford University Press

  • Soda Politics

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?



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