DEC. 10, 2012
Agricultural colleges in the top five beef-producing states have become quasi-arms of the cattle industry, selling science to corporate bidders who set the research agenda with their dollars.
In the 150 years since they were created by President Abraham Lincoln as the “peoples’ universities,” public colleges in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Colorado are now often focused on work for the big corporations and commodity groups that make up the industrialized beef industry in the U.S.
Of the $71.2 million spent on beef studies at these five colleges during the last five years, 30.5 percent was paid for by private corporations — the majority by pharmaceutical companies and the National Beef Cattlemen’s Association, a review of public records shows. The $45.3 million in government spending was mostly aimed at the protection or promotion of industry interests like growing cattle into bovine behemoths or trying to reduce the risk of food poisoning coming from large feedlots.
Created to do research, teaching and service for the common people who first populated the prairie states, the colleges have become de facto research and development labs for big business, offering naming rights for buildings and professorships. Today, academics with taxpayer-funded salaries aren’t busy with the “blue-sky” research of pure science, but instead are studying questions that typically benefit large agri-business.
This dramatic shift is the “ultimate irony,” said David Domina, an Omaha, Neb., attorney who won a $1.28 billion antitrust verdict against Tyson Foods Inc. and has studied the industry for years.
“The research institutions are controlled by the nemesis of family farmers,” Domina said. “The nemesis of the family farm is the big business that is unwilling to tolerate what it perceives as the inefficiency of individual small operators.”
An investigation by Harvest Public Media revealed:
Agricultural college leaders are proud of these public-private collaborations, and not just in the beef arena, viewing them as the only way to combat the dwindling public funds while keeping research intact. According to the USDA, the private sector performed 53 percent of total food and agricultural research in the U.S. in 2007, which is expected to be a long-term trend.
John Floros, dean of K-State’s College of Agriculture, Research and Extension, echoed many academic leaders who say the research is essential to be able to feed the estimated nine billion people on the planet by 2050. Floros, among others, decries the lack of federal funding and promotes the “synergy” created when scientific research can be applied by private companies.
“It’s very clear to me that we’re not investing enough in creating a safe food system for future generations, not just for this country but for the world,” he said. “If we lose our leadership in food and agriculture I think we’re going to have some serious issues as a country.”
While they are grateful for government funds, David Lunt, associate director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, said land grant universities have a mission they must pursue and they are “not going to sit back and whine” about the continued cuts.
“It’s just common sense that you go fishing where the fish are,” Lunt said. “Most money for research and development is in the private sector in the United States. It’s not in the public sector at all.”
This article is brought to you in collaboration between The Gazette and Harvest Public Media.
Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration of several Midwestern public media stations, including Iowa Public Radio.
Harvest's multimedia work — appearing on radio, TV, and in print and online outlets — explores issues related to food and food production.
For more information go to: HarvestPublicMedia.org.