Agribusiness as Usual?

At the University of Minnesota's farm school, discord blooms over budget cuts and the biotech bonanza

Given the controversial topic--increasing public concern about genetic engineering--the April 13 debate at the Earle Brown Center on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus began on a surprisingly jovial note. On one side of the dais was Philip Regal, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and a nationally known critic of plant-genetics research. To his left sat Charles Muscoplat, dean of the university's College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences and a former private-sector geneticist. Before an audience of about 100, the opposing experts traded measured opinions on genetically modified (GM) foods, along with the occasional quip. Regal even took the opportunity to unveil a tongue-in-cheek proposal for bananas engineered to deliver a dose of Viagra--"nothing about the symbolism of bananas; they're just easier for old people to chew."

The atmosphere grew perceptibly chillier during the question-and-answer period, when a man in the audience asked Muscoplat about the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA). Why, he asked, was the dean de-funding the institute--an eight-year-old program designed to give small farms greater access to university resources? And why had the program's executive director, Don Wyse, resigned in early April? "It seems," the questioner concluded, "that private industry is in bed with the universities."

Though Muscoplat never responded, the question hung in the air for the remainder of the evening. And, according to MISA supporters--advocates for small-scale farming, land conservation, and organic produce--the dean may soon be forced to answer their complaints. Under Muscoplat's leadership, they charge, the university's agriculture college is growing fat off corporate-funded biotech research while quietly starving programs like MISA.

Muscoplat dismisses such accusations. The university remains devoted to sustainable agriculture, he maintains, and any budget cuts are born of fiscal necessity. In a January 24 memo Muscoplat announced that, because of recent budget shortfalls, the College of Agriculture was "operating under a slim financial margin of safety." The college, he continued, would initiate a review of independent, university-funded consortiums like MISA, with the goal of trimming at least 50 percent from the budgets of 30 research centers by 2001--and possibly more, "depending upon financial necessities in the future."

To supporters of the institute--which receives $230,000 a year from the ag school's approximately $70 million annual budget--the dean's proposed cropping looked like a first step toward getting rid of the institute. "Something like this sends clear signals where your priorities are or aren't," says Diane Jensen of the Minnesota Project, a rural-issues advocacy group and a member of the coalition of nonprofits that oversees MISA. "The message is that this is not an administration that supports sustainable farming practices."

Concern among MISA's advocates grew with the April resignation of Wyse. According to Dick Levins, a professor of applied economics who is also a close friend of Wyse's, the announcement came without warning, fueling speculation that the MISA head had been forced out by Muscoplat. (Wyse himself did not return phone calls requesting comment.)

On April 13 the institute's board fired off a letter to Muscoplat demanding an explanation. "We must inform you," the memo stated, "that the resignation you procured from Don as MISA's executive director is void and of no effect. It is outside the scope of your authority over MISA and invades the jurisdiction of the Board."

In his reply, Muscoplat said he was disappointed "at the manner and breadth of public airing of this situation," adding that he felt it was within his power to accept Wyse's resignation. To the irritation of board members, though, he did not explain the circumstances of the director's departure, citing only "philosophical differences."

According to some MISA supporters, those differences run deeper than any conflict between Muscoplat and Wyse. They cite, specifically, a rift between the model of agriculture espoused by the institute and a "big agribusiness" model that includes controversial transgenic technologies.

Like many land-grant schools, the University of Minnesota is heavily invested in molecular biology and biotech research. The U's agriculture program is known in particular for its research on genetically modified crop technology--derisively termed "frankenfoods" by activists concerned about the potential health and environmental effects of transgenic organisms. In the May 1998 issue of Research Review, a publication of the university's Office of Research and Technology Transfer, Muscoplat's predecessor vowed that the school would become a national leader in agricultural biotech. "If we do not do it," wrote then-ag dean Mike Martin, "we will have failed in our responsibility as a land-grant university, and we will have set society back."

In the same article, Martin touted the university's acquisition of St. Louis-based Monsanto Corp.'s Roundup Ready gene--a transgenic technology that has since become a target of GM crop opponents. In addition, he related an anecdote about a university researcher who, when asked if he could increase the size of soybeans, responded: "For enough money I'll make 'em the size of basketballs."

There is indeed a great deal of money in creating bigger, stronger crops; according to departmental literature, agronomy and plant genetics brings in $6 million each year in "external funding"--grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Sciences, as well as approximately $3 million in research funding from the private sector.

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