Agribusiness as Usual?

Ecology professor Philip Regal says corporate sponsorship has become "both the stick and the carrot" for university researchers
Craig Lassig

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.

But critics worry that the influx of corporate funding may narrow the university's research agenda, ultimately focusing it only on work that, like research on Roundup Ready soybeans, has profitable business applications. "What it is in a sense," says Regal, "is a subsidy for industry. Our resources are being used to develop ag-biotech."

And, warns Regal, corporate sponsorship may suppress the broad dissemination of research. "There's a feeling it's an enormous problem," he maintains. "At a certain point, [corporate funding] becomes both the stick and the carrot. It's the stick because your position isn't secure if you're doing something contrary to the interests of agribusiness. The carrot is that you get rewarded for bringing in industry grants."

Perhaps the most controversial ag-biotech/university partnership nationally is the $25 million endowment given in 1998 to the University of California-Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology by the Swiss agrochemical giant Novartis. In exchange for its patronage, Novartis secured two seats on the department's research committee, as well as "first rights" to much of the work done by its scientists. Within a few years of the deal, Berkeley's alternative agriculture programs had been curtailed, and both students and faculty were alleging that profit-driven interests had compromised the school's integrity.

The University of Minnesota has no such arrangement--nor is it likely to strike any in the near future, according to Tony Strauss, who oversees licensing of university technology. "Frankly, a lot of people at the U share my concerns about carte-blanche deals--selling out a whole body of research or part of a department to a company."

Certainly, the university is not coy about courting corporate largesse. A recent $10 million grant from Cargill, the world's leading grain distributor and until recently a major ag-biotech investor, is slated to fund the school's new Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute (contingent on a matching appropriation from the state Legislature). While ag dean Muscoplat says the donation comes with "no strings attached," others are not so sure.

"To assume that there are no strings attached," insists Sr. Mary Tacheny, chair of MISA's board of directors, "is not generally the way the corporate world operates. I hesitate to criticize the dean. But hardly ever is corporate money put there not for a purpose."

In recent weeks, the controversy has spilled out of the ivory tower. "It was particularly upsetting to learn that he [Muscoplat] is getting rid of the person responsible for every sustainable-agriculture project of the last decade," declares state Rep. Gary Kubly (DFL-Granite Falls), one of a group of lawmakers who met with the dean last week to discuss the fate of the institute. "He told us Dr. Wyse resigned voluntarily. Frankly, I don't believe him.

"This isn't a private enterprise," Kubly continues. "It may be how you run things in corporate America--that you get rid of people if they don't favor your agenda. He told us it was a philosophical difference. Well, this is an academic institution. You should encourage philosophical differences." According to Kubly, some legislators have even discussed withholding state bonding for the new plant-genomics facility if MISA is de-funded--a potential $20 million setback for the university.

Muscoplat cautions, however, that the furor is premature. No budget changes will be made until after a review process scheduled for this summer, he notes, and each program will be considered on its own merits. "Some people believe they're being targeted for cuts, but nothing's been decided yet," he explains. "We're right in the middle of this [genetically modified food] issue, so depending on what side you're on we're either putting too much into the research or not enough.

"The public puts a great trust in the university," he concludes. "We have a responsibility to work for the public good. We cannot afford to sell our souls."

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