It's common knowledge that academic research is often funded by corporations and tainted by industry interests, from the food industry to pesticide makers alike. Big agriculture is also among those with a heavy hand in academia, working to cover up the polluting practices of its concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
The late Steve Wing, a researcher with the University of North Carolina, a state that's the second largest pork producer in the U.S. and home to numerous, densely-packed hog CAFOs, is just one example. Wing worked on research such as a 2015 study that tracked fecal waste from pigs in surface water near hog CAFOs.
Not surprisingly, he found surface waters near and downstream of hog CAFOs to be high in counts of fecal bacteria with "overall poor sanitary quality."1 When the North Carolina Pork Council heard about Wing's research looking into hog CAFOs and health, they filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to see the results.
Wing was reluctant to hand it over, as it contained information about community members who stood to lose their jobs if their identities were uncovered by the industry, The Guardian reported.2 The university forced him to hand it over nonetheless, suggesting he could be arrested otherwise.
Wing succeeded in having the records redacted before turning them over, and the industry continued to harass him about it until he died the next year.
Pig Industry Puts Pressure on Academia
Wing's story isn't unique, unfortunately, and The Guardian highlighted a number of examples where the industry put pressure on academia to further its own agenda:3
"The levers of power at play can seem anecdotal — a late-night phone call here, a missed professional opportunity there. But interviews with researchers across the U.S. revealed stories of industry pressure on individuals, university deans and state legislatures to follow an agenda that prioritizes business over human health and the environment."
The U.S. government has encouraged universities to partner with the private sector when it comes to research, for example, and it's known that the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Pork Council contribute financially to universities in the state, although the details of private-sector funding to universities isn't available to the public.
From scholarship opportunities to direct contributions, agribusiness influence can be felt at both Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, according to researchers there.
"And then there are the politically influential businessmen Charles and David Koch, intensely pro-free market billionaires … who owe their immense fortunes in part to manufacturing fertilizer," The Guardian reported. "In 2017, the Koch Foundation announced a donation of nearly $1.7 million to Iowa State University for an economics program."4
Such contributions aren't supposed to influence the university's research, but the reality is that it often does. A number of scenarios highlight the industry's attempts to quiet research that wasn't in its favor:5
• The Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State lost its funding into alternative methods of agriculture after 30 years; the state budget bill depriving the funds was signed by former governor Terry Branstad, who also received campaign funding from the Iowa Farm Bureau.
• Jim Merchant, the founding dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, conducted research that found a link between pig CAFOs and asthma in children. He planned to continue his research after he retired, but "was told he couldn't do research as an emeritus professor, even though it had been permitted in the past."
Merchant told The Guardian, "[T]he administrators and the faculty at these land-grant universities are heavily influenced, if not beholden, to agricultural interests."6
• A team of two dozen researchers reached a consensus on a study looking at CAFOs' impact on air quality, but the universities distanced themselves from the report.
• Researchers working on a study on the role of antibiotics in meat production asked to have their names withheld from the list of authors out of fear of retaliation from the industry.
Big Ag Undermines Academic Freedom
The common thread running through The Guardian's interviews was an unspoken rule that research painting the industry in an unfavorable light would not be tolerated and perhaps never published:7
"A number of researchers we spoke to across the country echoed similar concerns. Their experiences range from seeing their published work undermined in industry magazines to being discouraged from conducting certain research or feeling undermined by their own deans, and one person was even driven out of the field entirely.
Another researcher, who agreed to testify in a lawsuit that threatened to hold industry accountable for pollution, saw his position eliminated just before the court battle began. As soon as the plaintiffs lost, he was rehired."
Lack of transparency is another problem. Donors often give money to foundations instead of to the university itself, in part because foundations have a fiduciary responsibility to represent the donors' interest. Also important, money given to a foundation can be kept private in order to protect the donor's identity and does not become public record.8
It provides the perfect opportunity for industry corporations like Syngenta and others to pay for research on their behalf without receiving any public scrutiny for doing so.
The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, which is dedicated to improving higher education in North Carolina and the U.S., noted that many researchers refer to foundations as "slush funds" and "shadow corporations" "that too often operate in secrecy, despite spending taxpayers' money [although foundations are often supported by donations as well]."9
Universities and foundations often claim that protecting donors' privacy is key to keeping fundraising avenues open, but making such information public is in the public's interest.
Local governments are also known to turn a blind eye to the industry, allowing legal loopholes that allow pollution and animal cruelty to continue. The Chicago Tribune revealed that nearly half a million fish from 67 miles of rivers were killed by pig waste that had entered local waterways over a 10-year period.
The consequences for this massive environmental destruction were insignificant; only small penalties were enforced against multimillion-dollar corporations, many of them repeat offenders. Further, the investigation revealed that Illinois officials were not taking whistleblower allegations of animal cruelty seriously. According to the Chicago Tribune:10
"Inspectors dismissed one complaint, state files show, after simply telephoning executives to ask if it was true that their workers were beating pigs with metal bars.
Other states and local agencies have moved aggressively to address the problems caused by large hog confinements. Illinois has not, the Tribune found, even as consumers demand more humane treatment of livestock and stronger environmental protections."