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The food and agrichemical industries have over decades funneled billions of research dollars into the nation’s universities—a relationship that has led to observable bias in industry-funded university studies, as well as concerns that findings favorable to the sponsor’s interests are cherry-picked for public consumption. An impending court case involving the University of Florida could further lift the veil on the particulars of this dynamic.
Back in 2015, food industry watchdog U.S. Right to Know requested certain emails from the University of Florida, including exchanges with the pro-agrichemical industry list-server “AgBioChatter.” Though the university released some of the requested emails (which provided the backbone of a damning New York Times article), it didn’t release all of them.
This prompted USRTK, a nonprofit that receives funding from the organic food industry, to file a lawsuit last year forcing the university to comply with its public records request. The university’s attempt to block the suit recently failed, and the trial is scheduled to begin the end of February.
“This is an effort to uncover the deepest, darkest secrets of the food and agrichemical industry,” said Gary Ruskin, founder and co-director of USRTK.
The University of Florida isn’t the only public institution targeted by USRTK to disclose its relationship with the food and agrichemical industries. In 2016, Ruskin filed a complaint against the Regents of the University of California, alleging that UC Davis hadn’t released all of its requested emails. “Taxpayers pay the salaries of these researchers,” Ruskin said. “They work in public institutions, and just like other public employees, we should know what they do with our money.”
The University of Florida would not comment on pending litigation. While UC Davis “continues to work with Mr. Ruskin on his ongoing requests,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email, adding that “its researchers are the utmost professionals who are driven by the evidence the science presents. That scientific evidence is what is presented to funders, regardless of whether they are public or private entities.”
University of Florida emails that have already been released illustrate some of the ways in which private businesses support academic figures who publicly endorse their cause. Kevin Folta, chairman of the University of Florida’s horticultural sciences department, has received funding by Monsanto for his public outreach work concerning GMO education, for example. In answers Folta provided in the website gmoanswers.com, he used, almost unchanged, answers drafted by industry consultants, emails show.
“Today, we see more and more examples of this type of influence,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch. In 2012, FWW published a report on corporate influence in university agricultural research, which found that private-sector funding “not only corrupts the public research mission of land-grant universities but also distorts the science that is supposed to help farmers improve their practices and livelihoods.” A major part of the problem, said Lovera, is how public funding of research has declined since the 1980s, leaving the door ajar for the private sector to step into the breach. That said, the food and agrichemical industries have long used a variety of tactics to shape public discourse surrounding their products.
Monsanto scientists frequently sit on editorial boards at prominent publications, for example, while companies like Coca-Cola have exerted their influence to shape federal dietary guidelines, according to emails passed between two former Coca-Cola executives. But by funding research themselves, these industries can directly impact the information-flow, shaping studies to ensure the findings will prove favorable, Lovera said. “The level of influence, when you add it all together, is disheartening if you had started with the assumption that the academic process was somehow apolitical, or somehow non-corruptible,” she said.
Other experts point to some of the subtler ways that university research can be co-opted for industry gain. According to Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, private-financed research can be conducted with academic rigor—it’s the interpretation of the results and the emphasis put on certain elements of the findings that can betray industry’s fingerprints.
“Industry-funded research so often produces results favorable to the sponsor that it should always raise red warning flags,” Nestle wrote in an email to AlterNet.
Back in March 2015, Nestle started to informally collect data on industry-funded nutritional research. A year later, she revealed how, from 168 private-funded studies, 156 of them (over 90 percent) proved favorable to the sponsor’s interests, while only 12 were unfavorable to the financial backer. Sometimes the relationship can be so glaring, it’s almost comical. One study funded by a grape juice manufacturer, for example, finds that people who regularly drink grape juice can become better drivers.
Other such analyses support Nestle’s findings. In this systematic review of 206 publications related to the health effects from drinking milk, soft drinks, and fruit juices, the authors found that the publication was four to eight times more likely to report a favorable outcome if funded by a manufacturer of the beverage in question.
So, what can consumers do to avoid falling prey to research bias? One is through education and awareness, keeping eyes peeled for tell-tale words or phrases in the media like “superfood,” “breakthrough,” and “everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong,” which give certain foods or products unrealistic, super-human qualities, said Nestle. “The word ‘powerhouse’ is a giveaway,” she wrote. “There is no such thing as a superfood—that’s a marketing term with no real nutritional meaning.”
All of which explains why Nestle believes universities should eschew industry research dollars altogether. Or else, the system should be regulated in such a way that the private funder has “no control over the research question, study design, or anything else,” she wrote.
Patty Lovera agrees. “At a bare minimum, there should be more transparency,” she said, adding that the long-term ramifications of the current status-quo will further damage the notion that academia is a bulwark of impartiality. What’s more, industry’s encroaching influence on research is stifling the public discourse in their arenas. “If you dare to question any of this stuff, like industrial agriculture, as a critic, you get pummeled about the head with comments about peer-reviewed studies. Peer review. Peer review.”
According to Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the problem is only “getting worse.” She recommends that the public turn to more reputable organizations like the American Heart Association or the American College of Cardiology for information. “That’s where we used to go for advice on nutrition.”
Like Nestle, Liebman warns of the way in which consumers digest their news.
“The people who are reporting on these studies typically don’t really have the expertise to know how good they are,” Liebman said. Many “click-bait” news reports on the latest health studies are written by journalists who don’t have the qualifications to interpret the results, she added. “They’re just churning out these quick and dirty summaries on the latest news, and they’re never going to dig deep enough to determine whether the study was well designed, or whether it was appropriately interpreted. And, they often don’t mention the industry funding.”
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