Land-Grant Universities
Should Help Farmers


The fundamental, long term goal in the food production system should be to preserve the family farm structure of production agriculture. This structure is efficient in three ways: economically, socially and environmentally. The reason for the current ag crisis is very simple: the consolidation of the industry by big agribusiness. Markets are distorted and rendered irrelevant, producers are frozen out of markets, Main Street dies, consumers are provided unhealthy, chemical-laden food, and multinational corporations control the productive assets of agriculture in response to investor demands for growth, market share and a competitive return on equity in their portfolio.

Citizens and political leaders need to use every tool at their disposal to fight for the public good. One of the most important tools are the land-grant universities which were created by statute and are publicly funded. However, many land-grant universities are failing in their duty to the public and their taxpayer benefactors. They have been lured by private corporate dollars to research and solve private corporate problems resulting in an ever-faster consolidation of agriculture. Thus, the many, if not most, land-grant universities dedicate an unacceptably small percentage of their relevant agricultural efforts to the broader public good.

It is an axiom of politics that money buys influence and that gifts come with strings attached. The same is true for academia. In an anonymous survey performed by researchers at Harvard University and the University of Minnesota, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, more than half of the university scientists who received gifts from drug or biotechnology companies admitted that the donors expected to exert influence over their work, including review of academic papers before publication and patent rights for commercial discoveries. This study occurred in the midst of growing controversy over the role of corporations in our universities.

A case study of university corporatization is the University of Missouri (MU) which can be viewed as a de facto corporate subsidiary of Monsanto. At MU, Monsanto and other big agribusinesses provide millions of "strings-attached" dollars for research and academic programs and they have very close relationships with the administration and faculty. The flawed result is that MU efforts have increasingly strayed from the public good to promotion of private corporate profits.

The most recent and high-profile example of this diversion of effort is the new Plant Science Center in St. Louis which is funded, in part, by $25 million in public corporate welfare dollars in the form of tax credits. Many MU faculty and students will be working alongside Monsanto scientists to advance the controversial science of genetic alteration of life forms. The MU participation not only gives Monsanto publicly funded scientific information, it also serves Monsanto's public relations efforts as a powerful legitimizer of biotechnology in the face of public scrutiny.

Family farmers are being squeezed off their land by the uncontrolled growth of agribusiness production, monopoly concentration, and vertical integration. Monsanto's goal is integration of the crop industry. In a speech promoting biotechnology, Steve Askew, national account manager for Monsanto, told the Agricultural Retailers Association convention last December that "We're really talking about the integration of the ag industry."

Roger Mitchell, Dean of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources at MU, has been working for 15 years to cement the relationship between Monsanto and MU. One agribusiness executive, not from Monsanto, stated flatly to MU professors that "the University of Missouri was easier to work with than most because they didn't have a lot of restrictions on how agribusiness could go about commercializing research discoveries."

There are many other aspects of influence of MU by Monsanto:

(ogonek) Monsanto has an ongoing grants program contributing millions of tax deductible dollars to MU researchers each year;

(ogonek) Monsanto executives have been and are members of MU's planning committees including, but not limited to, the Development Council, the Strategic Development Board and the School of Accountancy's Advisory Board;

(ogonek) Monsanto co-sponsors many events in various MU departments;

(ogonek) Monsanto scientists are adjunct professors at MU;

(ogonek) MU professors do studies inside Monsanto facilities to help implement private corporate goals, such as reducing the accident rate at Monsanto's animal research facility;

(ogonek) Monsanto sponsors student workshops during university events such as Molecular Biology Week.

This is only the surface. By penetrating the university to this extent, Monsanto gains a tremendous amount of influence over research priorities and institutional direction. There is also the direct or subtle effect of quashing research and outreach which may criticize or be out-of-step with Monsanto's interests and goals. Additionally, limited MU resources are diverted from promoting the family farm structure of agriculture to promoting the good of Monsanto.

What should the land grant universities and public research dollars be promoting?

Public research funds must be directed towards increasing the farmer share of the food dollar.

Land grant universities must serve the public good and conduct research inquiry regardless of the potential for financial gain.

Public research funds must target priority research issues that the private sector is not already capable of funding.

The discipline of agricultural economics should be directed towards fostering efficient and strong rural economies, circulating dollars locally, and concentrating productive assets in the hands of the masses.

Family-farmer-friendly food systems--including sustainable farming, organic agriculture and local food systems--should be the focus.

Agricultural concentration must be discouraged.

University research should not be commercialized, but should be publicly available in a nonproprietary manner.

Today's crisis will not be solved without a revolutionary effort to uproot its causes. A significant cause of the crisis is the transformation of land-grant universities from public servants into corporate subsidiaries. Land grant universities must depend primarily on public moneys to support its efforts. MU must conduct research which benefits rural America directly, not through "trickle down" transfers of research, patents and licensing rights to private corporations. Only then will these institutions be convincingly redirected to serving the public good.

Michael C. Stumo is a former Iowa farmer who practices public interest law relating to the food industry from a farmer/consumer perspective in Connecticut. Email

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1999 The Progressive Populist